Le Corbusier Architecture, Episode 139

Le Corbusier Architecture in France

Le Corbusier Architecture
Le Corbusier, photo JBonet

On today’s show, Elyse and Annie bring you musings on Le Corbusier Architecture, how he became one of the pillars of French architecture, and some of the criticisms levied against him. Was he a genius or a tyrant? Hint: it doesn’t have to  be one or the other, he could be like you and me: a complicated person.

If you like this episode you should also check out episode 103 about Le Corbusier and the Plan Voisin and how Le Corbusier planned to raze the Marais neighborhood to make room for something out of a authoritarian nightmare. And if you want to see what came after Le Corbusier Architecture, check out Episode 42 Centre Georges Pompidou.

« Là où naît l’ordre, naît le bien-être. » Le Corbusier

Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.
 Episode Highlights
      • Le Corbusier Is a Nom de Plume
      • Le Cobrusier, a Father of Modernism
      • Le Corbusier’s Family Origins
      • Le Corbusier and Reinforced Concrete
      • Le Corbusier Architecture and the “Cité Jardin”
      • Towards a New Architecture
      • The Future Is Cities
      • Plan Cities Out or Let Them Grow Organically?
      • You can visit the Cité Internationale for University Students
      • Le Corbusier and Connections to the Vichy Regime
      • Le Corbusier Post WWII
      • La Cité Radieuse in Marseille
      • Chandigarh, India, an Example of Le Corbusier Architecture Outside of France
      • Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut
      • Le Corbusier National Funeral in the Courtyard of the Louvre
      • Differences and similarities between Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright
      • The Desire to Live in a  Modern Affordable Home Is Universal

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Le Corbusier Is a Nom de Plume

Le Corbusier’s real name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret Gris, and he was born in French-speaking Swizerland, and became a French citizen later on. He took the name Le Corbusier as his author name because as a descendant of the Albigeois (Cathars) who were makers of shoes from Cordoba, hence “le corbusier”, which means shoe maker.

Le Cobrusier, a Father of Modernism

Modernism is a style of architecture that began right after WWI. Le Corbusier wrote 25 different books and articles, including a revue  called Esprit Nouveau, where he put forth his ideas about the architecture of the future.

As such, his influence on architecture goes way beyond his production while alive. The American Frank Lloyd Wright is also in that category of creators who had massive influence going forward.

Le Corbusier’s Family Origins

He was born in 1887 and came from a family of clock makers in Swizerland, but he had didn’t have any vision in one eye, so he couldn’t be trained as a clock-maker. He was also very good at drawing, so he went in that direction. As a teenager he traveled to Eastern Europe and Berlin where he saw “contemporary” architecture for the first time. At a time when Art Nouveau was all the rage, he saw architecture with no lines and simple structures. He built his first building in 1912 for his parents, the Villa Jeanneret Perret, aka Maison Blanche.

Maison blanche photo Eveline Perroud, Le Corbusier Architecture
Maison blanche photo Eveline Perroud

Le Corbusier and Reinforced Concrete

Le Corbusier was greatly influenced by an engineer/architect called Auguste Perret who were the first ones to use reinforced concrete in modern buildings. Le Corbusier did an internship with them. When he built his first house, he used reinforced concrete and continued to do so his whole life.

The advantage of this type of concrete is that you can build large beams and more open, flexible structures. Le Corbusier and others had a hard time convincing others to go for this “new” material. WWI also slowed down advances in Le Corbusier architecture.

Le Corbusier Architecture and the “Cité Jardin”

The idea was to create collective housing that included gardens. Le Corbusier publishes a magazine called Esprit Nouveau and gets other people to contribute to it. This is how he became more noticed for his ideas than for his constructions. He was a prolific author and also had some commissions from wealthy people, but what he wanted to do is bring modern houses for workers. Because of the cost of the building, his creations are often reserved for wealthier people. A set of these houses is in Lège-Cap Ferret, built in 1924.

Towards a New Architecture

Towards a New Architecture is the name of a book by Le Corbusier where he put forth what he considered to be the future of architecture. The basic idea was to use new materials and think about the building would work both on the inside and on the outside.

One of his creations was the Villa La-Roche in Paris in the 16th arrondissement, now the Fondation Le Corbusier. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another one is the Maison Planeix in the 13th. In the Yvelines you can see the Villa Savoye (OK, Annie has to admit it, that one looks cool, you can see it at this address: 82 Rue de Villiers, 78300 Poissy, France)

Le Corbusier Architecture
Villa_La_Roche_2013 Villa La Roche, Fondation Le Corbusier photo Radomir Cernoch

The Future Is Cities

Le Corbusier thought that the future is cities, and he was probably right about that. Then you have to think about the best way to build for cities, and that meant go up, go vertical, and create collective housing. He was in favor or mixed use cities with apartments, offices, schools and stores all within the same small geographical area.

