- Words by Ms Alice Rawsthorn, design critic, International Herald Tribune
On Le Corbusier's first visit to New York, to open an exhibition of his architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1935, he was so enthralled by the skyscrapers - by the Empire State Building especially - that he told a friend: "I wanted to lie down on my back there on the sidewalk, and gaze towards the top forever."
Then in his late forties, Le Corbusier was in the vanguard of the "rads versus trads" battle in design: idolised by fellow radicals, and loathed by conservative "trads". This summer, nearly 50 years after his death, MoMA is to honour him with another, far larger exhibition, opening on 15 June, which should seal his reputation as the most influential architect of the modern age.
Just as contemporary art would not be the same without Mr Marcel Duchamp, literature without Mr James Joyce, or fashion without Mr Yves Saint Laurent, our built environment - from houses and schools to towns and cities - would be very different if not for Le Corbusier. But why?
Like most other visionaries who revolutionised their fields, Le Corbusier was blessed not only with exceptional talent, but great timing. He began his career in the early 1900s when the availability of electricity, telephones, aeroplanes and cars was transforming millions of people's lives. Every aspect of society needed to be rethought, including architecture, a challenge that Le Corbusier relished. "The time is ripe for construction," he wrote, "not foolery."
How can Le Corbusier be held responsible for the design crimes of his imitators, when his own work was so inspiring?
His first design project was himself. Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a sleepy Swiss watch-making town, he began his career there before moving to Paris in 1917. He promptly rechristened himself "Le Corbusier" by adopting his maternal grandfather's surname, and took to wearing the horn-rimmed glasses that became his trademark. Equally adept at moulding perceptions of his work, he tinkered with photographs of his buildings (often using his glasses as props) and wrote so prolifically that other architects were as familiar with his thinking as his appearance. His mediagenic successors, from Mr Rem Koolhaas to Ms Zaha Hadid, have since adopted similar strategies to cultivate equally distinctive identities.
But Le Corbusier's true legacy is his architecture. During the 1920s, he pioneered the "machine aesthetic", or International Style, by applying newly developed materials and construction techniques, often discovered in other fields, such as the automotive and aerospace industries, to produce geometric, white-walled structures such as the elegant Villa Savoye and his other "purist villas" in and around Paris.
From the late 1930s onwards, he began combining concrete with natural materials such as wood and stone to create a robust organic style of architecture dubbed "brutalism". These experiments culminated in post-war gems such as the Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp in eastern France and Chandigarh, the "City Beautiful" that he designed in northern India, whose majestic concrete buildings were surrounded by greenery.
"Evocation of sunset"
Le Corbusier, no date. Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC
"The Parthenon, Athens"
Le Corbusier, 1911. Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC
Competition project for the League of Nations, Geneva
Le Corbusier, 1927. Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur, ETH Zürich
"Villa Le Lac, Corseaux"
Le Corbusier, 1923-24. Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC
Model of the Villa Savoye, poissy
Le Corbusier, 1928-31. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC
In the machine aesthetic and brutalism, Le Corbusier defined the dominant architectural styles of the 20th century. Other architects attempted them too, but rarely with such aplomb. Technocratic though he was, Le Corbusier also understood the sensual aspects of architecture, doubtless because he was an accomplished painter. He imbued his buildings with a cinematic quality by orchestrating the experience of being there so skilfully that anyone encountering them will see something seductive wherever they look.
Even so, Le Corbusier has proved as contentious since his death as he was during his life, not least by being blamed for the dreary state of post-war architecture. How can he be held responsible for the design crimes of his imitators, when his own work was so inspiring?
Take his mass housing project, the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, whose subtly sculpted concrete is enlivened by light, colour, texture and greenery, just like Chandigarh. As the German architect Mr Walter Gropius said at the opening party: "Any architect who does not find this building beautiful had better lay down his pencil."
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes runs from 15 June to 23 September 2013 at MoMa, New York. moma.org