The Man who Breathed Life into Raw Concrete

The Man who Breathed Life into Raw Concrete
The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Photo Credit: picture cells /

Go on an architectural trail following the splendours created by Le Corbusier. These are inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites for their outstanding contribution to the modern movement

Uttara Gangopadhyay
September 06 , 2020
05 Min Read

One of the attractions in Chandigarh that no visitor misses out on is the Capitol Complex, an over 100-acre government compound which contains, among other things, the Palace of Assembly or Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, High Court, Open Hand Monument, Geometric Hill and Tower of Shadows. In 2016, when UNESCO decided to inscribe a selection of works by world renowned architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier (1887–1965) as ‘a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past’, the Capitol Complex was part of the list.

The Open Hand sculpture in the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

Although Le Corbusier’s works survive in eleven countries across four continents, UNESCO chose the sites in seven countries on three continents, which, according to them, ‘for the first time, in the history of architecture, attest to the internationalisation of architectural practice across the entire planet’, implemented over a period of half a century.

Grouped as ‘The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement’, apart from India, the sites range from countries as diverse as Belgium (Maison Guiete, Antwerp), Argentina (the House of Dr Curutchet in La Plata) and Japan (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo), with the bulk of the sites located across France and Switzerland. 

Some of the sites under the heritage list is said to have assumed an iconic position and considerably influenced contemporary architectural mores. 

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Villa Savoye (Poissy, France) is considered as an icon of the Modern Movement. Here Le Corbusier used his Five Points of a New Architecture to the fullest, a form that he would himself adapt or reinterpret to fulfil various design criteria, such as a residential block (Immeuble locatif à la Porte Molitor or the Cité Frugès) or reinterpret it for the Doctor Curutchet home in La Plata or the Dominican Order priory Sainte Marie de La Tourette located near Lyon.

A bronze statue of Le Corbusier in the city centre of Poissy, France

The Unité d’habitation in Marseille became an example of a new housing model based on a balance between the individual and the collective. It is said that it was during this period that Le Corbusier coined the term ‘béton brut’ (raw concrete), a building material that would become an integral part of his signature designs.

The Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut was appreciated for its unique approach to religious architecture.

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The seaside holiday cabin, which the architect designed for himself on the Côte d'Azur in France served as a classic design based on ergonomic and functionalist approaches. 

Interestingly, Le Corbusier had initially declined the offer to design Chandigarh but later relented when he realised the conditions would allow him to fulfil one of his pet dreams, of designing an urban city from scratch. Although the artist was around 70 years of age and visited the site only a few times (the on-site execution mostly undertaken by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and others chosen by the master architect), the city became a symbol of Le Corbusier’s signature town planning and his Five Points. Some of the key features that UNESCO focused on were a concern for natural air-conditioning and energy saving led to the use of sunscreens, double-skinned roofs, and reflecting pools for the catchment of rainwater and air cooling. Green architects today can take a leaf from his works in Chandigarh.

Interestingly, while Le Corbusier is better known in India for designing Chandigarh, he also designed some important buildings in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), including two homes (Shodhan Villa and Sarabhai Villa) and two public buildings (the Mill Owners’ Building and the Sanskar Kendra museum).

So next time you are in any of these cities in India, go on a trail, tracing the footsteps of the srchitect, theorist, urban planner, and artist. And before you set off, read up more about his work. One good book to pick up would be Phaidon's "Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms" by William J R Curtis. 


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