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Le Corbusier and Ornament

Le Corbusier is widely recognised as one of Modernism’s most successful and influential advocates. Yet his prolific commentary against the place of ornament in architecture is rife with contradiction.

Notre Dame du Haut, Le Corbusier, 1955 Ronchamp, France.
Sketch by Poppy Bevan, in situ, 2010.

View my collection of sketches of the works of Le Corbusier in Europe between 1900 and 1950

Le Corbusier’s well renowned denunciation of ornament is inaccurate. Contrary to widespread conception, Le Corbusier utilised ornament as a means of creating beautiful and successful architecture.

Le Corbusier was strongly affiliated with ornament as a result of his recognition of a broad range of functional architectural requirements, including not only utilitarian but also aesthetic and emotive functions.

In order to satisfy his need to incorporate a level of decoration into his architecture Le Corbusier expanded his definition of function to subsume ornament and therefore justify its essential position in creating successful architectural spaces.

His application of this newly defined Modernist Ornament is directly related to his intentions to achieve beauty, harmony, and poetry of form within the functionalist framework of Modernism. These emotively driven elements were deemed necessary in creating successful architecture that not only delivered upon pragmatic programmatic requirements but also provided for the intangible and immeasurable side of architecture.

Notre Dame du Haut, Le Corbusier, 1955 Ronchamp, France.

Le Corbusier understood this facet of architecture as being primarily served by firstly understanding and later attempting to satisfy a broad range of aesthetic and emotive functional requirements relating to the intricacies of human experience, which he recognised as difficult to satisfy except for with the use of ornamental devices.

Le Corbusier’s approach was, therefore, to define ornament as an implicit architectural element contrary to many of his contemporaries who described ornament as a superfluous and unnecessary extra. Le Corbusier’s Modernist Ornamentis inextricably linked with the purely functional elements of architecture

As a result, whilst Le Corbusier openly rejected traditional ornamentation, it is suggested that he accepted the application of a new version of Modernist Ornamentas deliberately and carefully aligned with his theoretical ideals.

This is expressed in the fact that Le Corbusier found it crucial to imbue beauty into all elements of architecture, including and perhaps especially those elements that are fundamental to a building’s practical success.

Le Corbusier “knew how to bring out the secret affinity that existed between ferroconcrete construction and the human needs and cravings that were just coming to the surface” and that furthermore he “was able – as no one before him had been – to transmute the concrete skeleton developed by the engineer into a means of architectonic expression”. (Sigfried Giedion in his text Space, Time, and Architecture – the growth of a new tradition).

In this way, the functional elements of the architecture perform dual functions; they provide for both utilitarian needs and by way of carefully and deliberately integrated ornamentation they also create opportunity for the satisfaction of aesthetic and emotive functions required by humans to truly appreciate and be moved by space.

According to Le Corbusier Modernist Ornament is essential in the creation of truly great architecture and is by no means superfluous. Not only this, but furthermore, according to his holistic functional intentions these devices would be so heavily ingrained in the architecture “nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better.” (as defined by Owen Jones in The Grammar of Ornament).

For Le Corbusier, the creation of excellent architecture meant the artful treatment of even the most mundane elements to ensure beauty was a pervasive and all encompassing force – indeed, this is fundamentally contrary to the common understanding that Modernism is defined by the mantra “form follows function”.

For Le Corbusier, the essential quest of architecture was to prove that the poetry of function should also inherently deliver poetry of form.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret known as Le
Corbusier was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what we now now as Modernism.

Elements of Corbusian Ornamentation

The key elements utilised by Le Corbusier to ornament his architecture are:

1 Form, Volumes and Planes

2 Materiality

3 Texture

4 Scale and Repetition

5 Detailing

6 Colour

7 Art

8 Fenestration – Elongated Horizontal and Picture Windows

On Lac Leman, not far from Lausanne, Switzerland
Sketch by Poppy Bevan, in situ, 2010.

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