Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier
(b. La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland 1887; d. Cap Martin, France 1965)

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) was born in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, 1887. Trained as an artist, he travelled extensively through Germany and the East. In Paris he studied under Auguste Perret and absorbed the cultural and artistic life of the city. During this period he developed a keen interest in the synthesis of the various arts. Jeanneret-Gris adopted the name Le Corbusier in the early 1920s.

Le Corbusier's early work was related to nature, but as his ideas matured, he developed the Maison Dom-ino [1914], a basic building prototype for mass production with free-standing pillars and rigid floors. In 1917 he settled in Paris where he issued his book Vers une architecture [Towards a New Architecture], based on his earlier articles in L'Esprit Nouveau.

From 1922 Le Corbusier worked with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. [At Perret's office he was introduced to the use of concrete. Perret was a pioneer in the use of this material.] During this time, Le Corbusier's ideas began to take physical form, mainly as houses which he created as "a machine for living in" and which incorporated his trademark five points of architecture.

During World War II, Le Corbusier produced little beyond some theories on his utopian ideals and on his modular building scale. In 1947, he started his Unite d'habitation [see below]. Although relieved with sculptural roof-lines and highly colored walls, these massive post-war dwelling blocks received justifiable criticism.

Le Corbusier's post-war buildings rejected his earlier industrial forms and utilized vernacular materials, brute concrete and articulated structure. Near the end of his career he worked on several projects in India, which utilized brutal materials and sculptural forms. In these buildings he readopted the recessed structural column, the expressive staircase, and the flat undecorated plane of his celebrated five points of architecture.

Le Corbusier did not fare well in international competition, but he produced town-planning schemes for many parts of the world, often as an adjunct to a lecture tour. In these schemes the vehicular and pedestrian zones and the functional zones of the settlements were always emphasized.
- References:  Dennis Sharp. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991.

Here are the five points of a new architecture as were stated by Le Corbusier in 1926 in his most influential book, Towards a New Architecture:

1.  Lift the building over pilotis [a column of iron, steel, or reinforced concrete supporting a building above an open ground level]: The ground floor of the house, like the street, belongs to the automobile. Therefore housing is raised on pilotis  to allow the automobile’s movement or the green continuity.
2. Free designing of the ground plan: A building floor plan should be free from structural conditioning so partitions con be organized in any way.
3. The free facade: The structure separates from facade relieving it of its structural function.
4. The horizontal window: The facade can be cut along its entire length to allow room to be lit equally.
5. The roof garden: A building should give back the space it takes up on the ground by replacing it with a garden in the sky.

Photo by  Willy Rizzo

  "Five Points Towards a New Architecture"
By Le Corbusier/Pierre Jeanneret


Theory demands concise formulation.

The following points in no way relate to aesthetic fantasies or a striving for fashionable effects, but concern architectural facts that imply an entirely new kind of building, from the dwelling house to palatial edifices.

1. The supports.
To solve a problem scientifically means in the first place to distinguish between its elements. Hence in the case of a building a distinction can immediately be made between the supporting and the non-supporting elements. The earlier foundations, on which the building rested without a mathematical check, are replaced by individual foundations and the walls by individual supports. Both supports and support foundations are precisely calculated according to the burdens they are called upon to carry. These supports are spaced out at specific, equal intervals, with no thought for the interior arrangement of the building. They rise directly from the floor to 3, 4, 6, etc. metres and elevate the ground floor. The rooms are thereby removed from the dampness of the soil; they have light and air; the building plot is left to the garden, which consequently passes under the house.

The same area is also gained on the flat roof.

2. The roof gardens.
The flat roof demands in the first place systematic utilization for domestic purposes: roof terrace, roof garden. On the other hand, the reinforced concrete demands protection against changing temperatures. Overactivity on the part of the reinforced concrete is prevented by the maintenance of a constant humidity on the roof concrete. The roof terrace satisfies both demands (a rain-dampened layer of sand covered with concrete slabs with lawns in the interstices; the earth of the flowerbeds in direct contact with the layer of sand). In this way the rain water will flow off extremely slowly. Waste pipes in the interior of the building. Thus a latent humidity will remain continually on the roof skin. The roof gardens will display highly luxuriant vegetation. Shrubs and even small trees up to 3 or 4 metres tall can be planted. In this way the roof garden will become the most favoured place in the building. In general, roof gardens mean to a city the recovery of all the built-up area.

3. The free designing of the ground-plan.
The support system carries the intermediate ceilings and rises up to the roof. The interior walls may be placed wherever required, each floor being entirely independent of the rest. There are no longer any supporting walls but only membranes of any thickness required. The result of this is absolute freedom in designing the ground-plan; that is to say, free utilization of the available means, which makes it easy to offset the rather high cost of reinforced concrete construction.

4. The horizontal window.
Together with the intermediate ceilings the supports form rectangular openings in the facade through which light and air enter copiously. The window extends from support to support and thus becomes a horizontal window. Stilted vertical windows consequently disappear, as do unpleasant mullions. In this way, rooms are equably lit from wall to wall. Experiments have shown that a room thus lit has an eight times stronger illumination than the same room lit by vertical windows with the same window area.

The whole history of architecture revolves exclusively around the wall apertures. Through use of the horizontal window reinforced concrete suddenly provides the possibility of maximum illumination.

