Friday, 31 May 2013


On Le Corbusier's first visit to New York, to open an exhibition of his architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1935, he was so enthralled by the skyscrapers - by the Empire State Building especially - that he told a friend: "I wanted to lie down on my back there on the sidewalk, and gaze towards the top forever.

Then in his late forties, Le Corbusier was in the vanguard of the "rads versus trads" battle in design: idolised by fellow radicals, and loathed by conservative "trads". This summer, nearly 50 years after his death, MoMA is to honour him with another, far larger exhibition, opening on 15 June, which should seal his reputation as the most influential architect of the modern age. 

Just as contemporary art would not be the same without Mr Marcel Duchamp, literature without Mr James Joyce, or fashion without Mr Yves Saint Laurent, our built environment - from houses and schools to towns and cities - would be very different if not for Le Corbusier. But why?

Like most other visionaries who revolutionised their fields, Le Corbusier was blessed not only with exceptional talent, but great timing. He began his career in the early 1900s when the availability of electricity, telephones, aeroplanes and cars was transforming millions of people's lives. Every aspect of society needed to be rethought, including architecture, a challenge that Le Corbusier relished. "The time is ripe for construction," he wrote, "not foolery." 


His first design project was himself. Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a sleepy Swiss watch-making town, he began his career there before moving to Paris in 1917. He promptly rechristened himself "Le Corbusier" by adopting his maternal grandfather's surname, and took to wearing the horn-rimmed glasses that became his trademark. Equally adept at moulding perceptions of his work, he tinkered with photographs of his buildings (often using his glasses as props) and wrote so prolifically that other architects were as familiar with his thinking as his appearance. His mediagenic successors, from Mr Rem Koolhaas to Ms Zaha Hadid, have since adopted similar strategies to cultivate equally distinctive identities. 

But Le Corbusier's true legacy is his architecture. During the 1920s, he pioneered the "machine aesthetic", or International Style, by applying newly developed materials and construction techniques, often discovered in other fields, such as the automotive and aerospace industries, to produce geometric, white-walled structures such as the elegant Villa Savoye and his other "purist villas" in and around Paris. 

From the late 1930s onwards, he began combining concrete with natural materials such as wood and stone to create a robust organic style of architecture dubbed "brutalism". These experiments culminated in post-war gems such as the Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp in eastern France and Chandigarh, the "City Beautiful" that he designed in northern India, whose majestic concrete buildings were surrounded by greenery. 

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