Expressive Concrete: The Late Work Of Le Corbusier
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Expressive Concrete: The Late Work Of Le Corbusier

By the 1950s and 60s, however, the orthodoxy of Modernism started to break up. Even Modernist designers seemed to want something new. Their work from this period became less reliant on strict architectural doctrine and more expressive.

Modernism was an anti-historical, supremely rational style that emerged in Europe. Modernist designers tried to create functionally-perfect designs that would be universal and never become obsolete. With that ambition it was perhaps inevitable that Modernism would be practised throughout the world. By the 1950s and 60s, however, the orthodoxy of Modernism started to break up. Even Modernist designers seemed to want something new. Their work from this period became less reliant on strict architectural doctrine and more expressive.

In his later years, the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier received two commissions from the Catholic Church, even though he himself was agnostic. He designed the church of Notre Dame at Ronchamp (1950-4), which was a replacement for a medieval chapel that had been destroyed by the Nazis. We can see a huge change in his style. The block-like formality of his earlier work has gone. Instead, it consists of organic curves, both concave and convex. It still has the pure, white surfaces of early Modernism, but the forms are more expressive and imaginative. This is pure abstract sculpture.

Le Corbusier is no longer trying to justify everything with reference to functionalism or rationality; it is a work of pure imagination. He was probably influenced by Surrealist painting, particularly the distorted forms of Salvador Dalí and others. His followers called this a betrayal of Modernism; they felt it was illogical and self-indulgent. Le Corbusier himself never explained it and perhaps it is inexplicable, but perhaps that is a good thing.

His other commission for the Church reverted to the rigid geometry of his usual work. This is the monastery of La Tourette (1953-7), overlooking the Rohne Valley. It was built for an order of monks. This does not have the lightness and ethereal quality of his earlier work. It is executed in rough concrete that is left exposed, making it deliberately harsh and rugged. The form is a regular repeating grid with a strong horizontal emphasis.

The contrasts of this building are fascinating. We associate religious architecture with the Gothic style and religious iconography. This is relentlessly modern and uncompromising, but somehow it seems appropriate. The raw concrete suits the strict religious doctrine it was built for. It is undeniably a monstrosity, but this was deliberate. The chapel is an abstract composition with the bare minimum of religious symbolism. The walls are immensely thick, which evokes the massiveness of medieval architecture. The walls are pierced with horizontal slits, which allows shafts of coloured light to penetrate the interior, giving an undeniably spiritual atmosphere.

Le Corbusier’s last work to have a world-wide impact was the Unité d’habitation – or ‘habitation unit’ – built in Marseilles in the south of France (1947-52). This was intended as low cost housing for the working classes. It is a concrete megalith, raised off the ground on stilts. This building exemplified the Modernist ideal of a rational society. They envisaged everyone living in housing blocks raised off the ground, with acres of green space stretching below.

Late in his career, Le Corbusier decided that concrete was the ideal material, because it could be poured into moulds to create any form he desired. He left the concrete exposed and unfinished to show how it had been made - a remnant of the Modernist principle of functionalism. Le Corbusier also exploited the expressive possibilities of concrete, producing impressive sculptural effects.

Overall, the Unité grew unpopular with the public because it denied individuality. Le Corbusier actually tried to prevent the tenants from putting up blinds or curtains because he felt they spoiled the architectural uniformity. Even the name ‘habitation unit’ seems inhumane. Nevertheless, the Unité d’habitation had a strong influence on a notorious style of architecture called Brutalism, which was practised in Britain in the 1960s.

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Comments (6)

Very interesting!

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Impressive feature as usual Michael.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Pat and Ron.

Unusual that Le Corbusier did so many different designs, but I like them all. Thank you for compiling this so nicely for a most enjoyable education.

Returning with a well deserved vote up/

A very goood analysis. You are right, Michael, Le Corbusier intentionally made the monastery of La Tourette harsh and rugged to be in conformity with the strict religious doctrine. It is an unusal view concerning religion and it is true to say we are used to the Gothic in terms of churches. And I personally prefer the elegant and rich adornments, it's just a matter of taste, of course. This is too sad for me...lol...

As for the Marseille buildings, yes they are not popular and considered very brutal, though they are designed according his Modulor. 

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