5. Free design of the facade.
By projecting the floor beyond the supporting pillars, like a balcony all round the building, the whole facade is extended beyond the supporting construction. It thereby loses its supportive quality and the windows may be extended to any length at will, without any direct relationship to the interior division. A window may just as well be 10 metres long for a dwelling house as 200 metres for a palatial building (our design for the League of Nations building in Geneva). The facade may thus be designed freely.

The five essential points set out above represent a fundamentally new aesthetic. Nothing is left to us of the architecture of past epochs, just as we can no longer derive any benefit from the literary and historical teaching given in schools.

Villa Savoye
Poissy, France
Great Buildings: Villa Savoye

Concrete and plastered unit masonry
Modern style: International Style

An early and classic exemplar of the "International Style", which hovers above a grass plane on thin concrete pilotti, with strip windows, and a flat roof with a deck area, ramp, and a few contained touches of curvaceous walls.

"Unlike the confined urban locations of most of Le Corbusier's earlier houses, the openness of the Poissy site permitted a freestanding building and the full realization of his five-point program. Essentially the house comprises two contrasting, sharply defined, yet interpenetrating external aspects. The dominant element is the square single-storied box, a pure, sleek, geometric envelope lifted buoyantly above slender pilotis, its taut skin slit for narrow ribbon windows that run unbroken from corner to corner (but not over them, thus preserving the integrity of the sides of the square)." - Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p530.

United Nations Headquarters
New York City
Great Buildings: United Nations Headquarters

Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Sir Howard Robertson, et al. with Harrison and Abramovitz
1947, finished 1953
Reinforced concrete, glass curtain wall, aluminum exterior

"Providing office accommodation for 3,400 employees, the Secretariat is a 39 story building with an aluminum grille to conceal equipment on the roof. The narrow end walls are of white marble; the other two elevations are surfaced with green-tinted glass. Floors devoted to mechanical equipment divide these glass facades into three parts...." -  from Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Arthur Drexler, ed. Built in the USA: Post-war Architecture. p68.

"Sited by the East River, the scheme is dominated by the towering slab block of the Secretariat Building, which, with its narrow end walls rising like sheer white cliffs and it longer sides clad in glass curtain walling, has had considerable influense on subsequent high buildings throughout the world." -  Sir Banister Fletcher. A History of Architecture. p1279.

Carpenter Center
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Great Buildings: Carpenter Center
Reinforced cast-in-place concrete masonry

"This, Le Corbusier's only major building in the United States—designed to house classes in architecture, film, and other arts—has struck some critics as surprisingly 'modest and accommodating.' Its concrete exterior has a smooth, precise finish; tall, thin columns break up its interior spaces. A great curvilinear ramp bisects the structure and connects with the main stair and an exhibition space." -  from Sylvia Hart Wright. Sourcebook of Contemporary North American Architecture: From Postwar to Postmodern. p. 72.

Centre Le Corbusier
Zurich, Switzerland
Great Buildings: Centre Le Corbusier

1963 -1967
Site-cast concrete

"...the building is complete but, within the confines of the spaces provided under the independent umbrella roof, change is possible in the exhibition and meeting room areas. This building was completed after the death of Le Corbusier and was originally planned as a private house—the house area being the detached section under the steel roof." -  Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History. p286.

"...the minute Centre Le Corbusier in Zurich is two cubes, designed by Le Corbusier himself, with a ramp and an umbrella roof, also all steel. It is an exercise in modular construction elegantly carried out using enameled steel panels and glass infill. The plans were originally drawn for a house which was always thought of as an exhibition gallery as well. It has proved sufficiently flexible to be used for teaching and exhibitions." -  Sir Banister Fletcher. A History of Architecture. p1352.

Unite d'Habitation
Marseilles, France
Great Buildings: Unite d'Habitation

1946 to 1952
Housing slab, raised off ground on sculpted legs [pilotis].

"Le Corbusier's most influential late work was his first significant postwar structure—the UnitÈ d'Habitation in Marseilles of 1947-52. The giant, twelve-story apartment block for 1.600 people is the late modern counterpart of the mass housing schemes of the 1920s, similarly built to alleviate a severe postwar housing shortage. Although the program of the building is elaborate, structurally it is simple: a rectilinear ferroconcrete grid, into which are slotted precast individual apartment units, like 'bottles into a wine rack' as the architect put it. Through ingenious planning, twenty-three different apartment configurations were provided to acccommodate single persons and families as large as ten, nearly all with double-height living rooms and the deep balconies that form the major external feature." -  Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p 541.

Notre Dame at Ronchamp marks a turning point in Corbu's career. It no long follows his Five Points.

Notre Dame du Haut, or Ronchamp
Ronchamp, France
Great Buildings: Notre Dame du Haut, or Ronchamp
Expressionist Modern
Reinforced concrete
Soft-form composition, deep windows with colored glass (wall thickness 4' to 12')

"Surrealism is a key to other late works of Le Corbusier, most notably the church at Ronchamp, France, of 1950-54... Notre-Dame-du-Haut was a more extreme statement of Le Corbusier's late style. Progamatically,...the church is simple—an oblong nave, two side entrances, an axial main altar, and three chapels beneath towers—as is its structure, with rough masonry walls faced with whitewashed Gunite (sprayed concrete) and a roof of contrasting beton brut. Formally and symbolically, however, this small building, which is sited atop a hillside with access from the south, is immensely powerful and complex." -  Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p542-4.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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