After WWI and WWII in Europe, cities were poor, the infrastructure was often non-existent, and too many people lived in slums-like conditions. They had no running water, heat, sewers, etc. The idea was to provide modern facilities on a large scale without spending too much. Things had to be planned out and built on a large scale to make it cost-effective.

Plan Cities Out or Let Them Grow Organically?

When money is tight, there’s always the question of should things be planned out, or should cities let development happen organically? Organic growth is great, but it only works for wealthier people, and in Europe after two World Wars, there was a strong need for collective modernism.

You Can Visit the Cité Internationale for University Students

In the 14th arrondissement in Paris there is a large campus of buildings for university students that come from all over the world. Each building is built in a different style and Le Corbusier built the Swiss Pavilion there. You can visit it to this day.

Le Corbusier and Connections to the Vichy Regime

For 17 months Le Corbusier worked for the Vichy Régime during WWII. Maybe he just wanted the work, maybe he was doing what was necessary to survive in his days, but it has been a stain on his reputation. In the name of being a-political, he made some choices that many of us find objectionable today.

He probably wasn’t involved in oppressing Jews or anything criminal of the sort, but he went along. Lots of people in France did just that, so it is not surprising to Annie. Why did he leave the position after 17 months? Because he wasn’t getting what he wanted, which was funding and attention for his projects.

André Malraux, a Communist and member of the French Resistance, defended Le Corbusier because they were personal friends. As far as Malraux was concerned, you condemn Le Corbusier for his lack of judgement, but he was not a collaborator per se. There were plenty of French intellectuals at the time who weren’t shy about supporting Nazi ideas.

Le Corbusier Post WWII

Le Corbusier architecture was famous by the end of WWII and there was a lot of needs for modern, inexpensive housing. This is the time when Le Corbusier built a lot of large collective housing units that Annie finds ugly. Le Plan Voisin never happened in Paris, but similar things were built in other French cities.

Many cities in France were in terrible shape and something needed to be done. Many cities decided to go ahead with large collective projects outside of city centers, which isn’t as shocking as the plan to do it at the heart of Paris.

La Cité Radieuse in Marseille

This collective housing unit aka “l’unité d’habitation de Marseille” as Le Corbusier called it, and “la maison du fada” (the house by the crazy guy in Marseille lingo), was built in a lovely part of Marseille. There are 337 apartments, part of it is a hotel, so you can even stay there if you wish.

This was Le Corbusier’s attempt to build an ideal housing unit. All the apartments are duplex with bedrooms above the living areas. From the inception, there was a school, a cinema, office space, a hotel, a swimming pool and gym on the roof. He didn’t want people to want to worry about having to go anywhere.

What Annie objects to is the fact that Le Corbusier thought he knew what everybody wanted and needed. Le Corbusier defined a house this way: “« une machine à habiter » (an inhabitable machine). That’s going over the line.

Chandigarh, India, an Example of Le Corbusier Architecture Outside of France

Le Corbusier in India: the entire city was built from scratch between 1952-1960, it is called Chandigarh.

Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut

Notre-Dame -du-Haut-de_Ronchamp is a late realization for Le Corbusier Architecture, especially for someone who didn’t particularly want to design religious buildings. It has turned out be be one of the nicest-looking buildings he ever built.

Le Corbusier ARchitecture Notre Dame du Haut
Notre Dame du Haut

Le Corbusier National Funeral in the Courtyard of the Louvre

Le Corbusier died in 1965 as a popular and respected figure. He was given a national funeral in the courtyard of the Louvre, led by his friend André Malraux. Few people today would say that they like the esthetic of the large collective structures he built, but his small scale work is a lot more attractive.

Differences and Similarities Between Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd right built collective housing, but he didn’t build vertical, he built horizontal. Both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright used reinforced concrete. FLW used a lot of wood inside, not outside. FLW also built schools. The esthetics of FLW are much appreciated, but he was bad at structural strength, so FLW buildings have needed a lot of structural work. That has not been the case with Le Corbusier architecture. FLW wanted to use “noble materials” related to the place where the building was going. Le Corbusier didn’t care about that at all.

The Desire to Live in a  Modern Affordable Home Is Universal

To conclude, let’s say that even in areas where there aren’t large Le Corbusier style ugly collective housing, there are a lot of little boxes on the hilltop, little houses made of ticky-tacky, etc. Everyone want to live as comfortably as possible, even if that means living in houses that are all the same.

The problem of modernism is that in an attempt to get away from too many curves and details from the Art Deco era, they went too stark. And it also coincided with popular totalitarian political ideas. The juxtaposition of stark lines and totalitarian ideology is what disturbs the most probably.

