He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned 8 decades, with his buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.
Le Corbusier was attracted to the visual arts and studied at the La-Chaux-de-Fonds Art School under Charles L'Eplattenier, who had studied in Budapest and Paris. His architecture teacher in the Art School was the architect René Chapallaz, who had a large influence on Le Corbusier's earliest houses.
In his early years he would frequently escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by travelling around Europe. About 1907, he travelled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of reinforced concrete. Between October 1910 and March 1911, he worked near Berlin for the renowned architect Peter Behrens, where he might have met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. He became fluent in German. Both of these experiences proved influential in his later career.
Later in 1915, he journeyed to the Balkans and visited Greece and Turkey, filling sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw, including many famous sketches of the Parthenon, whose forms he would later praise in his work Vers une architecture (1923).
This design became the foundation for most of his architecture for the next ten years. Soon he would begin his own architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967), a partnership that would last until 1940.
In 1918, Le Corbusier met the disillusioned Cubist painter, Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognised a kindred spirit. Ozenfant encouraged him to paint, and the two began a period of collaboration. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and "romantic," the pair jointly published their manifesto, Après le Cubisme and established a new artistic movement, Purism. Ozenfant and Jeanneret established the Purist journal L'Esprit Nouveau. He was good friends with the Cubist artist Fernand Léger.
Between 1918 and 1922, Le Corbusier built nothing, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret opened a studio in Paris at 35 rue de Sèvres.
His theoretical studies soon advanced into several different single-family house models. Among these was the Maison "Citrohan", a pun on the name of the French Citroën automaker, for the modern industrial methods and materials Le Corbusier advocated using for the house. Here, Le Corbusier proposed a three-floor structure, with a double-height living room, bedrooms on the second floor, and a kitchen on the third floor. The roof would be occupied by a sun terrace. On the exterior Le Corbusier installed a stairway to provide second-floor access from ground level. Here, as in other projects from this period, he also designed the façades to include large expanses of uninterrupted banks of windows. The house used a rectangular plan, with exterior walls that were not filled by windows, left as white, stuccoed spaces. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret left the interior aesthetically spare, with any movable furniture made of tubular metal frames. Light fixtures usually comprised single, bare bulbs. Interior walls also were left white. Between 1922 and 1927, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret designed many of these private houses for clients around Paris. In Boulogne-sur-Seine and the 16th arrondissement of Paris, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret designed and built the Villa Lipschitz, Maison Cook (see William Edwards Cook), Maison Planeix, and the Maison La Roche/Albert Jeanneret, which now houses the Fondation Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier took French citizenship in 1930.
Not merely content with designs for a few housing blocks, soon Le Corbusier moved into studies for entire cities. In 1922, he also presented his scheme for a "Contemporary City" for three million inhabitants (Ville Contemporaine). The centrepiece of this plan was the group of sixty-storey, cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in huge curtain walls of glass. They housed both offices and the apartments of the most wealthy inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the very middle was a huge transportation centre, that on different levels included depots for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections, and at the top, an airport. He had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers. Le Corbusier segregated the pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways, and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller multi-storey, zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street, housed the proletarian workers. Le Corbusier hoped that politically-minded industrialists in France would lead the way with their efficient Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American models to reorganise society.
In this new industrialist spirit, Le Corbusier began a new journal called L'Esprit Nouveau that advocated the use of modern industrial techniques and strategies to transform society into a more efficient environment with a higher standard of living on all socioeconomic levels. He forcefully argued that this transformation was necessary to avoid the spectre of revolution, that would otherwise shake society. His dictum "Architecture or Revolution", developed in his articles in this journal, became his rallying cry for the book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture, previously mistranslated into English as Towards a New Architecture), which comprised selected articles from L'Esprit Nouveau between 1920 and 1923.
Theoretical urban schemes continued to occupy Le Corbusier. He exhibited his Plan Voisin, sponsored by another famous automobile manufacturer, in 1925. In it, he proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris, north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. His scheme was met with only criticism and scorn from French politicians and industrialists, although they were favourable to the ideas of Taylorism and Fordism underlying Le Corbusier designs. Nonetheless, it did provoke discussion concerning how to deal with the cramped, dirty conditions that enveloped much of the city.
