Lessons From Le Corbusier in Sustainable Design

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CC BY 2.0. La Tourette has a green roof/ Lloyd Alter

Really, there is a lot to love about his work that applies to green building. Really.

Writing in Citylab, Anthony Flint describes why people hate Le Corbusier:

..he became, in this widely shared view, a veritable force for evil, a destroyer of cities. He gave us blank walls, windswept plazas, and towers in the park; his wipe-the-slate-clean-and-start-over approach, seen in the 1925 Plan Voisin, a proposal for 60-story towers spaced well apart in the historic district of the Marais in Paris, helped inspire a dark era of urban renewal in this country.

He really was a TreeHugger.

Swiss Pavilion tree

Tree at Swiss Pavilion/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

He wouldn't chop a tree down if he could build around it, as he did at the Swiss Pavilion in 1930.

He didn't occupy land as much as rise above it.

Villa Savoye on piloti

Villa Savoye on piloti/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There were a number of reasons that Le Corbusier raised his buildings on Piloti or columns. He was obsessed with cleanliness and health and built the Villa Savoye and other buildings on piloti "to provide an actual separation between the corrupted and poisoned earth of the city and the pure fresh air and sunlight of the atmosphere above it."

La Tourette raised above the terrain

La Tourette raised above the terrain/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But he also did it to leave the ground plane free for other uses, and to preserve the natural landscape. La Tourette floats above the existing landscape, leaving the ground the way he found it.

Brazilian Pavilion has undulating floor

Brazilian Pavilion has undulating floor/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The floor in the Brazilian Pavilion actually undulates, following the existing terrain that was there before the building.

Flat roofs provided useable space.

Roof of the Unite d'Habitation

Roof of the Unite d'Habitation/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Roofs were flat to provide space that "compensated for the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof." And what glorious compensation it is; the roof of the Unite d'habitation in Marseille is a marvel. The parapet was just high enough that all you could see were mountains without climbing some of the elements he placed there.

He built healthy houses.

Maison Ozenfant used to have a glass ceiling too

Maison Ozenfant used to have a glass ceiling too/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As the late Paul Overy wrote in Light, Air and Openness, modern design was about dealing with germs and disease.

Dirt and dust harboured germs that must be destroyed by fresh air and sunlight. Homes should be cleaned thoroughly every day and windows and doors opened each morning to let in the sun and air, to destroy the germs. Heavy drapes and curtains, thick carpets and old furniture with decorative features that harboured dust and microbes should be thrown out and replaced with simple, easily cleaned modern furniture and light, easily washed curtains.

Le Corbusier took this to heart; there was light, air and openness in much of his work.

He used simple, natural methods for controlling light and air.

Bris de soliel at the Salvation Army

Bris de soliel at the Salvation Army/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Well, not always. The Salvation Army building started with a complex glass wall system that didn't work, and the people inside were cooking. He had to replace it with a system of bris de soliel.

He was a master of living with less.


Cabanon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

His own Cabanon, his vacation cabin Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is a model of simplicity, a true tiny house. Of course it helped that it was attached to a restaurant where he could eat every meal.

Toilet at head of bed

Toilet at head of bed in Cabanon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And even I have trouble with the toilet at the head of the bed.

room at Unite d'Habitation

room at Unite d'Habitation/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

My room at the Unite d'habitation was certainly small, but in fact was comfortable, with its own private deck and exterior table. Thanks to a bus breakdown I didn't get to stay at La Tourette, but Anthony Flint took a good photo of a room there.

But some of his buildings are thermal nightmares.

heating and glazing

Heating and glazing at La Tourette/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It can get cold in winter where La Tourette is, but the building is impossible, one giant thermal bridge. This particular detail of uninsulated concrete panels in among the concrete glazing made me shiver in June, just looking at it.

Le Corbusier's painting cabin

Le Corbusier's painting cabin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is much to complain about Le Corbusier. As Flint notes, he was "accused of being a capitalist, fascist, and communist, all at the same time. He was paternalistic, chauvinistic, a serial philanderer—and he was French!" But there is also so much to learn from him, and especially from his Unite d’Habitation apartment building, which I will write about shortly.