Le Corbusier: Biography, Works, Awards

Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, was a revolutionary architect and a pioneer of modern architecture. His education in decorative arts and engraving in Switzerland was followed by apprenticeships under modernist architects like Auguste Perret and Peter Behrens during extensive travels across Europe. Settling in Paris in 1917, he opened his studio and adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920, becoming a key figure in modernist architecture with his designs and theories influencing structures worldwide. Le Corbusier epitomized the International Style of modernist architecture, characfaterized by geometric forms, open spaces, large windows, flat roofs, and minimal ornamentation.  Among Le Corbusier’s most significant achievements was his role in establishing modern architecture as a dominant design philosophy. He propagated modernism’s principles through his buildings, writings, and involvement with organizations like CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture). His theories and designs, particularly those exemplifying his “Five Points,” became foundational for 20th-century architecture. Key works by Le Corbusier include Villa Savoye, showcasing his Five Points; the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, a model for modernist mass housing; and the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, exemplifying his later, more sculptural style.  Le Corbusier’s contributions to architecture ranged from theoretical frameworks to practical applications in various building types. Le Corbusier’s diverse architectural portfolio includes houses, apartment buildings, urban plans, civic buildings, churches, furniture, and even paintings and tapestries. His work demonstrates a commitment to modernist principles across various scales and forms, from residential to urban planning, and highlights his multifaceted approach to design. Educated primarily through apprenticeships and self-directed study, Le Corbusier needed to follow a conventional architectural education path. Le Corbusier, in turn, mentored and influenced many architects, including Oscar Niemeyer and Balkrishna Doshi, who expanded upon his ideas in different contexts.

"space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep. " le corbusier
“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” Le Corbusier

Who is Le Corbusier?

Le Corbusier was a highly influential Swiss-born French architect who was one of the pioneers of modern architecture in the early 20th century. His given name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, and he was born in 1887 in the small industrial town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. He studied decorative arts and engraving in his hometown before traveling across Europe from 1907 to 1911, apprenticing to several pioneering modernist architects like Auguste Perret and Peter Behrens. These travels were formative in shaping Le Corbusier’s approach to architecture. In 1917, he settled in Paris and opened his studio. In Paris, he adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920 as he began to publish his ideas. Over his five-year career, Le Corbusier designed significant buildings in Europe, India, and North and South America. He was hugely influential in spreading the aesthetics and philosophies of the modernist architecture movement globally. He authored numerous influential books including Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme) (1930), The Athens Charter (La Charte d’Athènes) (1943), and The Modulor (1948) which proposed an anthropometric scale of architectural proportions.

What type of architecture is Le Corbusier representing?

Le Corbusier was one of the most influential representatives of the architectural style known as the International Style or modernist architecture. His designs embodied the characteristic features of the International Style, including geometric forms, open interior spaces, large windows, flat roofs, and an absence of ornamentation. His belief that “a house is a machine for living in” underpinned his architectural philosophy – buildings should be practical machines serving their inhabitants’ needs, not overly decorative monuments. He wanted architecture to reflect and embrace technological progress, not be mired in historical styles. This functionalist ethos meant strict adherence to designing structures where form follows function – open floor plans, large windows, flat roofs, and the abolition of ornament were all manifestations of this. 

Le Corbusier promoted key modernist ideas in his Five Points of Architecture treatise and iconic buildings like Villa Savoye and Unité d’Habitation. These included supporting structures on pilotis, incorporating roof gardens and free ground plan designs, utilizing horizontal strip windows, and emphasizing free façade designs. He skillfully combined modern construction methods like concrete, steel, and glass with an avant-garde, machine-inspired aesthetic. 

The photo of pablo picasso and le corbusier at the site of unité d'habitation in marseille captures a significant moment between two titans of 20th-century art and architecture. Le corbusier, a pioneering modernist architect, designed the unité d'habitation as a groundbreaking residential complex that embodied his ideas of functional living spaces and urban planning. Completed in 1952, this structure aimed to provide a self-contained community with shops, a school, and recreational facilities, all within a single building. Pablo picasso, a master of modern art known for his innovative and influential works, likely visited the site to observe le corbusier's radical approach to housing and urbanism. The photo serves as a testament to the collaborative spirit and shared visionary ideals of two creative geniuses. © flc adagp
Picasso and Le Corbusier at Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation, a revolutionary residential complex designed by Le Corbusier to integrate functional living spaces with communal amenities. This photo captures a meeting of two 20th-century creative giants. © FLC ADAGP

What is Le Corbusier’s great accomplishment?

