Le Corbusier: Get to Know the Pioneer of Modern Architecture

Le Corbusier was a multi-talented modern architect. Discover what defined his architectural style.

Jul 13, 2023By Isabel Droge, MSc Arts and Culture, BA Art History

le corbusier pioneer modern architecture


Born under the name of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the architect eventually made history as Le Corbusier. It’s a name that now represents a man of many talents. Not only was Le Corbusier a pioneer of modern architecture, but he was also a designer, painter, urban planner, and writer. Let us explore who Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was before he became Le Corbusier, and how he developed into the great architect we know and love today. Dive into Le Corbusier’s brilliant mind and pioneering ideas.


Le Corbusier’s Early Life and Career 

lecorbusier in his apartment
Photograph of Le Corbusier in his apartment in Paris, 1959, via Magnum Photos


Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was born in 1887 in La Chaux-des-Fonds, Switzerland. La Chaux-des-Fonds is a small protestant town in the mountains of the Swiss Jura region known for watchmaking since the 18th century. Le Corbusier’s father was actually an enameller and engraver of watches himself. The job was passed on from fathers to sons for generations, so it was also passed on to Le Corbusier as well. Le Corbusier continued his primary education at the École des Arts Décoratifs (School of Decorative Arts). Besides learning enameling and engraving, the young Charles-Edouard learned about art history, drawing, and Art Nouveau aesthetics while there. He seemed to have had a good connection with his teacher, Charles L’Eplattenier, whom he later called his only teacher.


It was in fact Charles L’Eplattenier who first saw an architect in Le Corbusier. Something that granted the latter the opportunity to join the Cour Supérieur, a program of the school that allowed the best students to get acquainted with architecture and interior design. L’Eplattenier later made sure that the young Corbusier gained some practical experience in the architectural field.


In 1905 and 1906, when Le Corbusier was eighteen years old, he designed his first house called the Villa Fallet, together with the architect René Chapallaz. The Villa Fallet was the first of six villas in his hometown that he helped design. All of these were built in a regional style that was mixed with Art Nouveau characteristics. The style of this mountain chalet would later be referred to as the Le Style Sapin, or the Pine Tree style. The pattern covering the top wall of the Villa Fallet is one of the key elements of the Style Sapin.

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villa fallet corbusier
Photograph of the exterior of Villa Fallet, designed in 1905 by Le Corbusier and René Chapallaz, via J3L


Between 1907 and 1911, Le Corbusier traveled through several countries in central Europe and the Mediterranean. He visited France, Austria, Italy, Greece, and the Balkan Peninsula. These travels were in fact long study trips during which Le Corbusier also worked at a number of ateliers. In Vienna, for example, he worked at Josef Hoffmann’s atelier for a while. Hoffmann was one of the architects of the famous Vienna Secession group. By moving into the artistic circles of Vienna, Le Corbusier also met the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. His modernist ideas would leave a strong mark on Le Corbusier.


The works of Auguste Perret also influenced Le Corbusier’s ideas. After Le Corbusier worked at Perret’s engineering office, he came to think of reinforced concrete as the main material of the future. The new views on architecture that Le Corbusier gained during his time in Vienna and Paris were further developed when he ended up working at the atelier of the famous architect Peter Behrens in Neubabelsberg. Here, Le Corbusier worked closely with architects like Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.


maison blanche corbusier
Photograph of the exterior of the La Maison Blanche, via Maison Blanche


After returning home to La Chaux-des-Fonds in 1911, Le Corbusier designed his first house as an independent architect. The house is called the Maison Blanche, but it is also known as Villa Jeanneret-Perret. Working on this project, Le Corbusier broke with his former Style Sapin. Le Corbusier designed the Maison Blanche for his parents and he lived there himself for several years.  This time, there was no decoration on the exterior of the house. There was also a visible influence of the Mediterranean style of architecture seen in the use of windows and the openness of the interior.


Le Corbusier in Paris

le corbusier young paris
A photograph of the young Le Corbusier, circa 1920, via MIT Press


In 1916, a 29-year-old Le Corbusier decided to move to Paris. Le Corbusier, who had already developed modernist ideas about architecture and other forms of art, was the perfect candidate to join the avant-garde circles in the French capital. The painter and publicist Amédée Ozenfant introduced him to many avant-gardes artists. Among these were Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists. It was the beginning of an interesting and important phase in Le Corbusier’s career.


During this period Le Corbusier and Ozenfant came up with their theory of Purism. Purism can be seen as a later form of Cubism, which rejected the decorative tendency of earlier cubist art and strived for a return to clear and simple shapes. In 1918, the two men published a manifesto called Après le Cubisme (After Cubism), which explained the theory of Purism. In 1920, two years after the publication of their Manifesto, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant also founded L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit). This was a monthly magazine filled with avant-garde ideas which explored the direction of art. The magazine promoted a clear fight against older styles and the use of decoration, focusing on simplicity and functionalism in architecture.


esprit nouveau magazine
The complete overview of all 28 issues of L’Esprit Nouveau, published between 1920 and 1925, via Veredes


Apart from the fact that Le Corbusier developed as a writer during this phase, he also became a painter. At this time, Le Corbusier literally became known as Le Corbusier when he and Ozenfant decided to sign l’Esprit Nouveau with pseudonyms. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret chose to use the name of his grandmother Lécorbésier, which he then altered to Le Corbusier. He first signed his paintings as Jeanneret, but from the 1930s he continued using the name Le Corbusier.


