This Is Le Corbusier Like You’ve Never Seen

In an exhibit on display at the architect’s museum in Zurich, seven photographers capture standout works from his oeuvre in a new light.

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As a curious day tripper, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, kept accounts of his travels, often with a sketchbook and later by snapping photos en route. According to Zurich-based curator Simon Marius Zehnder, the Swiss-born architect used photography as a means for making visual notes of architectural landmarks that fueled his tireless research and creative process. Now, a new exhibition by Zehnder at the Pavillon Le Corbusier in Switzerland turns the camera back on the master, revealing deeper insights into his significant architectural work.

The rooftop terrace at Pavillon Le Corbusier in Zurich, photographed by Erica Overmeer, features a sweeping bench. An art museum, it was the architect’s last design, built in 1967.

Photo by Erica Overmeer

Architecture Icons Revisited features seven contemporary photographers who were invited to capture a project of their choice by Le Corbusier with the aim of bottling the spirit of the architect’s oeuvre. Each offers a unique interpretation with formats that range from documentary, to abstract, to narrative styles.

"Our perceptions of his work are still shaped by countless photographs, many of which were taken at the time the buildings were built," says Zehnder, noting how Le Corbusier commissioned photographers to document his projects, and his strategic use of the medium throughout his career.

Highlights from the installation include architectural models, large-scale color photographs, and videos with the seven creatives discussing their approach to covering the architect’s impressive career, which, fittingly, was capped with the 1967 design of the steel-and-glass Pavillon Le Corbusier, where the exhibition is held.

In capturing the engine room at Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, photographer Katharina Bayer brings a more literal sense to Le Corbusier’s view of home as machine.

Photo by Katharina Bayer

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Several of Corbusier’s residential projects are featured in the show, including the Unité d’Habitation (1945-52) in Marseille, France, which came to be known as Cite Radieuse (Radiant City). The original 12-story concrete complex was built with a mix of 337 individual and family units, incorporating a hotel, bakery, and restaurant, and to this day it serves as an example of the architect’s emphasis on the efficient use of communal space. Show participant Katharina Bayer’s unique images of the complex’s engine room, never before photographed, underscore Le Corbusier’s adage, "a house is a machine for living in."

Seraina Wirz photographed Le Cabanon (1951-52), Le Corbusier’s own unpretentious cabin in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Perched along the Côte d’Azur, it features a series of horizontal windows with spectacular views of the sea. Wirz’s photos have a personal feel, capturing the intimacy of the one room design, which Le Corbusier approached as a lesson in space-saving utility. The 12-by-12 retreat features storage and a tabletop that are built in, and a versatile single sink. The home, built in wood, a material Le Corbusier rarely used, served as his summer retreat.

Seraina Wirz's photos of Le Cabanon, Le Corbusier’s summer retreat in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin,
France, capture the natural light in the 160-square-foot design. The cabin includes a built-in table and mirrored shutters.
It’s where the architect spent his final days.

Photo by Seraina Wirz

Wirz captures a view from Le Corbusier’s desk in Le Cabanon that looks out over the mediterranean.

Photo by Seraina Wirz

A standout from the show is the work of Jürg Gasser. After visiting Villa "Le Lac" in Corseaux, Switzerland, for the first time in 1967, he returned last year to experience it anew, creating straightforward and timeless impressions of the home and its striking position along Lake Geneva. The 1923 design is an outlier in a few ways, which can be attributed to its unique brief: Corbusier wanted to design a home where his parents could age in place. As a result, we see some of the architect’s earliest ideas on how a simple domestic dwelling should function. They include an open floor plan, flexible space with movable structures like folding beds, and a small sitting area with a sliding wall to turn it into a guest room. These elements and more—a horizontal window, concrete-brick construction, and rooftop garden (all of which reappeared later in residential projects like the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, and Unité d’Habitation)—would coalesce as Corbusier’s signature style.

Villa "Le Lac" in Corseaux, Switzerland, was designed by Le Corbusier for his parents in 1923. This view, photographed by Jürg Gasser, shows the northeast facade, where a wall runs the perimeter of the property.

Photo by Jürg Gasser

A band of windows, also shot by Jürg Gasser, looks out onto Lake Geneva and the Savoy Alps.

Photo by Jürg Gasser

"The Villa ‘Le Lac,’ is Le Corbusier’s early laboratory of modern ideas and his personal answer to the question of how to deal with a common house [on its own lot]," says Zehnder of the 689-square-foot, one-story dwelling. "It is one of his most personal and inventive works."

For those looking for a more intimate experience with the home, Vila "Le Lac" is open to the public as a museum. For anyone patient enough to wait, a retrospective exhibition commemorating its 100th anniversary opens in May of next year.

Learn more about the exhibit at Pavillon Le Corbusier’s website.

Related Reading:

Design Icon: 10 Influential Works by Le Corbusier

You Can Rent a Renovated Studio in Le Corbusier’s Famed Cité Radieuse



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