One of Le Corbusier’s greatest accomplishments was helping establish modern architecture as a significant new design philosophy and aesthetic worldwide. Through his buildings, writings like Vers une Architecture, and efforts with organizations like CIAM, Le Corbusier forcefully promoted modernism’s tenets of functionalism, rejection of ornament, open plans, and industrial construction. His sleek, geometric buildings and urban plans embodied the machine age and efficiency for many. Le Corbusier transformed modernism from a minority viewpoint into the dominant architectural style of the 20th century. He demonstrated modern architecture’s adaptability to many building types and locations alongside other pioneers. Le Corbusier’s accomplishments lay in theorizing the ideas of the contemporary movement, codifying them in his Five Points, and then convincingly demonstrating them in practice in villas, apartments, and civic structures. His interwar buildings and later more sculptural concrete forms created icons of modernist architecture.

What is Le Corbusier’s most important work?

Le Corbusier’s most important work is The Villa Savoye, an iconic private weekend residence that Le Corbusier designed in Poissy, France. Its pure white rectangular form raised on pilotis represented the synthesis of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture. The Unité d’Habitation in Marseille was an influential model for modernist mass housing. This 12-story apartment block for 337 households contained modular apartments with double-height living rooms. The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut (1950-1955) in Ronchamp, France, departed from Le Corbusier’s usual modernist style. These three buildings highlighted Le Corbusier’s ability to synthesize theory and design across different programs, from private houses to civic institutions.

1. Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye is an iconic and influential building designed and constructed by Le Corbusier between 1928 and 1931. The Savoye family commissioned the private weekend residence in Poissy, a suburb northwest of Paris, France. Villa Savoye represents the synthesis of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, which he had elucidated in 1923, including pilotis, strip windows, free facade, free plan, and rooftop terrace. The three-story villa consists of reinforced concrete columns and floors with steel infrastructure, while the exterior facade is plaster. Villa Savoye is renowned for its rectangular, pristine white form hovering over the landscape due to its pilotis and contrasting ribbon windows. The open-planned interiors exhibit his ideal, with freely positioned walls and ramps connecting the levels. The building embodied Le Corbusier’s vision for functional modern living, creating a machine designed for habitation. Villa Savoye’s synthesis of his theoretical principles in a pure, unornamented form made it an influential prototype for 20th-century residential design.

2. The Unité d’Habitation

The Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, built from 1947 to 1952, is another highly influential Le Corbusier building. This 12-story housing structure contains 337 apartments in 23 configurations, interior streets, and a rooftop terrace. The Unité d’Habitation exemplified Le Corbusier’s communal-living urban housing blocks, seen in his Radiant City scheme. The monumental building’s raw, unfinished concrete has massive sculptural forms, including its wave-like south facade. Apartments have open plans and double-height living rooms with modular furniture designed by Le Corbusier. As an influential model for modernist mass housing, the Unité inspired similar “cities within cities” worldwide. More Unités were built to his design in other French cities.

3. The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, located in Ronchamp, eastern France, is a Roman Catholic chapel designed by Le Corbusier and constructed between 1950 and 1955. It is situated on a hilltop site overlooking the countryside. The chapel replaces a previous sanctuary that was destroyed during World War II. Le Corbusier’s design departs dramatically from his usual modernist style, creating a unique expressionist sculptural form utilizing concrete and stone. The roof varies from 12 inches at its edges to over 6 feet thick at the crown. Interior walls built of local rubble stone have irregular wave-like contours contrasting with the geometric rigidity of Le Corbusier’s earlier works. Small windows puncture the walls in eclectic shapes and sizes, letting in shards of colored light. There are both narrow vertical windows and more organic curved forms. The eastern border features a floor-to-ceiling glazed wall framing the altar and looking out onto the landscape. The single-nave chapel has a very dim cave-like interior focused on the connection of light to the altar. 

How did Le Corbusier contribute to architecture?

