[We recently drove back to Alsace from Lake Geneva up into the Jura and through La Chaux-de-Fonds, birthplace on 6 October 1887 of the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. I was reminded of a visit to La Maison Blanche – the house he built there for his parents, pictured above – when I was researching this article for Swiss News in their Entrepreneur in Focus series.]
If you live anywhere in or near Switzerland you will have some of those fat Swiss francs in your wallet. Next time you remove a ten-franc note, take a long, hard look at the portrait displayed on it. Emerging from a yellowish mist, Le Corbusier gazes steadily back at you, his hallmark, owlish spectacles raised high on his forehead. The expression is unsmiling, stern, inscrutable. Who is this man, described by many as the most influential architect of the 20th century?
Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (he later assumed the name of Le Corbusier) was born in the watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss Jura in 1887. His father was a watch engraver and enameller, and his mother taught piano. Le Corbusier’s initial studies at the art school in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1900 centred on watch engraving, at which he showed great skill. His poor eyesight was a handicap, however, so his professors encouraged him to study architecture and design, though – in common with others of his generation such as German-American Mies Van Der Rohe – Le Corbusier never formally qualified as an architect.
Between 1907 and 1912 Le Corbusier embarked on an intense programme of travels throughout Europe, sketchbook and camera in hand. From the Duomo in Siena to the Acropolis in Athens, from grand houses in Munich to the traditional dwellings of Romania and Bulgaria, little escaped the notebooks of the aspiring architect.
Interspersed with his travels, Le Corbusier managed to fit in two formative internships, which were to shape his work in future years: first at the Perret architectural practice in Paris, which was pioneering the (at that time novel) use of reinforced concrete, and later with Berlin industrial designer Peter Behrens, a proponent of strictly rational, functional design and admirer of the brand-new mass production techniques.
Returning to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier was commissioned in 1912 to build a house for his parents, a luminous white villa set on a hillside above the town, recently restored in faithful detail to a state of glorious simplicity and now known as La Maison Blanche.
The house represented a clear break with the architectural styles of the provincial town and a move beyond the Art Nouveau houses then springing up in the neighbourhood. Its clean lines hint at the pared-down simplicity of Le Corbusier’s later constructions and a number of architectural elements which were to crop up throughout his work are already visible: the sober, white stucco façade, the high ceilings and raised door lintels, the open-plan ground floor, the huge windows letting in abundant light, the smooth linoleum on the floors and the absence of surplus adornment. Robert Monnier, retired architect and former President of the Association Maison Blanche, who leads guided tours of the house, describes him with evident sympathy and respect as un défricheur -– an unclutterer.
Further commissions followed, but making a living in this small Swiss town was an uphill struggle. In 1917 Le Corbusier moved to Paris, where he opened his own practice. The dying days of World War One were lean times for young, untried architects with avant-garde ideas but Le Corbusier kept his hand in by drawing up plans for the Perret brothers, with whom he’d studied earlier. To make ends meet, he also took up oil painting, and exhibited with some success.
All the while, he was formulating his ideas on architecture and urban planning, convinced that the time was right for a fundamentally new approach. In 1920, together with the Cubist painter Amedée Ozenfant, he founded a magazine entitled L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit). Through its pages he advanced his theory of Purism, a streamlined approach that would incorporate elements of the factory assembly line and would lead – he believed – to dramatic and much-needed improvements in urban living conditions.
1923 saw publication of his book Vers une Architecture (Towards an Architecture). “Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and for the city”, he wrote, with the crisp assurance of youth. Though obviously dated and some of its tenets discredited, the book remains the best-selling work ever published on architecture.
During the 1920s Le Corbusier went into partnership with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and together they secured prestigious commissions for single-family houses in and around Paris, such as the Villa La Roche in the 16th arrondissement (which now houses the Fondation Le Corbusier) and the Villa Savoye in Poissy. Highly innovative for the day – and for Paris – they were the perfect showcases for Le Corbusier’s purist architecture: all clean lines, uncluttered monochrome walls, curved galleries and smooth swathes of windows.
The partners did not confine themselves to private housing. A perfect blizzard of grand plans for public-housing projects now began to issue from Le Corbusier’s practice. Many of them (such as the Plan Voisin which envisaged bulldozing most of the right bank of the Seine in Paris and replacing it with skyscrapers of reinforced concrete, steel and glass) were – mercifully – never implemented, but they marked the start of a lifelong crusade by Le Corbusier to improve human health and well-being by providing low-cost, standardised, rationally planned housing. Besides France, projects were explored from Rio de Janeiro to Algiers, New York to Moscow. Some that did materialise were the government buildings in Chandigarh, Punjab, India and the famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, a futuristic ‘vertical village’ in raw concrete housing 1600 people, whose apartments, I learned, are highly sought after today.
Critics of Le Corbusier (and of the architectural sins later committed in his name) think automatically and exclusively of these controversial, radical, brave-new-world plans when considering his work. Yet, according to Mateo Kries, who curated a major exhibition on Le Corbusier’s art and architecture at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein in 2007-2008, these represent but a snapshot of Le Corbusier’s oeuvre.
The reason we should consider Le Corbusier as “probably the most influential architect of the 20th century”, suggests Kries, is the extraordinary range and scope of his work, which was in a constant state of flux, always open to new ideas and influences. Throughout Le Corbusier’s life, sketches, drawings, plans, paintings, murals, tapestries, sculptures, furniture, photographs, all spilled from his hand in an explosion of unbridled creativity. “He reinvented himself every five to ten years”, adds Kries.
For a sense of this constant process of renewal and reinvention, take a final look at one of his most celebrated works, the Chapelle de Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, designed by the architect in 1955. Like the Maison Blanche of 1912, it’s an imposing white construction set on a hill. But there the comparison ends.
A huge, greyish brown concrete shell of a roof rests on massive white concrete walls, like the cap of a boletus mushroom sitting on its stout stalk. The strict lines and symmetry of Le Corbusier’s early constructions have given way to sweeping curves and asymmetrical columns. In place of ribbon windows are small, randomly scattered openings, which carefully ration the light that enters.
A lasting monument by a great Swiss entrepreneur, it’s become a place of pilgrimage for spiritual seekers and architectural students alike – and it’s not far from Basel. If you haven’t been, it’s worth a visit.