Cool one name names didn’t start with Cher and Madonna, I found out. It was fashionable in the 1920’s as well, which is when Le Corbusier changed his name from Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. Le Corbusier is a famous French architect and urban planner (born in Switzerland). This July 2016, seventeen of his buildings were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
His theories of architecture and urban planning use the words ‘Radiant City’ and ‘Contemporary City’. This was shortly after the New Australian’s were setting up their version of Utopia in Paraguay. The Russian revolution started in 1917 which brought communism to a major power. Things were different then. Politically, Le Corbusier has been criticised because he leaned towards facism and was at one time a friend of Mussolini. For the second half of his life he was a ‘political agnostic’.
With the benefit of more than 50 years of hindsight, my first impressions of the Site Le Corbusier made me think more of words like ‘utilitarian’, ‘concrete jungle’ & ‘bleak’. But I found out after a visit to the Site in Firminy that this is a big mistake. These places did and do make lives better.
In another blog I wrote fairly trivially about Socialist Realism and Vietnam – the punch line was that the theme for my 30th birthday was ‘Structural Realism’, but I got my –ism’s wrong but it was a genuine and ironic acknowledgement of a time in history. The unashamed use of concrete is similar to and probably borrows from Le Corbusier, but the friendliness to humans is way different.
I hasten to add that this is not a critique of Le Corbusier’s theories on urban planning, just a recommendation to visit and to understand more about Le Corbusier’s buildings.
There are five major buildings at the Site in Firminy – the Maison de la Culture, the Eglise Saint Pierre, the Stadium / Swimming pool and the Unite d’Habitation. Of these five it was the Maison de Culture that was recently included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage building. Most of it was designed in the 50’s and built in the 60’s and it has a bit of a Jetson’s feel to it. I didn’t visit the swimming pool.
Maison de la Culture
The inverted parabola of the roof was constructed to be suspended and independent from the building structure. It can be moved to capture light and to harvest water. The first design which didn’t go ahead had the roof curved to capture detritus from birds, dust and to provide a natural garden.
Le Corbusier had a wish that music should be at the heart of his architectural and artistic creations. In trying to understand more about this I read (a) that much of the project management and design work for the Phillips Pavilion at the 1958 Expo was assigned to the French/Greek music composer Iannis Xenakis on behalf of the Office Le Corbusier i.e. Le Corbusier collaborated closely with musicians, and (b) this statement in the Architectural Review –
‘As abstract art forms based on rhythm, proportion and harmony, architecture and music share a clear cultural lineage’.
Proportion and harmony are clearly evident in the LeCorbusier buildings.
On the eastern side is a wall of windows, with coloured panels. The panels and the windows are arranged with a musical sense of harmony – not so much the strict design of a keyboard but more to do with repetition and the space between colours and panels.
Concrete and slightly odd on the outside, and stunning on the inside so that once you come out you love the outside as well. Natural light comes in via the funnel on the roof (green), and two other light features plus rows of covered windows that look more like down lights. On the outside these windows serve as a kind of spiralled gutter around the outside of the building to catch rainwater. On the eastern wall are a series of holes, or windows configured as the constellation Orion. The effect is beautiful and serene.
The church was finally finished in 2006, after the Saint Etienne Metropole government acknowledged the importance of the building to the region.
The stadium is pleasing to the eye and no doubt there are some pleasing architectural facts about it. Le Corbusier had died before it was constructed and the major change from his design is that the size of the canopy is reduced. For me the importance was the inclusion of a stadium / sports complex in the overall Site of Le Corbusier. There is an administration building, a church, a sports complex and housing unit which were all crucial in Le Corbusier’s plan for a city.
In English this translates fairly prosaically as ‘Housing Unit’. It is an enormous block of housing 414 housing units. The majority of apartments within the complex are split level, with single level studios also available. The whole fits together like quite a complex a jigsaw puzzle. On the top two floors is a primary school.
The guided tour included a visit inside one of the apartments. The apartment was on two levels with an internal staircase and three bedrooms. We were there on a sunny day and there is natural light from both the east and the west, with a wall of windows extending for both floors on the eastern end. It has been preserved with some of the original furniture that Le Corbusier collaborated on.
There are 20 levels of apartments, but because of their split level interior design there is only a corridor (or ‘rue’) on seven levels. This ‘rue’ is colourful and wide.
The theories behind these large blocks of ‘social housing’ has been criticised. The apartments do provide a minimum standard of housing but the social problems of unemployment and poverty remained. Still a part of me wanted to live in one of those apartments, they are so cleverly designed.
