Modernism: Le Corbusier

Swiss-born Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), real name Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, is generally regarded as the single most influential figure in modern architecture. His designs and writings on the subject have formed the basis for most modern buildings ever since. Rejecting the decorative 19th century Arts and Crafts approach, he aimed to create buildings that were “machines for living in”; ones that reflected the new technological machine age of the mid-20th century.

Le Corbusier was influenced by Auguste Perret’s use of reinforced concrete as a building material, as well as Peter Behren’s views on the purity of form and function; that the building’s decoration was to be found in its shape not in superfluous and unnecessary additions. Behren’s interest in mass produced materials was also to influence le Corbusier. The fragmentation of space along with the break down of forms found in Cubist paintings was to be another influence, as well as the Purism movement, which moved even further than Cubism in its rejection of detail and its simplicity of form (everything was broken down into its simplest, geometric forms). Paintings of these movements reflected the modern machine age; something which Corbusier would seek to recreate in his building designs.

Le Corbusier's Domino House design, the model for the modernist house.

Le Corbusier’s Domino House design, the model for the modernist house.

In 1915 – 16, le Corbusier created the design for the Domino House as a scheme for mass produced housing. The simple box-like structure comprised of three rectangular slabs (the floors) with the bottom floor resting on six concrete blocks while the upper two slabs were supported by six slender columns (pilots) and the floors were connected by reinforced concrete stairs. Influenced by the cell proportions seen in the Carthusian monastery of Ema, le Corbusier had designed a simple frame for a house, one that could be easily replicated and extended as required. The supporting columns (which were to become a typical feature of his designs) eliminated the need for load-bearing walls and thus the interior was free plan, enabling the interior to be arranged as desired.

The Villa Savoye, an icon of modernist design.

The Villa Savoye, an icon of modernist design.

The Villa Savoye (1927 – 31) in Poissy exemplifies Corbusier’s Five Principles of Architecture, his design ideals that were first presented in 1926. It was constructed from concrete and plastered unit masonry and it adopted the Domino housing system. It was a shallow box-like structure raised above the ground “to get away from the dirt” by reinforced concrete pilotis (five along each side); the first of his five principles. In order to reclaim the garden space lost by the building itself, Corbusier believe houses should have flat roofs with rooftop gardens as a place for relaxation and exercise. With its frame built around the reinforced concrete columns, there was no need for load-bearing walls, thus granting the interior a free plan and demonstrating the third point. The fourth was to be found in the building’s ribbon windows, a feature common to industrial factories. These windows, along with the house’s form itself were to be its only decoration as the fifth principle dictated that the house should have a concrete façade, painted white and free from decoration. There was a truth to materials retained within the design. Corbusier never tried to disguise any or the materials or the building’s structure, indeed within each room you could look up and clearly see the beams crossing the space. Corbusier used machine made materials with precision and elegance, but the severe structure looks too harsh and unnatural against its countryside surroundings. Another interesting point to the house was that a car could drive around it, between the house itself and the pilotis and be parked in the subtle garage beneath. As with the name of the Citrohan house, this feature suggests the effect which the motor car, a paradigm of modern technology, had upon Le Corbusier.

His designs, seen as the beginning of modernism in architecture, have made a great influence upon almost all modern buildings and styles since. His works captured the essence of the modern world that was evolving around him through their purity of form and their functionalism. He has, however, been held to blame by some critics for the public housing projects (especially of the 1970s) that were influenced by his theories. They are seen as having the effect of isolating poorer communities in massive, detached high rises and breaking the ties essential to working community relations. Although Le Corbusier may have influenced these buildings, he can hardly be held responsible as his forays into social housing all worked due to their emphasis on community as well as his though-out proportion systems and the Unite d’Habitation (1947 – 52), for example, is still a highly sought-after place to live.

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About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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