Le Corbusier famously exclaimed “the house is a machine for living in.” With those few words he epitomized the utopian dream of the Modernists. He meant a house should be contemporary, efficient, economical, and above all work for the owner. Though he was first and foremost an architect his energy spilled over into the areas of writing, urban planning, painting and (most notably) furniture design.
The Purism and Modulor (see below) movements are also attributed to Le Corbusier who rejected the decorative elements of Cubism and instead favored a return to more basic forms, mostly inspired by modern machinery. Le Corbusier believed that design should incorporate industry and as an example praised the virtues of the grain silo. In an era that was defined by Art Nouveau, his views were initially suspect.
Le Corbusier was born in Switzerland and didn’t become a French citizen until he was forty-three. At eighteen he had received his first commission as an architect to build La Chaux-de- Fonds in Paris for which he used his real name. The moniker ‘Le Corbusier’ didn’t come until the 1920’s. It’s believed he adapted the name of his grandfather. In 1910-11 he traveled to Germany and met the members of the Deutscher Werkbund which was an association of architects, artists, industrialists and designers led by Mies van der Rohe who was the Architectural Director. He then spent a few years working for Peter Behrens the most renowned and progressive architect in Germany at the time.
Upon his return to France, he often worked with his cousin the Swiss architect, Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967). In 1925 the two convinced the organizers of the Paris Exposition des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes to grant them an exhibition site. He named his pavilion L’Esprit Nouveau after his journal of the same name in which he often espoused his theories on everything from form to urban planning.
In 1928, he, along with his cousin Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) began designing furniture. They developed the Gran Confort range of furniture and the B306 Chaise. It was the beginning of a long and successful relationship.
According to Le Corbusier "Chairs are architecture, sofas are bourgeois,” as evidenced by his sculptural design of the two chairs at right: the B306 Chaise Lounge (1928).
In 1929, Le Corbusier completed what is considered by many to be his seminal work, Villa Savoye. A country retreat that played with space like a kitten with a mouse, pushing, pulling, leading and teasing. It, like most of his future work, was largely based on the concept he had for Domino House which depicted an open floor plan constructed on concrete slabs and pillions.
He and artist Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966) also an ardent believer in Purism, wrote a book entitled, The Foundations of Modern Art (1925) that espoused their theories and guided his hand in all future designs which usually consisted of geometric forms and included wide expanses of pure color.
Along with Purism, Le Corbusier believed in the “Modulor.” A system based on the golden ratio, fibonacci numbers, and human proportions for finding perfect proportions in design work. He, in fact published two books his theory, Le Modulor (1948) followed by Modulor (1955). Above is a diagram that depicting perfect proportions according to Le Corbusier.
Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau
Following his Puristic beliefs he left the walls bare and used bold geometric lines to delineate the structure. He said his aim was “to deny decorative art, and to affirm that architecture extends to even the most humble piece of furniture, to the streets, to the city, and to all,” which horrified the judges and the public and set off heated debates about the merits of modernism.
He filled the house with geometrically formed furniture, bentwood chairs by Michael Thonet (1796-1871),and a painting by Juan Gris (1887-1927) but realized the incongruity of filling this modern house with objects that weren’t state of the art and shortly thereafter began designing furniture.
The Coup de Grace was his ‘Plan Voisin de Paris’ which he boldly laid on a pedestal under a glass dome. It was the embodiment of his idea for a “Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants,” which outlined his vision for Paris. It consisted of stacked high-rise cells of offices and homes, stores, & public transportation hubs (even an airport) that was meant to alleviate the acute housing shortage following WWI.
He proposed that they tear down several arrondissements and in order to make room for his blocks of his ‘cellule’ on a grand scale (see above). His audacity outraged the judges and was a huge scandal. From that point on, he never lacked for another commissions
The Five Points of The Villa Savoye
The Villa Savoye is largely considered Le Corbusier’s most important structure. It incorporates his ‘five points’ which are as follows:
1. Supporting columns at ground level to elevate the building and allow the illusion of continuous flow of grounds.
2. Flat roof that also cradled a roof garden, replacing what what taken by the footprint of the building.
3. Horizontal windows to provide natural light and ventilation
4. Elimination of load-bearing walls enabling inhabitants through the use of partitions to enclose or expand the interior spaces as they see fit.
5. Freely-designed facade, without the constraints of load-bearing walls.
Le Corbusier’s interior was as dynamic as his exterior. He played with space by adding inviting curves, intriguing ramps and plenty of windows the allowed a playful ‘peek-a-boo’ effect.
All views from within the house were framed so that the exterior became an ever changing, living form of art that actually felt as if it were incorporated into the interior. It was the embodiment of his “design for living” or “the house as machine” theory. It had all sorts of mechanical devices meant to ease the occupant’s life such as cranks to open windows and doors & walls that slid easily out of the way.
Controversial & Influential
As one of our most influential architects he is not without controversy. There is no doubt that he blazed new territory with his buildings and furniture, however as an urban planner he never received the same acclaim and in fact was often scorned. One thing is clear though, our world and homes would be lacking without him.
Article by Anne Alexander Sieder all rights reserved. For hardcore interior design fans, check out my blog www.prettyhaus.com.
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