In the footsteps of Le Corbusier
MARSEILLE — When she’s showing couples the smallest rooms, the manager of the Hotel Le Corbusier always pauses for a moment before opening the door, and asks: Are you in love?
The hotel rooms, converted apartments in the massive building known as Unite d’Habitation, are bathed in light, with a floor-to-ceiling window punctuating each unit, and an outside balcony, overlooking the foothills of the Saint Baume on one side, the Mediterranean on the other. But they are small. Little more than 100 square feet, with a super-efficient arrangement of bed, bathroom, and simple writing desk. It’s no place to bicker.
Yes, assurances were made all around, we are in love. It would be impossible not be on this grand tour of France and Switzerland, winding up here at the Cote d’Azur, soaking up the flair of one of the 20th century’s most prominent designers. We are following in the footsteps of Le Corbusier.
Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 in a watchmaking town in Switzerland, the lanky and well-dressed young architect moved to Paris and rebranded himself Le Corbusier (tweaking slightly his maternal grandfather’s name), establishing a practice in the Roaring Twenties that revolutionized the design of homes and apartments, government buildings, and churches. The United Nations compound in New York is essentially his design; his vision of urban planning was realized in the city of Chandigarh, India, which he built from scratch on the Himalayan plain. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University is his only building in North America, but his influence on the landscape, from Boston City Hall to downtown concrete complexes to suburban corporate office parks, is extensive.
In writing the narrative biography “Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow” (New Harvest, 2014), I had the enviable task of going to see where my subject had grown up in Switzerland, and the projects he had executed throughout France. Friends joked about how it was hard work, but somebody had to do it. As research projects go, it was admittedly pretty dreamy. It was also a window into how Europe is — or isn’t — celebrating one of the great figures of the 20th century. At some spots, we were welcomed with visitors’ guides and joined by fellow architecture pilgrims; in other places, we felt like we had stumbled all alone upon great treasures.
The itinerary began in Paris, a place where thinking about architecture can be like drinking from a fire hose. It was necessary to focus on the 20th century. Acquiring our rental car at Charles de Gaulle, we set out for the northwestern suburbs, to the site where Le Corbusier in 1931 came out with the architectural equivalent of the iPhone.
VILLA SAVOYE There are signs here and there with little arrows pointing the way, but visitors have to work to find this masterpiece of the International Style in Poissy, a Paris suburb. The entrance to the property is not well marked. A few steps in from the street, the landscape opens up to a remarkable abstraction: a white box on stilts, in a clearing on the top of a hill. An insurance magnate and his wife commissioned the country house, in the early-20th-century Paris equivalent of Greenwich, Conn., where they sought to entertain over après-golf cocktails, dressed in leisure wear. The whole thing is raised up on concrete pilotis, allowing the Savoyes to park three cars underneath — the world’s first carport. Wander around the minimalist indoor-outdoor space, and you can hear the George Gershwin tunes. Villa Savoye fell into disrepair after being used as a depot by the Germans in World War II, and was almost demolished; now it is run by the French Centre des Monuments Nationaux. This is the French equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania, but the experience is more intimate, subtle, and unambiguously serene. Villa Savoye is where Le Corbusier truly made his mark, establishing the home as a beautiful “machine for living in.”
There’s not much else to see in Poissy, and a return to Paris allows a full appreciation of the Le Corbusier trail. On the outskirts, other homes built in the 1920s include Villa Stein, built for Getrude Stein’s brother, in Garches; and Villa Cook, considered the architectural expression of cubism, in Boulogne-sur-Seine. In the 16th arron-dissement is the penthouse Le Corbusier designed for himself at 24 rue Nungesser et Coli, steps from the Bois de Boulogne and Roland Garros (the stadium where the French Open is played), and open for tours on Saturdays. Continuing on a path toward the center of Paris, the Fondation Le Corbusier, housing extensive letters, photographs, plans, and keepsakes, is housed next to the Maison La Roche, another villa built for a wealthy art collector featuring ramps and minimalist rooms and furniture; the complex, open for tours where visitors must swap shoes for plastic booties, is hidden down a narrow lane.
