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Thursday, June 13, 2013

So You Want to Learn About: Le Corbusier

The "So You Want to Learn About" series highlights books focused on a particular theme: think "socially responsible architecture" and "phenomenology," rather than broad themes like "housing" or "theory." Therefore the series aims to be a resource for finding decent reading materials on certain topics, born of a desire to further define noticeable areas of interest in the books I review. And while I haven't reviewed every title, I am familiar with each one; these are not blind recommendations.

With the exhibition Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes opening Saturday, and the architect occupying much of my time and thoughts since seeing the exhibition before the Le Corbusier/New York symposium last week, I've put together a list of books and essays by and on the architect. Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965) wrote more than 30 books, and the books written about him must be well over 100—not to mention the essays devoted to one of the most influential architects of the 20th century—so the list below is extremely partial, based on what I know and what's in my library.

Le Corbusier's Writings:

The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning
By Le Corbusier
Dover Publications, 1987 (Amazon), originally published in 1925 as Urbanisme
Le Corbusier was not content designing houses; he wanted to rebuild cities. Many critics, even to this day, blame him single handedly for the urban renewal projects executed decades after he first published this classic treatise on the contemporary city. Necessary reading, if anything for recognizing how later architects and bureaucrats misinterpreted many of his ideas.

Towards a New Architecture 
By Le Corbusier
Dover Publications, 1985 (Amazon), originally published in 1923 as Vers une Architecture
Le Corbusier's first book (a compilation of essays from his magazine L'Esprit Nouveau) lays out many of the ideas that have persevered both in terms of his oeuvre and modernism as a whole, particularly the inspiration found in industrial buildings (grain elevators) and machines (cars, airplanes, ships). The book is required reading in most early-level architecture classes, so most architects have read it and are familiar with his "unvarnished opinions and innovative theories."

Oppositions Reader 
Edited by K. Michael Hays
Princeton Architectural Press, 1998 (Amazon)
Le Corbusier wrote plenty of other books that are well known (When the Cathedrals Were White and Le Modular and Modular 2, to name just two), but his essay "In Defense of Architecture"—a 1933 response to Karel Teige's 1929 "Mundaneum" dissertation—is recommended by architect George Baird as "one of the most touching and frank texts of his whole career." Baird translated the text for the fourth issue (1974) of the journal Oppositions.


Le Corbusier Le Grand 
Edited by Phaidon
Phaidon, 2008 (Amazon)
Le Corbusier receives the massive-Phaidon-book treatment, à la Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary Architecture. And what better way to take in the 2,000 images and documents, many unpublished? The 768-page tome includes an "insightful introductory essay by France’s most authoritative architectural historian and critic, Jean-Louis Cohen."

Le Corbusier: Oeuvre Complete 
Edited by Willy Boesiger, Oscar Stonorov, Max Bill
Birkhäuser, 1995 (Amazon), originally published 1929-1970
This eight-volume set of complete works, done in close collaboration with the architect himself, is the model for just about every monograph that has followed. Since 1995 Birkhäuser has published the books, available individually or as sets.

Le Corbusier: Architect of the Twentieth Century 
By Kenneth Frampton
Abrams, 2002 (Amazon / Review)
The first sentence in historian Kenneth Frampton's presentation of 16 completed Corbu projects is honest and telling: "We shall never finish with Le Corbusier." As the exhibition and crop of books here shows, that is certainly the case, particularly as people reconsider previous views and interpretations of his buildings and writings. Frampton's text is balanced by beautiful color photos in this coffee table book.

Historical Analysis:

Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres 
By M. Christine Boyer
Princeton Architectural Press, 2011 (Amazon)
Epic would be an apt word for describing this examination of "Le Corbusier's many writing projects from 1907-1947." When Swiss-born Le Corbusier became a French citizen in 1930 he indicated "homme de lettres" (man of letters) as the profession on his national identity card, rather than architect or painter. Boyer's clear text dissects the architect's evolution as an architect (and writer) through his voluminous written output—books, but also diaries, letters, sketchbooks, lectures, and essays.

