Le Corbusier loved Manhattan. He loved its newness, he loved its Cartesian regularity, above all he loved its tall buildings. He had only one reservation, which he revealed on landing in New York City in 1935. The next day, a headline in the Herald Tribune informed its readers that the celebrated architect FINDS AMERICAN SKYSCRAPERS MUCH TOO SMALL. Le Corbusier always thought big. He once proposed replacing a large part of the center of Paris with 18 sixty-story towers; that made headlines too.
He was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in Switzerland in 1887. When he was 29, he went to Paris, where he soon after adopted his maternal grandfather's name, Le Corbusier, as his pseudonym. Jeanneret had been a small-town architect; Le Corbusier was a visionary. He believed that architecture had lost its way. Art Nouveau, all curves and sinuous decorations, had burned itself out in a brilliant burst of exuberance; the seductive Art Deco style promised to do the same. The Arts and Crafts movement had adherents all over Europe, but as the name implies, it was hardly representative of an industrial age. Le Corbusier maintained that this new age deserved a brand-new architecture. "We must start again from zero," he proclaimed.
The new architecture came to be known as the International Style. Of its many partisans--among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, Theo van Doesburg in Holland--none was better known than Le Corbusier. He was a tireless proselytizer, addressing the public in manifestos, pamphlets, exhibitions and his own magazine. He wrote books--dozens of them--on interior decoration, painting and architecture. They resembled instruction manuals. An example is his recipe for the International Style: raise the building on stilts, mix in a free-flowing floor plan, make the walls independent of the structure, add horizontal strip windows and top it off with a roof garden. But this makes him sound like a technician, and he was anything but. Although he dressed like a bureaucrat, in dark suits, bow ties and round horn-rimmed glasses, he was really an artist (he was an accomplished painter and sculptor). What is most memorable about the austere, white-walled villas that he built after World War I in and around Paris is their cool beauty and their airy sense of space. "A house is a machine for living in," he wrote. The machines he admired most were ocean liners, and his architecture spoke of sun and wind and the sea.
By 1950 he had changed course, abandoning Purism, as he called it, for something more robust and sculptural. His spartan, lightweight architecture turned rustic, with heavy walls of brick and fieldstone and splashes of bright color. He discovered the potential of reinforced concrete and made it his own, leaving the material crudely unfinished, inside and out, the marks of wooden formwork plainly visible. Concrete allowed Le Corbusier to explore unusual shapes. The billowing roof of the chapel at Ronchamp, France, resembles a nun's wimple; the studios of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard push out of the building like huge cellos. For the state capital of Chandigarh in India, he created a temple precinct of heroic structures that appear prehistoric.