Finding the Space Within

I would have first heard the name Le Corbusier, when developing an interest in design in general in the early 80s, and it’s a name that has popped up many times since, with him being cited as one of the most important and influential architects, well, ever.

I suppose most who take an interest in such things, will associate him with the ‘cities in the sky’ an idea of urban living that was very popular with architects of the 1950s and ‘60s . Residents were housed in large accommodation blocks, with shops, health care, and entertainment venues all on the same complex. As we now know that idea has failed in the large majority of cases, but still his name is revered. As well as his fame in architecture circles, Le Corbusier – which roughly translated means ‘The crow like one’ a nickname he adopted in 1920, also in honour of his grandfather Lecorbésier – was a writer, an urban planner and a painter.

He was born in La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland in October 1887 and baptised Charles-Edouard Jeanneret Gris. He attended a Froebelian kindergarten, which emphasised the study of arts, crafts and nature along with singing and dancing as much as academic studies. It’s founder, Friedrich Frobel is also credited with influencing future modern architects such as Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus group, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller.

Despite a lack of formal training in architecture, his interest in the visual arts found him a place at the local art school and he then developed an interest in what would be his chosen field by the age of 16. A large part of what he learnt, was self-taught. He studied in libraries and museums and used his art skills to draw buildings and then construct them under the supervision of a teacher, Rene Chapallaz. His first real house was built in 1905. The success of which, led to two further commission locally

Two years later he began to travel. Budapest to Vienna at first, then Florence, and then Paris from 1908 to 1910, then to Germany in 1911. Along the way he met and worked with Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, who both later came to prominence within the Bauhaus design group. 1911 saw him in Serbia, Turkey, Greece and then Rome, all the while sketching and studying. Finally, back home in 1912 , he began design work on a new ambitious house for his parents and once again this led to further commissions, with one being for wealthy watch magnet George Favre-Jacot.

Le Corbusier took to teaching during World War 1 and also developed an interest in the use of reinforced concrete which would later come to play a huge part in his legacy. By 1917 he had moved to Paris, where he concentrated on his art, and moved in the social circles which included the likes of singer and dancer Josephine Baker and physicist Albert Einstein. The limelight that, that brought him, made him more media savvy and helped raise his personal profile. He became known for his trademark eyewear and, of course, his nickname

All of which helped, when he set up his own practice in 1922, with Cousin Pierre Jeanneret where they introduced, The Five Points of a Modern Architecture.’

1. Raised buildings – buildings constructed upon reinforced concrete pylons, allowing free(er) circulation at ground level.

2. Roof Terraces. A traditional sloped roof is replaced by a flat roof, on which a garden, or a swimming pool can be placed.

3. Free Plan. Steel or reinforced concrete columns instead of walls, resulting in the freeing up of interior spaces.

4. Ribbon Window. With no supporting walls, windows can be any size, resulting in more interior light.

5. Free Façade. Buildings can be more ‘open.’ No need for traditional frames on each structure. Buildings covered in glass (Think modern office skyscrapers)

He was also looking to construct on a grand urban scale and presented plans for Ville Contemporaine, a proposed city for 3 million people. Le Corbusier also declared ‘a house is a machine to live in. It is a cell within the body of a city. The cell is made up of the vital elements which are the mechanics of a house. ‘ Deep. These discussions began to open up the debate on how to deal with overcrowding in the poorer, working class areas. Much of this discussion would later lead to large housing developments around the world in years to come.

He took French citizenship in 1930 and continued to work worldwide for the next ten years with many radical and innovative ideas being incorporated in Moscow, Switzerland, New York, Rio de Janiero and Paris. As well as the buildings, he also designed the furniture to go within the buildings and had the walls decorated with his own murals.

His life was not without controversy however and during the Second World War, it is claimed he worked with the French Revolutionary Fascist Party and was anti -Semitic. ‘ I discovered he was simply an out-and-out fascist, writer Xavier de Jarcy told the Agencie France Presse, though these accusations were countered by friends and family.

Then the war ended. Le Corbusier was 60 and once again, he applied for commissions that returned to his town planning ideas of large urban developments. This time, with the need for new large scale housing projects, his timing couldn’t have been better.

Cite Radieuse in Marseilles consisted of 337 apartments housing 1,600 people, all within a reinforced concrete frame. Le Corbusier also designed carpets, and furniture with the residents able to select the colour scheme. The landing areas around the blocks were home to shops, restaurants and cafes and nurseries. At the time of completion, it was judged a success and Le Corbusier, lauded by the authorities was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1952 . Also, that year, work began on the United Nations building he had co- designed on the East River of New York. His architectural practice also designed and built in Chandigarh, capital of India’s Punjab state, with his cousin living on the complex to oversee its completion

Ironically, having spent a lifetime at the cutting edge of architectural progress, expanding his designs to maximum scale, he found his ideal home in the form of a cabanon – a spartan, one-roomed wooden hut on the Côte d’Azur, where he spent every summer from 1952 onwards. He designed it in 45 minutes and had it built by traditional carpenters in the manner of a fisherman’s hut. It contained the bare minimum needed for survival: a bed, a desk, a basin, and bookshelves.

‘It measures 1.9 x 4 metres, it’s made of old planks put together, and it suits me just fine.’ he said at the time. Photographs show him painting, eating at the local restaurant and working outside – basically living the Mediterranean dream in his later life.

Le Corbusier died aged 77 in 1965 after his daily swim at Cap Martin- Roquebrune. Over more recent years, many of the schemes that his Marseilles project inspired here in the UK a few years later, have subsequently failed, with many now demolished. In practice, it was one that hasn’t stood the test of time. His ‘cities in the sky’ left many communities living in them, simply isolated and forgotten.

The yang to that ying is that in the summer on 2016, seventeen projects by Le Corbusier in seven countries were inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

And so, his legacy continues.

The Mumper of SE5



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