With bold and heroically big ideas, Le Corbusier was an architect, furniture design, interior designer and artist who created a brave new language for design.
The Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 was one of the most significant design events of the interwar years. It signalled the arrival of a new style – Art Deco – and the celebration of what was heralded as a new era of modernity. Its exhibitors showed furniture, wallpapers, fabrics, carpets and complete interiors but, though boldly geometric, much of what was displayed was still ‘decorative’ in the traditional sense.
There was, however, one startling exception: Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau was speaking an entirely different language. Looking at photos of its interiors today, 80 years on, it is extraordinary how ‘modern’ it still looks. All strict horizontal and vertical planes and lines, modular furniture, plain wall surfaces, large abstract paintings. The only concessions to curviness are the Thonet bentwood chairs that appear in many of Le Corbusier’s interiors. ‘Modern decorative art is not decorated’, declared Le Corbusier that same year in his manifesto-like ‘L’Art décorative d’aujourd’hui’. ‘Why should chairs, bottles, baskets, shoes, which are all objects of utility, be called decorative art?’. Furniture was ‘equipment for living’, functional, mass-producable, appropriate to its architecture and above all, expressive of the new modern spirit. When, three years later, Le Corbusier completed the now iconic range of tubular steel furniture with Charlotte Perriand and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, he gave form to this new design philosophy. The chaise longue from this series, elegant and luxurious yet reduced to the barest structural fundamentals, is now one of the most revered 20th century furniture classics.
While Le Corbusier practised furniture and interior design as well as painting and sculpture – his ‘synthesis of the arts’ – he was first and foremost an architect. And if metal was part of his new furniture vocabulary, then reinforced concrete was the material that allowed him to shed the legacy of the past and develop a new language in architecture.
Although his mature practice was in Paris Le Corbusier was in fact born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in the mountainous Jura region of Switzerland. From a family of watchface enamellers, he attended art school and then studied architecture for two years. Travels in Europe between 1907 and 1910 included brief work with Josef Hoffmann in Vienna and Peter Behrens in Germany, but it was the 14 months spent in the office of the Perret brothers in Paris – France’s pioneers of the new possibilities of reinforced concrete – that were crucial to the subsequent direction of his architecture.
The decade of the 1920s was perhaps the architect’s most productive. By the early 1920s he was writing prolifically on architectural matters and in 1923 published ‘Vers une architecture’, a tract that was published as Towards a new architecture in England in 1927 and was to help to spread
his reputation internationally. His central thesis, that architects must respond to the social, economic and technological changes of the era, became a catch cry of modernism. The 20 or so villas Le Corbusier designed during this period included the Villa Savoye, a cubist essay in concrete and glass that is today a national monument. Workers’ housing, designs for the Deutscher Werkbund’s Weissenhof housing project in 1927, furniture design, writing, lecturing, even automobile design, consumed his prodigious drive and energy before WWII.
Ironically it was as a result of the war that Le Corbusier received two of his most important commissions: the ‘Unité d’habitation’ apartment block in Marseilles and the redesign of the chapel at Ronchamp, destroyed during the war. While the Marseilles mass-housing project presented a unique opportunity for the application of innovatory social and design ideas, Ronchamp added a new spiritual and expressive dimension to Le Corbusier’s oeuvre. Intended as a place for religious pilgrimage, Ronchamp’s unprecedented flowing concrete form is today also something of a shrine for architectural pilgrims.
Despite his influential rhetoric about modern materials and the importance of community, Le Corbusier’s favourite place was a modest log cabin retreat, the ‘Cabonon’, that he built for himself and his wife Yvonne on the Mediterranean coast at Cap Martin in 1952. A source of solace, reflection and regeneration it was here that the architect who helped redefine the direction of 20th century architecture died in July 1965.