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(1887 - 1965)
L'Esprit Nouveau Pavilion (Paris)
Villa Savoye (Poissy)
Unité d'Habitation (Marseilles)
Le Corbusier is without doubt the most influential, most admired, and most maligned architect of the twentieth century. Through his writing and his buildings, he is the main player in the Modernist story, his visions of homes and cities as innovative as they are influential. Many of his ideas on urban living became the blueprint for post-war reconstruction, and the many failures of his would-be imitators led to Le Corbusier being blamed for the problems of western cities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and other architects of his generation, Le Corbusier had little architectural training. But he did have a strong conviction that the twentieth century would be an age of progress: an age when engineering and technological advances, and new ways of living, would change the world for good. Only architecture was failing to embrace the future, as new buildings continued to ape various historical styles.
In 1908, Le Corbusier went to work with Auguste Perret, the French architect who had pioneered the use of reinforced concrete, and then Peter Behrens, the German exponent of 'industrial design'. Behrens admired the engineer's ethic of mass production, logical design, and function over style, and Corbusier brought two of these early influences together in his 'Maison Dom-Ino' plan of 1915.
This house would be made of reinforced concrete and was intended for mass production, but was also flexible: none of the walls were load-bearing and so the interior could be re-arranged as the occupant wished.
A House Is A Machine For Living In
By 1918, Corbusier's ideas on how architecture should meet the demands of the machine age led him to develop, in collaboration with the artist Amédée Ozenfant, a new theory: Purism. Purist rules would lead the architect always to refine and simplify design, dispensing with ornamentation. Architecture would be as efficient as a factory assembly line. Soon, Le Corbusier was developing standardised housing 'types' like the 'Immeuble-villa' (made real with the Pavilion de l'Esprit Nouveau of 1925), and the Maison Citrohan (a play on words suggesting the building industry should adopt the methods of the mass production automobile industry), which he hoped would solve the chronic housing problems of industrialised countries.
His radical ideas were given full expression in his 1923 book Vers Une Architecture ("Towards a New Architecture"), an impassioned manifesto which is still the best-selling architecture book of all time. "A house", Le Corbusier intoned from its pages, "is a machine for living in."
But despite his love of the machine aesthetic, Le Corbusier was determined that his architecture would reintroduce nature into people's lives. Victorian cities were chaotic and dark prisons for many of their inhabitants. Le Corbusier was convinced that a rationally planned city, using the standardised housing types he had developed, could offer a healthy, humane alternative.
The first of his grand urban plans was the Ville Contemporaine of 1922. This proposed city of three million would be divided into functional zones: twenty-four glass towers in the centre would form the commercial district, separated from the industrial and residential districts by expansive green belts. In 1925, Corbusier's ambitious Plan Voisin for Paris envisioned the destruction of virtually the entire north bank of the Seine to incorporate a mini version of the Ville Contemporaine. Understandably, it remained only a plan.
More realistic was the Ville Radieuse (1933-1935), in which long slab blocks were laid out in parkland and where the housing types were considerably cheaper than the Immeuble-villas which filled earlier plans. A version of this was built at the Alton West Estate in Roehampton, England in 1958.
After the Second World War, with Europe's housing problems worse than ever, Le Corbusier got his chance to put his urban theories into practice. The Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1952) is a synthesis of three decades of Corbusian domestic and urban thinking. Seventeen storeys high and designed to house 1,600 people, the Unite incorporates various types of apartment, shops, clubs and meeting room, all connected by raised 'streets'. There is also a hotel and recreation facilities. It is now an immensely popular building, and a coveted address for Marseille's middle-class professionals today.
When Le Corbusier died in 1965, the backlash against Modernism was gaining momentum. His theories on urban renewal were plagiarised by local authorities on tight budgets, which often failed to understand the essential humanism behind Le Corbusier's plans. Ronan Point was the result. But blaming Le Corbusier as the architect of post-war housing failure ignores the deep concern for human comfort and health that underpinned his work.