In the 1930s, Le Corbusier expanded and reformulated his ideas on urbanism, eventually publishing them in La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City) of 1935. Perhaps the most significant difference between the Contemporary City and the Radiant City is that the latter abandons the class-based stratification of the former; housing is now assigned according to family size, not economic position. La Ville radieuse also marks Le Corbusier's increasing dissatisfaction with capitalism and his turn to the right-wing syndicalism of Hubert Lagardelle. During the Vichy regime, Le Corbusier received a position on a planning committee and made designs for Algiers and other cities. The central government ultimately rejected his plans, and after 1942 Le Corbusier withdrew from political activity.
After World War II, Le Corbusier attempted to realize his urban planning schemes on a small scale by constructing a series of "unités" (the housing block unit of the Radiant City) around France. The most famous of these was the Unité d'Habitation of Marseilles (1946-1952). In the 1950s, a unique opportunity to translate the Radiant City on a grand scale presented itself in the construction of Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian state of (what was then) Punjab. Le Corbusier was originally brought on to redesign parts of Albert Mayer's master plan, but eventually took over the entire project.
Le Corbusier's death had a strong impact on the cultural and political world. Homages were paid world-wide and even some of Le Corbusier's worst artistic enemies, such as the painter Salvador Dalí, recognised his importance (Dalí sent a floral tribute). Then-President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson said: "His influence was universal and his works are invested with a permanent quality possessed by those of very few artists in our history". The Soviet Union added, "Modern architecture has lost its greatest master". Japanese TV channels decided to broadcast, simultaneously to the ceremony, his Museum in Tokyo, in what was at the time a unique media homage.
Visitors may find his grave site in the cemetery above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in between Menton and Monaco in southern France.
The Fondation Le Corbusier (or FLC) functions as his official Estate.. The U.S. copyright representative for the Fondation Le Corbusier is the Artists Rights Society.
Le Corbusier explicitly used the golden ratio in his Modulor system for the scale of architectural proportion. He saw this system as a continuation of the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man", the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and others who used the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. In addition to the golden ratio, Le Corbusier based the system on human measurements, Fibonacci numbers, and the double unit.
He took Leonardo's suggestion of the golden ratio in human proportions to an extreme: he sectioned his model human body's height at the navel with the two sections in golden ratio, then subdivided those sections in golden ratio at the knees and throat; he used these golden ratio proportions in the Modulor system.
Le Corbusier's 1927 Villa Stein in Garches exemplified the Modulor system's application. The villa's rectangular ground plan, elevation, and inner structure closely approximate golden rectangles.
Le Corbusier placed systems of harmony and proportion at the centre of his design philosophy, and his faith in the mathematical order of the universe was closely bound to the golden section and the Fibonacci series, which he described as "[...] rhythms apparent to the eye and clear in their relations with one another. And these rhythms are at the very root of human activities. They resound in Man by an organic inevitability, the same fine inevitability which causes the tracing out of the Golden Section by children, old men, savages, and the learned.
In 1928, Le Corbusier and Perriand began to put the expectations for furniture Le Corbusier outlined in his 1925 book L'Art Décoratif d'aujourd'hui into practice. In the book he defined three different furniture types: type-needs, type-furniture, and human-limb objects. He defined human-limb objects as: "Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are. Type-needs, type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb object is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion, and harmony".
The first results of the collaboration were three chrome-plated tubular steel chairs designed for two of his projects, The Maison la Roche in Paris and a pavilion for Barbara and Henry Church. The line of furniture was expanded for Le Corbusier's 1929 Salon d'Automne installation, Equipment for the Home.
In the year 1964, while Le Corbusier was still alive, Cassina S.p.A. of Milan acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to manufacture his furniture designs. Today many copies exist, but Cassina is still the only manufacturer authorised by the Fondation Le Corbusier.
Although the politics of Lagardelle and Valois included elements of fascism, anti-semitism, and ultra-nationalism, Le Corbusier's own affiliation with these movements remains uncertain. In La Ville radieuse, he conceives an essentially apolitical society, in which the bureaucracy of economic administration effectively replaces the state.
Le Corbusier was heavily indebted to the thought of the nineteenth-century French utopians Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. There is a noteworthy resemblance between the concept of the unité and Saint-Simon's phalanstery. From Fourier, Le Corbusier adopted at least in part his notion of administrative, rather than political, government.
