Over 50 years after his death, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known by his pseudonym Le Corbusier, continues to be the topic of much discussion. With his postwar designs now classified as UNESCO heritage sites, he left an everlasting mark on the history of twentieth century architecture. Nonetheless, despite the widespread success of his work, the man himself remains controversial today.
Le Corbusier, the story of a controversial architect
An unusual education for an unusual architect
The roots of Corbusier’s extravagant and eccentric image can be traced back to his early education. Born in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, he studied as an engraver and then a painter. It was only in 1904 that he turned towards architecture and interior design. However, the young Le Corbusier made the daring decision to learn on the job, alongside experienced architects. Thus he never actually earned an official degree in architecture.
Auguste Perret, who he met in 1908, had a profound influence on Le Corbusier. Most notably, he taught him the technique of building with reinforced concrete, which he would go on to use and abuse throughout his career, a choice which proved very divisive. Le Corbusier moved to Paris in 1917, where he developed theories about purism with Amédée Ozenfant, a new artistic trend in line with cubism. In order to demonstrate their ideas, the pair founded the review called Esprit Nouveau.
Le Corbusier, a figurehead of modern real estate
Throughout his life, Le Corbusier was subject to criticism for his desire to make a clean slate of the paste. In the 1920’s he was one of the leading figures of the Modernist movement, which promoted the return of simple structures, lines and minimalist decor. Thus buildings should first and foremost fulfill the needs of a modern society and be able to be copied on a large scale. It was in this way that he hoped to contribute to the rebuilding of Flanders, a region devastated by the First World War.
It was during this time that Le Corbusier developed some of the main principles that would become central to his works to come. This was the case of his open plans, which substituted load-bearing walls for pillars, thus opening up the space inside to the imagination of the interior architect. This was also true of the open facades and roof terraces that can be found in his later works. Finally, the use of concrete, glace and steel was commonly used at the time for both the structure and the facade of buildings.
Le Corbusier, rethinking the real estate model for communal living
Probably the most prominent feature of all of Le Corbusier’s works was his desire to create spaces adapted to a new society. Designed in the postwar period, with the severe lack of housing across France in mind, this project aimed to develop low-cost, functional buildings, within close proximity of all necessary services and reproducible on a large scale. These so called “habitation units” appeared throughout France in the 1950’s and 60’s.
At this time, Marseille was one of the cities with the most severe lack of residential buildings. Thus, it was here that Le Corbusier was commissioned by the Minister for Reconstruction and Urbanism to build his first real estate units. This resulted in the construction of his famous “Cité Radieuse” in 1952, which was a success from the outset, with its coloured facade and massive structure from the top of which it was possible to admire the city and the Mediteranean. A true test for collective living, this housing unit proposed 330 apartments within close distance of all the neighbourhood services.
A controversial architectural career
Half a century after his death, Le Corbusier remains widely discussed. Despite his visionary and daring designs for which he was highly praised, the large scale and general failure of his collective living projects bring discredit to his work. Furthermore, his excessive use of concrete and his harsh break with popular, classic architectural trends are still the subject of debate.
Nevertheless, this did not stop UNESCO awarding his work world heritage status in 2016, with a total of 17 sites across the world being classed as heritage. With 10 of these sites in France and the rest spread across Switzerland, Japan, India, Belgium, Germany and Argentina, Le Corbusier is considered an internationally renowned architect, whose reputation persists even today.