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Published on June 8th, 2010 | by Yellow Magpie

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Le Corbusier: The Man Who Tried To Destroy Paris

He was a man at the heart of modernist architecture. He led the charge to build functional, modern buildings. If he had gotten his way he would have gutted the centre of Paris and turned it into an eyesore.

The man who called himself, Le Corbusier, was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century but some would prefer if he never built anything.

Functional Modernism

Le Corbusier was a great believer in functional modernism. He disliked decadent, opulent buildings and he despised ornate design. Le Corbusier turned away from architecture and focused his gaze on the industrial world and in particular, on the machine.

Le Corbusier lived in an age that was enthralled by technology. Instead of machines being a means to an end, they were fetishised and turned into abstract pillars of magnificence. To some they embodied the pinnacle of human evolution, the pinnacle of humanity.

Architecture For The Machine Age

So, what is a machine without a function? An obsolete junket. Buildings had to follow suit. Le Corbusier fully embraced functionalism as being necessary for the betterment of mankind. Buildings should be designed, not according to beauty, but by strict, rigid principles.

Le Corbusier’s architecture, employing the Modulor system, descended into mathematical weirdness.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Utilising the proportions of certain parts of the human body, and Fibonacci numbers, ultimately Le Corbusier was trying to distinguish his work by giving it mathematical credence. Although perhaps this only succeeded in highlighting his insecurities.

By veering towards the mathematical, Le Corbusier could deny that his choice of architecture was really down to his personal taste.

A Functional Problem

One of the biggest problems with functionalism being employed in architecture is the complexity of buildings and of course people. Buildings certainly do have functions but these functions are much more complex than just providing a shelter for protection against the elements.

The psychological effects of buildings must also be taken into account. How a building makes you feel is one of the most important elements in architecture. This was something Le Corbusier either failed to take into account or disregarded.

Le Pont Des Arts De Paris

Le Corbusier had incredibly ambitious plans for Paris. Wanting to demolish the centre of Paris, he envisaged constructing huge sixty-story towers from an earlier design project, the Contemporary City (Ville Contemporaine). He dubbed this his ‘Plan Voisin’. Luckily for the Parisians, these plans were rejected.

The Villa Savoye

The Villa Savoye was one of Le Corbusier’s first forays into functionalist architecture.

The Villa Savoye was a mixture of crisp white concrete and shinning glass. Although Le Corbusier claimed that it was completely functional this was not strictly true. The design had a strong aesthetic aspect which was accentuated by the flat roof.

Villa Savoye

Although Le Corbusier maintained that a flat roof was functional it turned out to be anything but. The roof was a disaster for the owners. Constantly leaking and in need of repair, the family living in it were at their wit’s end and eventually brought the matter before the court only for World War Two to intervene.

A Damaging Legacy

The biggest problem with Corbusier’s architecture was that it failed to take into account human psychology. The buildings just simply didn’t work. Instead of inspiring people and making them feel good, Le Corbusier’s architecture had the opposite effort. It tore at the human spirit and filled people with depression and melancholy.

This was compounded by the fact that Le Corbusier had an enormous affect on the world of architecture. He inspired many disciples to take his designs on-board and many places were subjected to his style of modernist architecture.

Le Plan Voisin

Corbusier’s Influence On Parisian Suburbs

Although the centre of Paris was left unscathed after Le Corbusier’s ‘Plan Voisin’ was rejected, some architects, heavily influenced by the architect, took his ideas to the suburbs of Bobigny, Paris.

There, huge impersonal towers were constructed to house some of the poorer inhabitants of Paris.

Bobigny Towers

East Berlin: A Perfect Fit

In Europe, one of the most recognisable cities to embrace Le Corbusier’s principles was East Berlin.

The cold, perfectly symmetrical and undecorated buildings were a good match for Communism. The structures seemed to praise the collective and denounce the individual, ideas that are at the heart of Communism.

East Germany is full of such buildings, structures steeped in banality and designed to inhibit individual freedom.

East Berlin 1963 Photo By Roger Wollstadt

Modernism In London

The architecture of London is a hotchpotch mix of Classical, Victorian, Edwardian, Modernism and Postmodern architecture.

However, some of the most dispiriting buildings owe their influence to Le Corbusier. Perhaps the reason why this style was adopted was due to religious ideology and the Protestant tradition of disregarding aesthetic influences particularly in this religion’s austere churches.

Whatever the true reason, Le Corbusier has certainly left an influence on one of the largest cities in the world.

Modernist Architecture In London Photo By Stephen McKay

Ireland’s Modernist Colleges

Ireland too, has not escaped the modernist tendencies that Le Corbusier inspired. Perhaps no where is this more evident than in learning institutions, the universities.

University College Dublin’s appearance is dominated by drab, soulless, ‘functional’ concrete. UCD is described by many as one of the most depressing places to attend college. When trying to understand the reason why this is so, it is hard to look past the architecture as one of the main culprits.

University College Dublin Photo By Joseph Mischyshyn

Though not as dominated by modernist influences, National University of Ireland, Galway, has its fair share of Le Corbusier-inspired architecture. Two towers stride high above the concourse emitting a strange ominous feeling of foreboding. Likewise, the John Hardiman Library is a monument to Le Corbusier’s ideas. Full of symmetry and plain, undecorated concrete, it is the polar opposite of the Magnificent Library of Congress in Washington.

James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway

The Longer Lasting Effects Of Le Corbusier

Without question, Le Corbusier challenged the norms that existed in architecture. Functionalism became part and parcel of architects’ vocabulary.

Apart, from the buildings that are directly influenced by Le Corbusier, something altogether unexpected also materialised, something that the Swiss architect never planned.

Modernism caused a retreat from contemporary architecture. Frightened by the alienating aspects of functionalism, people embraced nostalgia and the pastiche was born.

U.S. Library Of Congress Reading Room Photo By Carol McKinney Highsmith

Even to this day, many people live in ‘rustic’ houses, modern houses that pretend they are much older. This rustic look represents an externalised fear of the modern world. A fear of technology and more importantly a fear of change. In many countries people are still hesitant to embrace contemporary architecture and live in an age that is reflective of contemporary design. Le Corbusier played a significant part in this current trend.

However, on the positive side, Le Corbusier did contribute enormously to rekindling the dialogue surrounding architecture and what it means to us. In doing so, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Milestones In The Life Of Corbusier

  • Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in 1887.
  • Changed his name to Le Corbusier in 1920.
  • 1922 saw him produce his design, Contemporary City (Ville Contemporaine)
  • Le Corbusier started to design furniture in 1928.
  • In 1935 he followed up Contemporary City with Radiant City (La Ville radieuse)
  • He died at the age of 77 in 1965 after taking a swim in the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.


Recommended Amazon Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s Le Corbusier Quotes: A Functionalist Modernist’s Thoughts

The philosopher Alain de Botton’s book The Architecture Of Happiness explores the theme of architecture and mood in an enjoyable and well-written manner.

Amazon.co.uk
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access The Architecture Of Happiness here.

Amazon.ca
For those living in Canada you can obtain The Architecture Of Happiness from here.

Amazon.de
For Germany: The Architecture Of Happiness.

Amazon.fr
For France: The Architecture Of Happiness.


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4 Responses to Le Corbusier: The Man Who Tried To Destroy Paris

  1. Pingback: Le Corbusier Quotes: A Functionalist Modernist’s Thoughts

  2. Adjoa says:

    This is a great article. Lots of useful information. Thank you!

  3. Yellow Magpie says:

    Thanks for your comment, Adjoa.

  4. Pingback: Graphene: The Vanguard For A Technological Revolution

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