The public housing projects influenced by his ideas are seen by some as having had the effect of isolating poor communities in monolithic high-rises and breaking the social ties integral to a community's development. One of his most influential detractors has been Jane Jacobs, who delivered a scathing critique of Le Corbusier's urban design theories in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
One of the first to realise how the automobile would change human agglomerations, Le Corbusier described the city of the future as consisting of large apartment buildings isolated in a park-like setting on pilotis. Le Corbusier's theories were adopted by the builders of public housing in Western Europe and the United States. For the design of the buildings themselves, Le Corbusier criticised any effort at ornamentation. The large spartan structures, in cities, but not of cities, have been widely criticised for being boring and unfriendly to pedestrians.
Throughout the years, many architects worked for Le Corbusier in his studio, and a number of them became notable in their own right, including painter-architect Nadir Afonso, who absorbed Le Corbusier's ideas into his own aesthetics theory. Lúcio Costa's city plan of Brasília and the industrial city of Zlín planned by František Lydie Gahura in the Czech Republic are notable plans based on his ideas, while the architect himself produced the plan for Chandigarh in India. Le Corbusier's thinking also had profound effects on the philosophy of city planning and architecture in the Soviet Union, particularly in the Constructivist era.
Le Corbusier was heavily influenced by the problems he saw in the industrial city of the turn of the century. He thought that industrial housing techniques led to crowding, dirtiness, and a lack of a moral landscape. He was a leader of the modernist movement to create better living conditions and a better society through housing concepts. Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow heavily influenced Le Corbusier and his contemporaries.
Le Corbusier also harmonized and lent credence to the idea of space as a set of destinations which mankind moved between, more or less continuously. He was therefore able to give credence and credibility to the automobile (as a transporter); and most importantly to freeways in urban spaces. His philosophies were useful to urban real estate development interests in the American Post World War II period because they justified and lent architectural and intellectual support to the desire to destroy traditional urban space for high density high profit urban concentration; both commercial and residential. Le Corbusier’s ideas also sanctioned the further destruction of traditional urban spaces for the freeways that connected this new urbanism to the low density; low cost (and highly profitable), suburban and rural locales; which were free to be developed as middle class single family (dormitory) housing.
Notably missing from this scheme of movement were connectivity between the isolated urban villages created for the lower middle and working classes and the other destination points in the Le Corbusier plan; the suburban and rural areas, and the urban commercial centers. This was because as designed, the freeways traveled over, at, or beneath the grade levels of the urban working and lower middle class living spaces, such as the Cabrini Green housing project. Such projects and their areas, having no freeway exit ramps, and being cut-off by the freeways rights-of-way, became isolated from jobs and the services that came to be concentrated at Le Corbusier’s nodal transportation end points. And as jobs increasingly moved to the suburban end points of the freeways; urban village dwellers found themselves without convenient freeway access points in their communities; and without public mass transit connectivity that could economically reach suburban job centers.
Very late in the Post War period suburban job centers found this to be such a critical problem (labor shortages) that they on their own, began sponsoring urban to suburban shuttle bus services, between the urban villages and the suburban job centers, to fill the working class and lower-middle class jobs which had gone wanting; and which did not normally pay the wages that car ownership required.
The gradually increasing costs of transportation (of which fuel in only one element), and the decline in middle and upper class taste for the suburban and rural lifestyle has resulted in the repudiation Le Corbusier’s ideas. Urban centers are now the most desirable real estate areas. Condominium living is being rediscovered as the preferred form of living in urban spaces from Nashville, TN and Columbus, IN to South Miami Beach, FL and Atlanta, GA. Most central business districts of cities now hum with residential activity after working hours, or are on the way to doing so.
Le Corbusier deliberately created a myth about himself and was revered in his lifetime, and after death, by a generation of followers who believed Le Corbusier was a prophet who could do no wrong. But in the 1950s the first doubts began to appear, notably in some essays by his greatest admirers such as James Stirling and Colin Rowe, who denounced as catastrophic his ideas on the city. Later critics revealed his technical incompetence as an architect, such as Brian Brace Taylor, whose book Armée du Salut went into great detail about Le Corbusier's Machiavellian activities to create this commission for himself, his many ill-judged design decisions about the building's technologies, and the sometimes absurd solutions he then proposed.