Le Corbusier – Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s Modernist Style

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Plan of Le Corbusier Pavilion – L’Esprit Nouveau

Space, its creation and manipulation, is at the very heart and essence of any great building, and an integral aspect of great design in architecture. People who have stood in ancient Greek temples or theatres built of stone have had the same experience, as they are enveloped and enclosed by the space, which gives them a feeling of being set free.

The idea of space to a modernist was an intellectual and philosophical concept, which had been vital to the birth of that ancient democracy and its ideas of liberty.

Taking their cues from other European leaders of Modernism at the turn of the twentieth century, contemporary architects were concerned principally with the least complex method of fitting “form to function”.

Deco Archer StatueAt the 1925 exhibition The Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels (Art Deco for short) held at Paris two pavilions stood out. The Russian pavilion with its hard edged brutal Constructivist style and the pavilion that championed harmony in forms and measurements evidenced in nature – La Corbusier’s l’Esprit Nouveau.

Swiss born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965) was 29 when he went to Paris. He was already an artist; an accomplished painter and sculptor. To gain a fresh start he changed his persona from Jeanneret, the small-town architect, to Le Corbusier (his grandfather’s name) to become the world’s next visionary artist.

He worked in an architectural firm alongside another ‘modernist’ Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), who began his career as something of a classicist; a director of the Bauhaus from 1930, which aimed to rescue the arts from isolation and elevate the status of craft to that traditionally enjoyed by the ‘fine arts’.

Le Corbusier expressed his view that architecture had lost its way. He was convinced that the bold new industrial age dawning required an all new audacious style of architecture.

Who better then to design it than himself?

We must start again from zero,” he proclaimed, as he began to gather followers who would embrace his vision – a rage for simplicity.

Dressing like a bureaucrat, in dark suits, bow ties, round horn-rimmed glasses, his gestures revealed that he was willing and able to lead the charge to create a brave new world.

As a Modernist he had radical plans to rip out the historic centre of Paris and replace it with 18 gigantic skyscrapers.

During the 30’s Paris became the great destination of Americans, lured by its romantic classicism a mixture of lots of the old plus some of the new…the ancients and the moderns.

Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp – Le Corbusier’s out of the ordinary masterpiece

It was a heady design and style atmosphere Le Corbusier operated within.

The streamlined style that had grown out of the 1925 exposition and took the world by storm in the 1930’s, which we now call Art Deco, also drew on purity of form and refinement.

In art movements Cubism was also a powerful tool adding fragmentation and abstraction to an already potent cocktail, overlapping images and colour.


London Midland and Scottish Railway Stanier 7P 4-6-2 Coronation class locomotive number 6229 DUCHESS OF HAMILTON on display in the great hall at the National Railway Museum, York, 2009

London Midland and Scottish Railway Stanier 7P 4-6-2 Coronation class locomotive number 6229 DUCHESS OF HAMILTON on display in the great hall at the National Railway Museum, York, 2009

Futurism contributed through its obsession with speed and power – images of great ocean liners and locomotives became pure line, form and colour.

They were both esoteric and intellectual.

However the graphic artist through his great skill, was able to make them comprehensible to the great public at large who then championed the style an important aspect that had not happened in any other era.

Le Corbusier became one of the masters of the use of reinforced concrete.

He fully embraced the idea of architectural space being as one with the human form. He also believed every human being should enjoy the experience of moving through, and being as one with architecture – thus living art.

Le Corbusier’s books published in 1923, 1948 and 1955 have ever since had an international influence on town planning and building design.

His systems, which contained harmony and proportion, ensured that his architectural style honoured architecture of the past.

He championed the use of the golden ratio and Fibonacci numbers, which were integral to his success.

His first building was based on the technique of the Modular, a system using standard size units relating to the measurements of the human figure (Vitruvius 1st Century, Palladio 16th century).

An example was the Unite d’habitation (left) built at Marseilles in France between 1945 – 5.

It was conceived as one of a number of tall buildings than when the overall scheme had been completed, would form a pattern projecting from a carpet of low buildings and open spaces.

He preached his own doctrine and defined his own recipe for a new style of architecture: he raised a building on stilts, mixed in a free-flowing floor plan and then made all the walls independent of the structure.

He added horizontal strip windows and topped it all off with a roof garden for relaxation and living life stylishly. However when we describe his method it makes him sound like a technician, and he was anything but.

His austere, white-walled villas, completed after World War I in and around Paris, are memorable for both their cool beauty and airy sense of space inside and out.

A house is a machine for living in,” he wrote. His new style of simple architecture spoke of the sun, wind and the sea and his villas are proof of his enduring respect for space as integral to design. They were about an art of space, which in itself in overcrowded European cities, was a luxury.

The new architecture known contemporarily as the International Style, had many partisans in Europe; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany and Theo van Doesburg in Holland, to name a few.

Out of all of this in our own modern era has emerged architects and artisans intent on unifying art and design with function, one palatable to potentates, princes, patrons and plebians.

In Australia architect Harry Seidler, born in 1923, championed the sleek slim lines of the Modernist style down under.

The Rose Seidler House at Wahroonga in Sydney, which Seidler designed was built in 1948, fulfilling Le Corbusier’s ideal of being able to move through architecture seamlessly.

Le Corbusier was a tireless missionary, addressing the public in manifestos, pamphlets, exhibitions and his own magazine.

He wrote quite literally dozens of books about interior decoration, painting and architecture. Together with his brother Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand he also designed furniture.

They initiated the use of chrome or nickelled tubular or flat steel as a framework for their furniture; it had painted slab steel construction, plain veneers, leather or skin upholstery.

The foundation of the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) in 1929 gave the fledgling group cohesion and exhibition venues of their own.

His now well known tubular, chromed steel adjustable chaise longue was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

His architecture spoke of sun and wind and the sea.

The machines he admired most were ocean liners, which is evidenced in his design for the staircase at the Savoye Villa outside Paris. Its streamlined style has been much copied.

Le Corbusier devoted several hours a day to painting.

The catalogue, currently being drawn up by his foundation lists, 419 canvases painted from 1918 (the year he met the painter Ozenfant with whom he created Purism) until he died in 1965.

In 1945, Joseph Savina, a cabinetmaker from Brittany, made a wooden sculpture after a painting by Le Corbusier. This experiment led to a twenty-year collaboration, during which forty-four sculptures were made in natural or polychrome wood.

Twenty-seven tapestry cartoons were made by Le Corbusier, some of them in collaboration with P. Baudouin, between 1936 and 1965.

Most of the subjects are inspired by his paintings.

Guggenheim; Modern architecture in Bilbao

Guggenheim; Modern architecture in Bilbao

Following his lead in all the major cities of the world there was a stampede to modernize practically everything.

Modernism demanded a distinction between interior architecture and decoration and a preference for open planned living.

No attempt was made to distinguish between functional and non-functional while streamlining became de rigeur.

All objects moving or stationery, were encased in sleek, aerodynamic bodies emblematic of his era’s obsession with both speed and efficiency.

Le Corbusier and his designs combine the functionalism of the modern movement with a bold, sculptural expressionism, and he was at the forefront of the evolution of 21st century design.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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