Shortly after he first moved to Paris, Le Corbusier lived in a man-cave top-floor garret at 20 rue Jacob in Saint-Germain des Pres, the Left Bank prowling grounds of Hemingway and Fitzgerald; his favorite bistro, Le Petit Saint-Benoit, is still serving. He would walk from there to his atelier at 35 rue de Sevres, adjacent to the Hotel Lutetia and Le Bon Marche department store, overlooking a beautiful park. Lesser known destinations include the Swiss and Brazilian pavilions in the Cite de la Universite campus, and the elegant Villa Ozenfant townhouse, both in the 14th arrondissement.
CHAPELLE NOTRE DAME DU HAUT Four hours southeast of Paris by car, and, like everything in France and Switzerland, easily reached by train, lies Ronchamp and the curvy whitewashed church on the top of Bourle-mont Hill, a precursor, by some 50 years, of Frank Gehry. The chapel at Ronchamp, built on the ruins of a church destroyed during World War II, is the most popular destination on the architectural pilgrimage tour. Renzo Piano recently completed a visitors center tucked into the hillside beneath the other-worldly structure, which seems to have landed like a modernist spaceship, while at the same time conveying the sense that it’s always been there. A crab shell Le Corbusier discovered on the beach was the inspiration for the billowing roof, and the interior, illuminated by a dozen-plus perforations of painted glass, is a sacred space of contemplation and perfect acoustics; a French group sang an a cappella hymn while we were there. Take the audio tour and plan a day to experience this extraordinary commission from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s, sculpted by a man who had no use for organized religion, like William Blake writing “Jerusalem.” Pick up a textbook on 20th-century modern architecture, and chances are Ronchamp is on the cover.
MAISON BLANCHE AND VILLA LE LAC Le Corbusier was eager to bust out of his hometown, a remote manufacturing center that was the origin of leading watch brands such as Breit-ling, TAG Heuer, Movado, and Cartier. But La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the northwest corner of Switzerland, was also inspiration for his architecture and urban design. The city was rebuilt after a fire with an orderly street grid and uniform buildings similar to those of Haussmann’s Paris; the top-floor ateliers, where the watchmaking was done, were illuminated by abundant natural light. The town of his birth is also the place where he built his first homes, including the Villas Fallet, Jacquernet, Stotzer, and Schwob. He reserved his greatest flourish for the house built for his parents, the Maison Blanche, on the outskirts adjacent to the forest bordering France. Built in 1912, the home is his first full expression of the modern, its interior a sleek anticipation of Crate and Barrel simplicity, with space for his mother’s piano, and a bed raised up so his parents could awake to views outside the master bedroom window.
The Maison Blanche ended up being too much house for the Jeannerets, so the faithful son tried again with something simpler: an elegant rectangular box on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the town of Vevey, whose famous residents include Charlie Chaplin and Nestle. Villa Le Lac, also known as Le Petite Maison, is a portrait in efficiency, with a hideaway guest bed, a green roof (80 years ahead of its time), and a compact outside yard featuring a white concrete picture window framing the lake and mountains in the distance. His mother, Marie, would spend the rest of her life there, long after his father died, though she wasn’t above complaining routinely about drafts and leaks.
COUVENT A SAINTE-MARIE DE LA TOURETTE After the success of Ronchamp, Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a monastery (convent) outside Lyon, a complex for teaching, retreat, and meditation that was to be “a silent dwelling place for one hundred bodies and one hundred hearts.” The structure, built into a hillside in Eveux, affords breathtaking views of the Rhône-Alpes countryside, and features a garden rooftop and dozens of monastic “cells,” minimalist rooms with bed, writing desk, and balcony. The cavernous chapel, which has recently been fully restored after falling into disrepair, is illuminated by light barrels that throw down mystical rays of light. La Tourette (squint and you see Boston City Hall) is a mandatory stop for architecture students, and a delegation of Japanese students flooded the place during our visit. Cameras snapped furiously as I obliged by striking the pose of the Modular Man, Le Corbusier’s 6-foot human figure informing his design of space, in the front archway. (Albert Einstein, meeting with Le Corbusier at Princeton, praised the mathematically based approach to design.) By making arrangements ahead of time, it was possible to stay overnight in the cells — me in one, my wife next door — for the full, unplugged, off-the-grid experience.