Golden Ratio & the Fibonacci numbers
The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers are a big topic, and have been studied by people like Plato, Leonardo da Vinci and the big group of genius mathematicians, musicians and architects that includes LeCorbusier and Iannis Xenakis.
There are some tricky mathematical formulae to justify it, but in essence if there are three measurements that are all successively bigger then if the sum of the first two is equal to the third then they are in proportion. This is applied to the human body in the statue in front of the Eglise Saint Pierre – the top measurement from the elbow to the top of the fingers is added to the second measurement which is from the navel to the elbow. These two measurements combined add up to the bottom measurement which is from the navel to the bottom of the feet.
The Fibonacci sequence 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 … is an example of this – where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers before it. In nature, if you spiral this sequence you get a snail shell, or an artichoke.
These proportions are used in the modular floor plans of Le Corbusier’s buildings. Awesome!
In summary – well worth a visit but don’t just wander around. Take the tour, watch the videos and you’ll understand more about one of France’s important architects.
To Get There
Firminy is a 20 minute drive from the centre of Saint Etienne and easy to reach on public transport. The number 1 bus takes you direct from Bellevue to Eglise Corbusier. There is a tram that goes direct from the Gare Chateaucreux to Bellevue.
Links & References
Official website, for more information inc opening hours – www.sitelecorbusier.com
Architecture becomes Music, Architecture Review, by Charles Jencks, 6 May 2013
Agatha Bertram / Saint Etienne – more information about Saint Etienne and surrounds
Agatha Bertram – Why I went to my 30th Birthday dressed as a railway line
Sally Higgins © F.L.C/ADAGP (2016)
Sally Higgins © Conception, Le Corbusier architecte, José Oubrerie assistant (1960-65). Réalisation, José Oubrerie architecte (1970-2006)
This post is linked to Lou Messugo’s ‘#All About France’. Click here to get back to the linkup.
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It’s quite amazing how modern these buildings still look today. The first photo reminds me a lot of the first school I went to in Switzerland – which gets me thinking that his influence stretched a long way. We probably don’t feel it as much here in Australia, but in Switzerland, Le Corbusier is almost part of the everyday vernacular.
Right, yes I hadn’t heard of Le Corbusier before I went to France but he’s really well known there and it sounds like in Switzerland as well. I havn’t thought much about architecture before and it was really interesting to discover all this on my (French) door step.
Phoebe | Lou Messugo says
How lucky to have all this interesting architecture so close to you Sal! I don’t know what to make of Le Corbusier, I think you’re right that you have to take a tour and educate yourself because his work isn’t instantly appealing but I agree with Nina that it is amazing how recent his designs still look. I realise he was way ahead of his time. I’ve never actually been inside any of his buildings but recently drove past the cité radieuse in Marseille and I must say it looked anything but radieuse! I’d love to see the church and I heard there’s an abbey near Lyon too which would be fascinating to visit. (I’ll NEVER forget your 30th birthday party either, such an original dress-up theme and so typical of our crazy times in Hanoi!) Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance
I would definitely recommend a tour of one of his buildings if available. From what I hear the cite radieuse in Marseille is a bit of a cult building now but I probably agree that if it is like the Unite d’habitacion in Firminy it looks a bit underwhelming from the outside. Hahaha. re the party in Hanoi.
Emily Commander says
This is really insightful, thank you. I love Le Corbusier. Have you visited the monastery? It is an amazing place, particularly when you think that he himself was not a believer… #AllAboutFrance
No, I havn’t been to the monastery yet but it is definately on the list. At the recommendation of the Cite Le Corbusier I visited the Quartier des Etats-Unis by Tony Garnier but I think I need to know a bit more about that. Great murals!
Curtis Bausse says
Thanks for that – some buildings there I didn’t know about. He was strikingly original to be sure, but not to everyone’s taste, far from it. Marseille’s Cité Radieuse is a case in point – not my cup of tea, but we have friends who live there and love it.
Hi Curtis, while reading about Le Corbusier I read about some of the new architecture buildings in Germany, and in particular the idea of harmony in spaces. I’ll try to get over and see some of them, and hopefully explore some more of Le Corbusier’s buildings near Lyon and abroad. Fascinating stuff!
Agness of Fit Travelling says
Great elaboration on the subject, Agatha! I love reading your posts, I feel enlightened!
Thanks Agness! Its a nice thing to say. I was not expecting to be so interested in the LeCorbusier site in Firminy, but now I’m a big fan of the philosophy of architecture 🙂