 

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3 thoughts on “Le Corbusier Architecture, Episode 139”

  1. Hi Annie and Elyse!
    Annie – why did you join in this podcast when you hate Corbusier, haha! In the late 90s I saw Villa La Roche in the 16th and Notre Dame de Haut in Ronchamp. In the 16th neighborhood, I asked for directions to Villa La Roche – the woman I asked did not speak english and she was all dressed up like a 50s model from a fashion magazine! That was memorable. 2016 I saw the Cité Int’l Universitaire – interesting campus. Not the Corbusier’s building. His large buildings, I agree with you Annie – ugly.

  2. Annie and Elyse,

    First, let me apologize for how late I am in thanking you for this thoroughly enjoyable podcast! I was out of the country last week, and as the couple of weeks leading up to my family’s trip were a whirlwind, it took me 3 listening sessions to make it through the podcast!

    Annie, you said you’d love to hear an architect’s view on Corbusier, so here’s mine: very mixed. I think he was revolutionary from a technical and spatial standpoint, but that meant that he often pushed architecture past its breaking point. Yes, he pioneered a free-flow of space, and created what he called the Maison Domino- a structural system that relied on a grid of columns instead of load-bearing perimeter walls, which allowed for a flow of interior space and a freedom of fenestration (windows) on the facade. But his buildings failed as often, if not more often, than they succeeded. For instance, his early masterpiece, the Villa Savoye, was considered uninhabitable by the woman who commissioned it, and she used it as a hay barn for much of it’s early life. It’s only really found a purpose as a museum to Corbusier.

    http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=5972&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=103&itemSort=en-en_sort_string1+&itemCount=215&sysParentName=&sysParentId=65

    https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2011/09/03/the-darker-side-of-villa-savoye/

    His earlier large buildings also met with some unenviable failures. His building Cite de Refuge, for example, had a huge south-facing wall, with inoperable windows, that was baked by the sun to the extent that he had to go back and retrofit the building with operable windows, and install a sun-shading structure, that he coined as a “Brise Soleil,” that he would later employ in many of his later buildings, especially in India at Chandigarh.

    As for his city planning, yes, he was very influential in creating a new urban form, the tower set into a field or park, which swept the world. However, this model is now widely dismissed by most urban planners as not only inhuman, but actually encouraging to crime, as inhabitants felt anonymous, and could no longer look after each other as they had in a more village-like setting, where multi-generational neighbors know and cared for each other. One of the more notorious examples of this was the Pruitt Igoe complex in St Louis that had to be destroyed because it was seen as iredeemable:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt–Igoe

    In fact, in her ground breaking work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, a resident of the Village in New York, who was fighting Robert Moses to keep him from demolishing that neighborhood to drive a freeway through, and building Corbusier-style housing in its place, chronicalled the virtues of traditional neighborhoods (like the Marais).

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_and_Life_of_Great_American_Cities

    One last thing on Corbusier- many of the people who lived in his housing did not appreciate his aesthetic. Although tonight I am having difficulty finding digital images of it, many residents of his workers’ housing in Pessac added gables, shutters, etc. to the building to make it seem more relatable.

    A few other thoughts:

    Frank Lloyd Wright also addressed mass housing, but he did so in a model that would foretell American suburban sprawl, which he called Broadacre City. As if he anticipated traffic, he predicted everyone would own a helicopter:

    http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/broadacre-city-frank-lloyd-wrights-unbuilt-suburban-ut-1509433082

    He also has three very notable vertical projects, the Johnson Wax Building, The Price Tower in Oklahoma, and his unbuilt plans from a mile high skyscraper he named the Illinois, which in his proposal would have nuclear-powered elevators:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_Wax_Headquarters
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_Tower
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Illinois

    By the way, as a side note, the furniture for the worker’s chairs FLW designed for the Johnson Wax Building only had 3, not 4, legs. When people started tipping over regularly, he argued he had designed them that way to keep workers alert. He also designed headquarter buildings (Johnson Wax, The Larkin Building in Buffalo), so that the windows would let in light, but were high enough so that office staff couldn’t see out so they weren’t distracted.

    A couple of other things:

    Annie, you mentioned new wood technology. There are several firms now proposing wood skyscrapers:

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-16/the-race-for-the-wood-skyscraper-starts-here

    And you questioned where municipalities might still be looking into the kinds of master-planned cities Le Corbusier was proposing. I would point you towards Steven Holl’s recent work in China:

    http://www.stevenholl.com/projects/beijing-linked-hybrid
    http://www.stevenholl.com/projects/vanke-center
    http://www.stevenholl.com/projects/raffles-city-chengdu

    Thank you as always for the great work you do, and I hope you had a great day at the Musee des Arts Fourains!

    Cheers,

    David

    1. No need to apologize for anything, this is an epic play-by-play conversation expounding on what we talked about on the podcast, from an actual architect no less! Thank you David. I will check out all the references and learn some more about this fascinating topic. The Musée des Arts Forains was so much fun, I will do an episode about it at some time, I love it too!

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