For Le Corbusier, architecture meant functionalism – pure and simple in form

Better known by his pseudonym Le Corbusier, Swiss-born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret ranks among the most important architects of the 20th century. Le Corbusier was based in Paris, but as his reputation grew, so did his sphere of influence. He was commissioned to design buildings in several countries in Europe besides France, as well as in Japan, India, North and South America. Le Corbusier’s ground breaking ideas about the “New Architecture” came to full expression in one of his most iconic works, Ville Savoye in Poissy near Paris.

According to his visions, modern buildings should have “pilotis”, or pillars, to raise the building, freeing the walls of their structural function. They should also have an open floor plan and horizontal ribbon window to light rooms evenly, and finally, a flat roof for a garden to replace the ground on which the buildings sits.

Taking into account the times he lived and worked in – the decades spanning two World Wars – his concepts were in many ways born out of the practical needs for a totally new approach to the construction of low-cost housing and indeed of reconstructing entire city blocks. It took an eloquent visionary like Le Corbusier to synthesize the ideas and to work with the leading politicians and industrialists to realize some of his ideals.

18 rue Le Corbusier (Maison Gratte-Ciel)

Cité Frugès in Pessac (Bordeaux)

The housing project in Pessac in south-western France was an experiment of sorts, something entirely new, commissioned by French sugar-magnate and eccentric Henry Frugès in 1920. The aim was to build affordable, standardized, minimalist and functional housing for Frugès own factory workers’ families. He called upon Le Corbusier, practically giving him carte-blanche to turn his vision into reality on a plot of land in the Le Monteil district of Pessac near the city of Bordeaux.

“I authorise you to put your theories into practice, however extreme the consequences might be. I would like to achieve conclusive results in a new form of inexpensive living quarters. Pessac must be a laboratory.”

For Le Corbusier, architecture meant functionalism – pure and simple in form – stripped of unnecessary ornament or historical reference. At Pessac you can see this first hand. The initial plan was to build 135 houses but this was downsized the 50 and completed in 1926. Le Corbusier made six different models. Each unit was prefabricated and identical. The general impression after a walk around the Frugés neighborhood is how contemporary the houses still look and feel. They range from 75 to 90 m² each, including entrance hall, kitchen, living room, bathroom with shower and toilet, and two or three (bed) rooms on the upper floor.

Maison Gratte-Ciel – the Skyscraper

Henry Frugès’ workers did unfortunately not embrace Le Corbusier’s vision for a new architecture as they would have hoped, owing in part to the remote location of the place. The houses were sold on the private market, apparently at a loss for the investor. A renovated house of the “Arcade” model was granted status as a historic monument in 1980, marking a turning point for the destiny of the houses. The city of Pessac later purchased a Gratte-Ciel model and renovated it. The future of Cité Frugès now looks even brighter. On July 17 2016, Le Corbusier’s housing vision in Pessac was inscribed on the World Heritage list.

The Maison Gratte-Ciel in 18 rue Le Corbusier is now a permanent exhibition space open to the public. Free, guided tours are also available at certain times of the day/week. See this page for more information (info in French).

Maison Gratte-Ciel, 18 rue Le Corbusier (1.floor)

Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement

Henry Frugès’ housing project in Pessac was enlisted World Heritage (2016) together with 16 other buildings by Le Corbusier, situated in seven countries around the world. See the full list below. According to UNESCO, Le Corbusier’s works “reflect the solutions that the Modern Movement sought to apply during the 20th century to the challenges of inventing new architectural techniques to respond to the needs of society. These masterpieces of creative genius also attest to the internationalization of architectural practice across the planet. (As such) …they are an outstanding contribution to the Modern Movement”. (UNESCO)

Zig-zag model (rue Henry Frugés)

Le Corbusier Buildings on the World Heritage List

  • Unité d’habitation, Marseille
  • Dominican Monastery of La Tourette near Lyon
  • Villa Savoye near Paris
  • Notre-Dame du Haut, Ronchamp
  • Maison La Roche, Paris
  • Cité Frugès, Pessac/Bordeaux
  • Immeuble Molitor, Paris
  • Usine Claude et Duval Factory, Saint-Dié
  • Cabanon de Le Corbusier, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
  • Maison de la Culture, Firminy
  • Maison Guiette, Antwerp
  • Capitol Complex, Chandigarh
  • The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
  • Weissenhof-Siedlung Estate, Stuttgart
  • Maison Curutchet, La Plata
  • Villa Le Lac, Corseaux
  • Immeuble Clarté, Geneva

Foundation Le Corbusier
Invisible Bordeaux
Ville de Pessac – Maison Gratte-Ciel (fr)
Ville Savoye à Poissy (fr)
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France