Editorial Feature

Take A Tour of The Buildings of Modernist Architect Le Corbusier

Discover the pioneering architect's work and his impact on architecture  

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who became known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and one of the pioneers of what we now called modernist architecture. Le Corbusier’s career spanned five decades and he designed buildings in Europe, Japan, India and North and South America.

The architect completed his first building at age 18 and went on to dedicating his life to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. He was a founding member of the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and also came up with Les cinq points de l'architecture moderne (The Five Points of Modern Architecture) in 1925.

The principles were co-authored with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret and summarized lessons Le Corbusier had learned in previous years and then put into practice. The points included various features the architect felt each modern building should have, including buildings built on concrete pylons, flat roof terraces rather than sloping ones, open plan interiors with columns instead of load-bearing walls, ribbon windows to allow equal light in all rooms and a free facade, which encouraged the use of glass facades to keep the building light and open.

Modernist architecture emerged at the end of the 19th century from revolutions in technology, engineering and building materials, and from a desire to break away from historical architectural styles and to invent something that was purely functional and new. Le Corbusier championed this approach and in each project utilized the space and materials available to him to create buildings that he saw as a force for change.

Here we take a virtual tour of 12 of the architect’s most significant buildings and better understand the principles that drove him.

Le Corbusier standing on stage with notes in his hand and drawing on a sketch pad during a lecture (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection) 

1. Villa Jeanneret-Perret, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

The Villa Jeanneret-Perret was Le Corbusier’s first independent project and he was 25 at the time of completion. Built in 1912 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the architect’s hometown, it was designed for his parents. The building has been open to the public since 2005, and the house is under the patronage of the Swiss National Commission for UNESCO.

The Villa was designed in Le Corbusier's characteristic neo-classic style, which at the time broke with the regional Art Nouveau and was inspired by his experiences in Paris as a student of Auguste Perret and in Berlin with Peter Behrens.

2. Maison Guiette, Antwerp, Belgium

Maison Guiette also known as Les Peupliers, is a house in Antwerp, Belgium, which Le Corbusier designed in 1926 and built in 1927. It was the studio and living quarters of René Guiette, a painter and art critic. It's one of the architect's lesser-known works and is an early example of the International Style, which is strongly related to Modernism and is characterized by an emphasis on volume over mass, the use of lightweight mass-produced materials, flat surfaces and a rejection of ornament and color.

The building was Le Corbusier’s first commission outside of France and is a series called White Villas, which formed the basis of the architect's early career. As one of the first examples of Modernist architecture in the country, the house is considered particularly important to the evolution of the style in Belgium.

3. Villa Savoye, Poissy, France

The Villa Savoye came a few years after Le Corbusier’s Maison Guiette and is one of the most important buildings by the architect. The top-heavy building was created as a Modernist version of the French country house. Completed in 1931 it is one of the only houses in France to have been declared a national monument during the architect's lifetime.

Designed as a weekend holiday home for the Savoye family, it was created in collaboration with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who worked with Le Corbusier on a number of his most famous projects. The brief was left open and the architect took it as an opportunity to realize a house that expressed his Five Points of architecture. Villa Savoye is also an example of Le Corbusier’s belief in the home as a “machine for living in”, which is expressed through the planning of spaces arranged to maximize efficiency and a minimalistic aesthetic.

4. Unite d’habitation, Marseille, France

The Unité d'habitation is a Modernist residential housing design concept developed in collaboration with painter-architect Nadir Afonso. The concept formed the basis of several housing developments designed by Le Corbusier throughout Europe with this name.

The most famous of these developments is located in south Marseille (below) and was built between 1947 and 1952. It is one of the architect's most famous works and it has been cited as the initial inspiration of the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy that became popular during the 50s, 60s and 70s. The building is constructed in rough-cast concrete and comprises 337 apartments arranged over 12 floors, all suspended on large piloti (concrete stilts that lift a building above ground). As well as apartments the building also contains shops, a rooftop gallery, educational facilities, a hotel open to the public and a restaurant.

5. Curutchet house, La Plata, Argentina

The Curutchet House in La Plata, Argentina, is a building Le Corbusier was commissioned to design by Dr. Pedro Domingo Curutchet, a surgeon, in 1948. As well as a home, the building included a small medical office on the ground floor. The house consists of four main levels with a courtyard between the house and the clinic.

The house exemplifies the architect's Five Points of architecture and incorporates a ramp and a spiral staircase. The house is a landmark in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre in the way he rewrites cultural and historical characteristics of architecture (the elements of traditional Latin American courtyard houses) to fit in with his principles. Dr. Curutchet's house is also one of the very few buildings that Corbusier built attached to pre-existing buildings. With this house Corbusier proved, more than with any of his other projects, that modern architecture could in fact be in a harmonious dialogue with traditional architecture.

6. United Nations Secretariat Building, New York, USA

The United Nations Secretariat Building is a 154-metre tall skyscraper and the centerpiece of the headquarters of the United Nations, located in the Turtle Bay area of Manhattan, in New York City. Le Corbusier designed the building with Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and it was the first skyscraper in New York City to use a curtain wall – an outer covering of a building in which the outer walls are non-structural, utilized to keep the weather out and the occupants in, and can be made out of lightweight materials to reduce construction costs.

