Le Corbusier ranks among the most influential figures in modern architecture and is perhaps one of the most divisive. He has been both lauded for the sculptural quality of his free-form living spaces and reviled for setting the stage for concrete social housing blocks thrown up in the post-war years. But how did a self-taught architect from a small Swiss town make such an impact, and why is he still relevant?
Born to a watch engraver and a music teacher in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret first studied the decorative arts, only becoming involved in architecture thanks to the direction of one of his tutors. After finishing his education, he travelled Europe on a formative journey. In the Mediterranean, he took in the classical proportions of Renaissance architecture. In Vienna and Munich, he studied the burgeoning decorative arts scene. In France, he learned about building with reinforced concrete from pioneer Auguste Perret. Then, in 1920, after a long apprenticeship, Jeanneret rebranded himself as Le Corbusier and begin establishing his style in earnest.
Along with Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier was instrumental in the creation of the International Style. This was a movement defined by rectilinear forms, open interiors and 'weightless' structures. Le Corbusier laid out these tenets in his five principles of new architecture, published in 1927. He advocated:
The Pilotis – a grid of columns to replace load-bearing walls, allowing architects to make more use of floorspace.
Free floor plans – flexible living spaces that could adapt to changing lifestyles, thanks to the absence of load-bearing walls.
Roof gardens – a flat roof covered in vegetation, which keeps moisture consistent and regulates temperature.
Horizontal windows – cut through non load-bearing walls, these strips provide even light and panoramic views.
Free facades – open and closed sections that allow the facade to actively connect or separate interior and exterior design elements.
Clearly, Le Corbusier’s philosophy was as much about function as form. Much of his work centred on how good architecture can affect social landscapes too. His ‘Unité d'Habitation’ principles outlined his vision: large apartment blocks that offered spacious housing, shaded social spaces, roof gardens, shopping streets and other amenities. These would be houses for the masses not merely to inhabit, but to truly live in.
These design principles were realised in stunning designs that combine form and function with true elegance. His 1931 Villa Savoye in Poissy, for example, delivers fully on his five principles and defined luxury living for much of the late twentieth century. His more organic later works like Notre Dame du Haut have continued to influence avant-garde architects in the twenty-first century, including Zaha Hadid.
Le Corbusier's vision for a better quality of social housing was largely unfulfilled. The Cité Radieuse in Marseille, constructed in 1952, is one of few buildings that came close to his concept of unité d'habitation. Instead, social housing grew to signify concrete tower blocks with small interiors and no amenities, a fact that served only to diminish Le Corbusier’s reputation in some circles. But one thing cannot be denied: the strength and scope of Le Corbusier’s vision remains unmatched, with few architects coming close to his unification of design, lifestyle and social function.