Le Corbusier made significant contributions to modern architecture’s theory, aesthetics, and practice in the early to mid-20th century. He articulated vital philosophical principles of the movement, like the house as “a machine for living,” through his writings, which acted as manifestos. His spare, geometric, concrete buildings perfectly embodied modernist design principles and created prototypes for many types like apartments, villas, and civic buildings. Le Corbusier brought an intellectual rigor and avant-garde spirit to architecture. He demonstrated new ways to design with industrial materials like concrete. His contributions include urban planning schemes like the Radiant City, even if their impact was mixed. Le Corbusier showed the creative possibilities of modernism across all scales, from furniture to urban plans. 

Did Le Corbusier change the architecture industry?

Yes, there is no doubt Le Corbusier changed the architecture industry and practice. His ideas diverged from traditional methods of ornamental Beaux-Arts architecture famous at the time, which emphasized visual richness, symbolic forms, and reference. In contrast, Le Corbusier advocated for a transformative “machine age” aesthetic valuing reinforced concrete, large windows, open floor plans, and exterior forms expressive of interior functions. He conceived houses as “machines for living,” where design choices served residents’ needs rather than abstract visual concerns.  By building iconic projects like Villa Savoye and demonstrating modernism’s potential, Le Corbusier shifted architecture toward embracing new industrial materials and functional concepts. His prolific writings further spread these then-radical ideas. Over time, the rational, efficient approach Le Corbusier championed became a dominant building style. His functionalist principles profoundly reshaped architectural education and practice. Designers across the globe internalized concepts like “the house as a machine,” while students learned to prioritize utility and construction advances over visual references to the past. Even today, Le Corbusier’s quest to create an optimized, machine-like architecture focused on inhabitants’ needs continues to influence building.


Was Le Corbusier ever controversial in any way?

Yes, Le Corbusier was controversial, particularly for his writings on urban planning and politics. His proposals for cities like the Plan Voisin to raze old neighborhoods and replace them with towers and highways were seen by many as implausible and destructive of the urban fabric. Critics saw his urban schemes as anti-humanist and authoritarian. Politically, Le Corbusier’s ties to the Vichy regime in World War II France have been condemned as sympathizing with fascism, though he broke with the government in 1942. A visionary architect whose buildings were often humanist, Le Corbusier’s urban planning concepts and dubious political stances were more contentious aspects of his legacy. However, he remains better known for helping shape modern architecture through his groundbreaking projects and books.

Who are the most famous architects in modern history besides Le Corbusier?

Besides Le Corbusier, the most famous architects in modern history are Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry. First, Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect considered one of the greatest and most influential of the 20th century. Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Wright pioneered the Prairie School style, emphasizing horizontal lines and landscape integration. His critical works, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum, displayed an organic form of modernism that contrasted with the orthodox International Style. He designed over 1,000 structures and completed over 500 works. Second, Zaha Hadid was an Iraqi-British architect known for her radical deconstructivist designs. Born in Baghdad in 1950, she studied at the Architectural Association in London. Hadid’s provocative theoretical projects in the 1980s, like the Peak in Hong Kong, pioneered fragmentary, distorted forms that contrasted with modernism’s purism. Built works like the MAXXI Museum in Rome and the London Aquatics Centre featured fluid parametric curves and shapes. Third, Frank Gehry is a Canadian-American architect renowned for his sculptural postmodern buildings clad in undulating metal skins. Born in Canada in 1929, he studied at the University of Southern California. Other prominent projects include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry’s crumpled forms created a new architectural direction focused on movement and theatrics. He won the Pritzker Prize in 1989 for his imaginative structures challenging modernist orthodoxy.

What did Le Corbusier mainly design?