Le Corbusier Redrawn: The Houses 
By Steven Park
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012 (Amazon / Review)
This book of 2-D and 3-D drawings contributes greatly to understanding Le Corbusier's architecture, especially for students, but Park's book is even more valuable for collecting 26 of the architect's houses in one place, with orthographic drawings all to the same scale.

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes 
Edited by Jean-Louis Cohen
Museum of Modern Art, 2013 (Amazon)
The companion to the MoMA exhibition goes well beyond the drawings, models, and photos found in the sixth floor galleries, with roughly 30 essays contributed by historians and critics. Appropriately, the "atlas" takes the reader on a journey through space and time, tracing the output of the first international architect. Historian and exhibition curator Jean-Louis Cohen's ambitious project looks at Le Corbusier's architecture and urban plans through the lens of landscape, a tactic that addresses a deficiency in the architect's scholarship and offers lessons to those practicing today.

Essays about Le Corbusier:

Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays 
By Colin Rowe
MIT Press, 1982 (Amazon)
Three essays in this collection look in part or wholly at Le Corbusier's buildings: Villa Stein at Garches in the title essay; the same villa and the Palace of the League of Nations project in "Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal" (with Robert Slutzky); and one essay devoted to La Tourette. Dense but necessary reading.

The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays 
By Anthony Vidler
The Monacelli Press, 2011 (Amazon)
In Anthony Vidler's first published essay, "The Idea of Unity and Le Corbusier's Urban Form" (in Urban Structure, 1968, edited by David Lewis), he draws parallels between Corbu's architecture and urban planning and the writing of 19th-century social thinker Charles Fourier. In this, Vidler sees a continuity of earlier ideas underlying the changes in form and technical means of the modern era.

Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change 
By Alan Colquhoun
MIT Press, 1985 (Amazon)
Colquhoun's 1972 essay "Displacement of Concepts in Le Corbusier" (originally published in Architectural Design, vol. 43) looks at how Le Corbusier's "Five Points" and other design methods are a displacement of traditional architecture, rather than breaks from them. Colquhoun argues that all architecture and theory is part of a larger architectural culture, and he sees Corbu's approach as a way of carrying cultural meanings forward.

The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries 
By Robin Evans
MIT Press, 2011 (Amazon)
A chapter on Le Corbusier's "Comic Lines" analyzes the geometries in the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (1950-55), particularly the roof. Those familiar with Evans will not be surprised by the rigor and the inventiveness of his examination, in this case of a sculptural building that would seem to defy geometrical analysis.

Theory and Design in the First Machine Age 
By Reyner Banham
MIT Press, 1980 (Amazon), originally published in 1960
A couple chapters in Banham's classic first book are devoted to Le Corbusier, one on Vers une Architecture and one on "town planning and aesthetics" as explored by Corbu in later writings. The former is a particularly thorough dissection of the book, chapter by chapter, but ultimately Banham find the writings of the latter "better-reasoned."

Oppositions Reader 
Edited by K. Michael Hays
Princeton Architectural Press, 1998 (Amazon)
Oppositions published two special double issues devoted to Le Corbusier: 15/16 (covering the period 1905-1933) and 19/20 (covering 1933-1960). From those, three are collected in this reader: "Aspects of Modernism: Maison Dom-ino and the Self-Referential Sign" by Peter Eisenman; "Antiquity and Modernity in the La Roche-Jeanneret Houses of 1923" by Kurt W. Forster; and "Le Corbusier and Algiers" by Mary McLeod. Respectively these are an obtuse argument for a sign system in architecture, an analysis of one of the architect's classic houses from the 1920s, and a thorough documentation and analysis of one of his most ambitious projects.


  1. Nice summary, but once you mention Vidler's early writing as well as Banham I'm surprised no mention of "Delirious NY". That book inspired fresh insight into Le Corbusier via Manhattan - and Dali for that matter.

    1. Good one! That chapter in Delirious New York—"Europeans: Biuer! Dali and Le Corbusier Conquer New York"—slipped my mind; it's been too long since I've read it, apparently. Thanks for pointing it out.


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