UNITÉ D’HABITATION After World War II, Le Corbusier proposed the construction of massive apartment buildings to provide much-needed low-cost housing, in a scheme he called the Ville Radieuse. He built the prototype just outside downtown Marseille, on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. The 337 apartments in Unité d’Habitation, most of them duplexes, are set on 12 floors in an interlocking pattern, like bottles in a wine rack. His collaborator, the furniture designer Charlotte Perriand, helped design the interior for maximum efficiency, with built-in shelves, compact kitchen, dining, and living areas that look like they are straight out of an IKEA catalog. The “happy hive” also featured a supermarket in the building — another first — as well as other shops and services along an interior Main Street; on the top-of-the-world roof, he installed a gym, school, and recreational space. It opened in 1952 and is still a functioning apartment building; recently an art installation has been added to the rooftop. Here we ran into many fellow pilgrims, photographing the building from the ground and on the rooftop terrace, and staying at the Hotel Le Corbusier and enjoying 8-course meals on the restaurant balcony.
Le Corbusier beamed as his friend Picasso paid an approving visit to this new way of living — an ocean liner on land — and a few years after the opening, made the cover of Time magazine. He sought to duplicate the building many times over, but it never caught on, though the design was badly copied in the United States in public housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. He did manage to build other versions of Unité d’Habitation, in Briey, Firminy, and Nantes-Reze in Brittany (this last is open for guided tours in French by appointment), and in Berlin. The rooftop school in Nantes is cherished to this day.
LE CABANON Architecture is hard, Le Corbusier was fond of saying, and the singularly driven overachiever needed a vacation getaway. He discovered Roquebrune-Cap-Martin when a friend, the lover of Paris-based designer Eileen Gray, let him stay at Villa E-1027, a white box Gray had designed on a steep hillside. Le Corbusier promptly wore out his welcome after he painted, in the nude, unsolicited murals on the walls. But he kept coming back to the seaside town just east of Monaco, where his wife, Yvonne, had grown up, and struck up a friendship with the owner of a seafood shack, L’Etoile de Mer. He built a series of simple beach cabins on one side of the restaurant, and designed one for himself, on a tiny plot of land next door on the other side. The cabanon is an astonishingly tiny version of Emerson’s Walden, with a compact kitchen, dining counter with whiskey crates for stools, jetliner-style bathroom, outdoor shower, and a built-in bench for a bed. Coco Chanel’s villa was farther up on the hillside and more luxurious many times over, and Monte Carlo glittered and glowed within sight down the coast, but he and Yvonne were content to spend their days eating sea urchins and drinking wine at L’Etoile de Mer. Every day, Le Corbusier would go for a swim in the open sea, making his way down a pathway through jagged rocks. He predicted he would end his days there, and indeed he did, plunging into the Mediterranean one August day in 1965, against doctor’s orders, for the last swim of his life.
Le Corbusier’s buildings are all around the world, in Moscow, India, Tokyo, Argentina, and Brazil, where he partnered with Oscar Niemeyer on a government office building in Rio de Janeiro. But France and Switzerland are the premiere settings for the master’s handiwork, and for his life. The French government seems intent on improving the visitor experience at major sites, though Le Corbusier buildings have yet to win UNESCO world heritage status. Roquebrune-Cap-Martin was, fittingly, the most rustic and seat-of-the-pants experience. We arranged for a private guided tour through the local chamber of commerce, who opened a gate that had only recently been set up to protect the area of the cabanon.
The son of the original owner of L’Etoile de Mer, who the childless Le Corbusier virtually adopted as his own, thankfully appeared as we were looking around. We chatted for a long time and had our picture taken at the bar, which the architect had adorned with fantastic sea creatures. I had two thoughts: one, that I had paid more attention in my high school French class, but two, after the guided tours of Ronchamp and Villa Savoye, the interaction in Rocquebrune-Cap-Martin was so delightfully informal and authentic, it can’t possibly stay that way. Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027, just west of L’Etoile de Mer, is being restored and will soon open to the public; it is the subject of a forthcoming film starring Alanis Morissette. So this retreat may start to get a lot more traffic.
I recognize it’s impossible to have it both ways: both a well-managed visitor experience celebrating the man, and a more casual discovery of his works and residences. But either way, the original star architect is a worthy figure to follow. He was a dapper dresser with a slim build but a big appetite for romance, and led an elegant life surrounded by mid-20th-century Euro-glamor. Careening through the switchbacks from Monaco to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, we turned up the Supertramp on the radio, brought out the silk headscarf, and wished we were driving a convertible. I took a video on my iPhone while driving, much to my wife’s chagrin. But in documenting Le Corbusier’s creations, scattered across the continent, it was clear there is no way to complete this assignment without having a fabulous good time.
Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.