These are designs Le Corbusier did:

  • Houses/Villas: Le Corbusier was a prominent architect who designed several influential private residences early in his career. Among these, the Villa Savoye, Villa La Roche-Jeanneret, and Villa Stein helped demonstrate his “Five Points of Architecture” in elegant white cubic forms. These houses/villas are considered architectural masterpieces by many and showcase Le Corbusier’s unique style, characterized by a combination of modernist design and functionality.
  • Apartment Buildings: Le Corbusier created innovative modernist designs for multi-family housing, beginning with his housing schemes of the 1920s and culminating in buildings like the Unité d’Habitation. His ideas profoundly influenced mass residential architecture. He believed that apartment buildings should cater to the needs of the residents and should offer them a better quality of life. These buildings were designed to be spacious, with plenty of natural light and ventilation, and featured common areas such as gardens, playgrounds, and community centers.
Unité d'habitation - photo by gili merin © gili merin
Unité d’Habitation – Photo by Gili Merin © Gili Merin
  • Urban Plans: Le Corbusier was very interested in urban planning and designed numerous unbuilt schemes for cities, including his “Radiant City” vision of towers in a park setting connected by highways. These plans were romantic and provocative, aimed at creating a more efficient and livable city. He believed that cities should be designed to cater to the needs of their residents, with ample green spaces, good transportation networks, and efficient infrastructure.
  • Civic Buildings: Le Corbusier designed significant civic projects, including structures like the Palace of Assembly and High Court in Chandigarh, India, and the United Nations Headquarters in New York (designed with others). These buildings used modernism for monumental effect and were intended to be functional and aesthetically pleasing. He believed that civic buildings should reflect the values of the society they serve and be prepared to inspire and uplift the people who use them.
  • Churches: Le Corbusier’s religious buildings like the Chapel at Ronchamp and the Monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette are some of his most sculptural and expressive designs. He explored unconventional forms in these buildings, using light and space to create a sense of spirituality and transcendence. He believed religious buildings should be designed to elevate the human spirit and provide a place for people to connect with their faith.
Convent of la tourette - photo by fernando schapochnik © fernando schapochnik
Convent of La Tourette – Photo by Fernando Schapochnik © Fernando Schapochnik
  • Furniture: Le Corbusier created many iconic examples of modernist furniture, both for his own buildings and mass production, including chairs, tables, and storage units. Furniture design was an essential outlet for his ideas, and he believed furniture should be functional and aesthetically pleasing. Clean lines, simple forms, and a focus on comfort and functionality characterized his designs.
  • Paintings/Tapestries: Le Corbusier was a prolific painter and tapestry designer, creating many abstract and landscape artworks and textiles. Though not as well known, these were an essential creative outlet for him. Bold colors, geometric shapes, and playfulness characterized his paintings and tapestries. He believed that art should be accessible to everyone and an integral part of everyday life.

Where did Le Corbusier study?

Le Corbusier studied decorative arts and engraving at the École des Arts Décoratifs in his hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, beginning at age 13. This early education focused on applied arts and design as preparation for work in the local watchmaking industry. He did not have formal architectural training, but from 1907 to 1911, he traveled Europe working under several prominent modernist architects like Auguste Perret in Paris and Peter Behrens in Berlin, who introduced him to new structural techniques and design philosophies. These apprenticeships and his travels to see the world of architecture provided the practical and intellectual education for Le Corbusier’s architectural career. He was essentially self-taught, synthesizing the ideas about functionalist design emerging across Europe.

Did Le Corbusier have any famous teachers or students?

Yes, some of Le Corbusier’s most influential teachers were the painter Charles L’Eplattenier, who taught him art and aesthetics in his hometown, and Amédée Ozenfant, the Cubist painter who encouraged Le Corbusier to paint. His travels also exposed him to pioneers like Auguste Perret, who demonstrated new concrete uses. Le Corbusier’s students and collaborators later included architects like Oscar Niemeyer, who spread his ideas in Brazil, Iannis Xenakis, who advanced musical aspects of design, and Balkrishna Doshi, who adapted Le Corbusier’s principles to low-cost housing in India. These architects applied Le Corbusier’s modernist vision to new locations and building challenges.

How can students learn from Le Corbusier’s work?

Le Corbusier’s pioneering buildings and writings offer many lessons to architecture students. His embrace of new technologies and functional problem-solving approaches model creative innovation in design. The human scale and expressive forms of projects like the Chapel at Ronchamp show the power of modernism to create dynamic spaces. Le Corbusier’s willingness to experiment, fail, and evolve over his career is also instructive. Critically examining problematic urban schemes like Plan Voisin allows students to improve on earlier concepts. Le Corbusier’s unwavering vision for how modern architecture could improve lives continues to inspire. While not flawless, his provocative buildings and ideas challenged conventions and offered new models that still resonate.

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