A pioneer in modern architecture, Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 to a painter who painted dials on watches and to a piano teacher. His family’s love for art influenced young Le Corbusier. At 13, he attended Arts Décoratifs at La Chaux-de-Fonds, learning the art of enameling and engraving watch faces, following the path of his father. His teacher L’Eplattenier took Le Corbusier under his wing and taught him art history, drawing and the naturalist aesthetics of art nouveau. Corbusier soon left watchmaking and continued his studies in art and decoration, dreaming to become a painter. L’Eplattenier insisted that he also study architecture.
In 1907, Le Corbusier took trips through Europe and the Mediterranean where he apprenticed with various architects, including with structural rationalist Auguste Perret. During these trips Le Corbusier made three major architectural discoveries. He saw the importance of the contrast between large collective spaces and individual compartmentalized spaces, an observation that formed the basis for his vision of residential buildings, later becoming vastly influential; classical proportion via Renaissance architecture; and geometric forms and the use of landscape as an architectural tool.
In 1912, Le Corbusier returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds to teach alongside L’Eplattenier and to open his own architectural practice. He designed and began to theorize on the use of reinforced concrete as a structural frame, quite a modern technique. He began to envision buildings designed from these concepts as affordable prefabricated housing that would help rebuild cities after World War I ended. The floor plans of the proposed housing consisted of open space, leaving out obstructive support poles, freeing interior and exterior walls from the usual structural constraints. This design system became the foundation of Le Corbusier’s architecture for the next decade.
In 1917, Le Corbusier moved to Paris, where he worked as an architect on concrete structures under government contracts. During this time he also focused on painting. Collaborating with Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, they published the book Après Le Cubisme (After Cubism), and began an artistic movement called purism. In 1920, the two artists along with poet Paul Dermée, started the purist journal L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit), an avant-garde review. In the first issue, Charles-Edouard took on the pseudonym Le Corbusier, to reflect his belief that anyone could reinvent themselves.
In L’Esprit Nouveau, the three spoke against past artistic and architectural movements, such as those embracing elaborate nonstructural and nonfunctional decoration. In 1923, Le Corbusier published Vers une Architecture (Toward a New Architecture), which contained his famous quotes such as “a house is a machine for living in” and “space and light and order, those are the things that men need as much as they need bread or a place to sleep”.
In his book, Vers une architecture, Le Corbusier emphasied his five points of architecture, which included lifting the bulk of the structure off the ground, supporting it by pilotis, (supports) of reinforced concrete. Using pilotis, he was able to focus on his next two points: a free facade, meaning non-supporting walls that could be designed as the architect wished, and an open floor plan, (a feature that remains popular in today’s architectural designs), which allows the floor space to be free of supporting walls.
Le Corbusier’s fourth point included unfettered views of the outside and the fifth point was the roof garden to compensate for the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof. He incorporated white tubular railings, which was an aesthetic that Le Corbusier was much fond of.
Le Corbusier also proposed a new architecture that would satisfy the demands of industry. This included his first city plan, the Contemporary City, and two housing types that were the basis for much of his architecture throughout his life: the Maison Monol and the Maison Citrohan. Le Corbusier envisioned prefabricated houses, imitating the concept of assembly line manufacturing of cars. In the city diagram where Citrohan would rest, green parks and gardens were featured at the feet of clusters of skyscrapers, an idea that would come to define urban planning in years to come.
Le Corbusier projects seemed to bring in a lot of controversy. In describing Stockholm, a classically rendered city, Le Corbusier saw only “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” He dreamed of “cleaning and purging” the city with “a calm and powerful architecture” full of steel, plate glass and reinforced concrete.
This master of modern design also had dreams that never materialized. Such is the case with Le Corbusier’s Radiant City (Ville radieuse), encompassing his ‘five point’ series of concepts city wide.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, Le Corbusier kept busy with creating famous projects as the proposed master plans for the cities of Algiers and Buenos Aires, and using government connections to implement his ideas for eventual reconstruction, all to no avail.