Le Maison Citrohan

citrohan house le corbusier
A model of Le Maison Citrohan (Citrohan House) designed by Le Corbusier, 1920, via Les Couleurs


Le Corbusier designed Le Maison Citrohan in 1920 and subsequently exhibited a model of it at the Salon D’Automne in Paris in 1922. The Citrohan House was a great example of the five principles that according to Le Corbusier made architecture modern. The first principle was the use of pillars to support the structure and lift it off the ground. The second was the use of long windows which reflected the independence of the supporting structural frame. There was also the presence of a roof terrace that could be turned into a garden, the absence of ornaments on the façade, and an open floor plan.


The Citrohan House was designed by Le Corbusier to be both aesthetically pleasing and functional. The lightness and simplicity of both the exterior and interior were meant to be uplifting and calming. The house was made of concrete and other materials that could be mass-produced. Inside, one found two stories, with a kitchen and dining room on the first floor and bedrooms on the second floor. This way, the rooms with a similar purpose were found close to each other, while separating spaces dedicated to work and relaxation.


Villa Savoye

villa savoye le corbusier
A photograph of the Villa Savoye, designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, built between 1928 and 1931, vi Montse Zamorano


Villa Savoye was also built on the basis of Le Corbusier’s five principles of modern architecture.  In Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier also made use of pillars and an elevated first floor, long windows, and a rooftop space. Moreover, Villa Savoye is seen as a great example of the International style.


The International style represents the modernist style of architecture that arose after the First World War and spread over the world. Its most common characteristics are rectangular forms, the abundance of interior light, plane surfaces, the absence of decorations, open plans, and the use of materials like concrete and steel.


villa savoye interior le corbusier
A photograph of the interior of the Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, built between 1928 and 1931, via Archdaily


Le Corbusier was originally more interested in designing whole neighborhoods or buildings made for a large number of people. However, Villa Savoye was part of various individual commissions that Le Corbusier designed in the period before World War II. The house was designed for the Savoye family in Poissy, close to Paris. However, the family didn’t live in the villa for very long since the building was not fully adapted to its location and the slightly colder climate of Northern France. Humidity, cracks, and water leaks were apparently a real issue in Villa Savoye and the walls were not soundproof. The functionality that Le Corbusier strived for was therefore jeopardized. After the Savoye family left the villa in 1940, the building was used by both German soldiers and the Allies during the Second World War. In 1962, it was given to the French State and declared a public monument.


In 1928, around the time in which the Maison Citrohan was built, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) was founded. All of the twenty-eight founding members of the CIAM, Le Corbusier included, were modern architects. During the 1930s, Le Corbusier also started designing important buildings in Algiers, Argentina, Brazil, and North Africa.


Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier

unite d habitation le corbusier
Photograph of the exterior of the Unité d’Habitation designed by Le Corbusier, 1952, via Archdaily


Since the building sector was not active during the Second World War Le Corbusier mostly kept busy with painting, writing and reflecting. One of the results of this period was his concept of Modular principles that consisted of a scale of harmonic measures that set architectural elements in proportion to human stature. In 1950, Le Corbusier perfected Modular and from then on used it in designing all of his projects.


One of those is Unité d’Habitation, a building from 1952 that can be found in the French city of Marseille. Different from the private villas that Le Corbusier designed prior to the Second World War, the Unité d’Habitation was made for a community. The name, which translates as housing unit, also indicates this. For the Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier designed a total of eighteen floors according to the Modular principles.  The Unité d’Habitation consisted of apartments, shops, a school, a swimming pool, a nursery, a gym, and an open-air theatre. In other words, it was a city within a city. It is said that Unité d’Habitation is one of Le Corbusier’s most important works. It influenced Brutalist architecture because of its use of beton-brut, meaning raw concrete. Not only was this low-cost material very useful in Post-War Europe, it might have also reflected the rougher, unforgiving post-war atmosphere.


le corbusier unite d habitation
Model of the Unité d’Habitation apartments, via Archdaily


In the Unité d’Habitation Le Corbusier did not desert his main five principles. Once again, the building was slightly elevated by pillars, there was a rooftop, there were many windows, there was an absence of any ornaments, and there was an open floor plan inside the apartments. The duplex apartments inside of the Unité d’Habitation consisted of half-stories (entresols) with open or half-open spaces. The Modular principles were applied in order to create a perfectly sized living space.


Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut

chapelle notre dame du haut corbusier
A photo of the exterior of the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut, designed by Le Corbusier, 1955, via Tripadvisor


Le Corbusier also designed a church called Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut. Le Corbusier was invited to design the space which was supposed to replace the chapel that was destroyed during the war. The chapel does not have a rectangular structure like most of Le Corbusier’s designs, nor does it have big windows, pillars, a rooftop, or a light structure. In fact, the only thing that looks similar to his other building at the first glance is the use of concrete. However, when considering the purpose of the Notre-Dame du Haut, there is one more way in which Le Corbusier remains faithful to his modernist principles. After all, this was not a villa, nor an apartment block, but a Catholic Pilgrimage chapel. A place that is used for contemplation, prayer, silence, or choir singing.


notre dame du haut interior
A photo of the interior of the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut, designed by Le Corbusier, 1955, via Inexhibit


Considering this, it is not strange that Le Corbusier chose to design a solid structure with thick walls and smaller windows. One that would create a solid and slightly darker interior that would make visitors feel safe and calm. The separation from the outside world, which is created by the small windows, allows visitors to turn inward and reflect. Moreover, the use of thick walls undoubtedly gave this chapel a beautiful reverb, making sermons and music echo beautifully through the structure.

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By Isabel DrogeMSc Arts and Culture, BA Art HistoryIsabel is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a MSc in Arts and Culture Studies and a BA in Art History, both from the University of Amsterdam. Isabel’s biggest passion lies with European art from the fin de siècle period. Within this field, her main focuses have been the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, the decorative arts, as well as the reception of marginalized artists. Currently, she finds herself very interested in art from the early and mid-twentieth century. When Isabel is not busy writing, she loves traveling, photography, web design, and being in nature.