Built between 1947 and 1952, the Secretariat Building has 39 stories and is the most visible representation of post-war optimism on the site. It also embodies the merging of technology and modernist design with the slim north-south facing profiles and the crystalline facade.

7. Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France

Notre Dame du Haut is a Roman Cathloic chapel in Ronchamp, France. The building was created in 1954 and still remains one of the best examples of 20th-century religious architecture. While Le Corbusier was an atheist, he also had a strong belief in the ability of architecture to create a sacred and spiritual environment. After the project was complete, the architect wrote: “In building this chapel, I wanted to create a place of silence, of peace, of prayer, of interior joy. The feeling of the sacred animated our effort. Some things are sacred, others aren't, whether they're religious or not.”

The chapel’s structure is made mostly of concrete and its thick walls contain columns that support an upturned roof that looks like a sail blowing in the wind. The space left between the walls and roof, combined with clerestory windows (windows placed on a high section of wall above eye level) go on to solidify the relationship between the building and its natural surroundings.

8. La Tourette, Éveux, France

The Convent of La Tourette is Le Corbusier's final building completed in Europe, and is also thought by many to be his most unique. Constructed between 1956 and 1960, it was built to be a self-contained place for a community of silent monks. To accommodate the unique and specific lifestyle of the monks, the monastery is made of 100 individual cells, a communal library, a refectory, a rooftop cloister, a church, and classrooms.

The building contains many of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Modern Architecture, with the raised structure of the building, strip windows and the flat grass rooftops that create a promenade. From the outside, the exterior is fairly unassuming with the structure made out of reinforced concrete and glass covering three of the four exterior facades. The one request to the architect by Father Marie-Alain Couturier was that he "create a silent dwelling for one hundred bodies and one hundred hearts."

9. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan

The National Museum of Western Art was completed in 1959 and aimed to act as a symbol of diplomatic ties between Japan and France after World War II. This was Le Corbusier’s only project in the Far East and critics commended the building as being just as beautiful as the work that was on display inside.

The museum was initially built to house the collection of works gathered by the industrialist Matsukata Kojiro between 1920 and 1923. Le Corbusier asked that his 3 Japanese apprentices were responsible for developing the detail drawings and supervising the construction. The main building is square and raised on piloti to first floor level. The entrance is double height and is lit from above by a glazed pyramidal skylight intersected with reinforced concrete beams. Externally the museum is clad in prefabricated concrete panels which sit on U-shaped frames.

10. Carpenter Center, Massachusetts, USA

Completed in 1963, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts was one of his only projects in the United States. Located on Harvard University’s campus the center was designed in conjunction with Chilean architect Guillermo Jullian de la Fuentes and Josep Lluis Sert, the Dean of Harvard’s GSD at the time. Corbusier highlights an architectural promenade running through the center of the building that connects the interior studios, galleries, and screening rooms to the public spaces within the building, as well as to the campus.

The Modernist Carpenter Center stands out among the traditional architecture of the university and was built to house large open studio spaces for students to work and showcase their art. The building also holds the largest collection of 35mm films in the New England region often holding screenings of independent, international and silent films. For Corbusier, the Carpenter Center was meant to be the synthesis of the arts where architecture would join with painting, sculpture, photography, and film.

11. Saint-Pierre, Firminy, France

Saint-Pierre is a concrete building in the commune of Firminy, France. It was one of the last major works of the architect, and it was completed in 2006, 41 years after his death. Designed to be a church, the building has since been used for many different purposes including a secondary school, a shelter and now a cultural venue.

The building stands in Firminy, an old mining and industrial town and to celebrate the workers who produced the goods made in the area, Le Corbusier used local concrete throughout the building. The architect wanted to create a setting that established a place for spiritual enrichment on a modest scale and said the space must be “vast so that the heart may feel at ease, and high so that prayer may breathe in it”. Using geometry, the building has a square base that projects upwards to a circle and the constellation-like windows combined with the angle of the roof towards the sun, allows natural light to trickle into the space like stars.

12. Pavillon Le Corbusier, Zürich, Switzerland

The Pavillon Le Corbusier was the last building designed by Le Corbusier before his death in 1965 and it was finished in 1967. Using concrete and stone, framed in steel and glass, this building in particular acted as a signpost for the future and a culmination of the architect’s work. As well as making use of prefabricated steel, Le Corbusier combined this material with multi-colored enamel plates that were fitted to the centre core. Along with this, the architect designed a parasol-like roof to keep the house protected from the elements and added a sense of fun.

Le Corbusier was commissioned by Hedi Weber in 1960 to design the building and she asked the architect to create her a home to live in as well as a space to house the works of Le Corbusier himself. The building was seen as a complete work of art with the architect designing a building for the sake of his own art. The Zurich-based building is now a fully functioning museum, and though undergoing refurbishment is set to re-open in 2019.

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