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Architect and Artist: The Rigid Le Corbusier Colored Outside the Lines in Greenwich Village

A city “utterly devoid of harmony” — that is how the controversial Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, described New York without actually having ever visited when he made this statement. Le Corbusier would eventually come to New York for the first time in 1935, and didn’t change his mind. There is only one building in the city that Le Corbusier himself had a hand in designing, along with the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer — the headquarters for the United Nations. However, for nearly a century, Le Corbusier’s ideas have had a dramatic influence on New York, including in and around Greenwich Village and the East Village. Interestingly, his own artistic ideas were every bit as free flowing and rambling as the Greenwich Village neighborhood in which he found a home and respite, at least temporarily.

Le Corbusier in 1964

Born in Switzerland on October 6, 1887, by the 1920s Le Corbusier had already made a name for himself publishing a series of highly influential essays on the future of architecture. These were eventually published together and expanded upon in his 1923 book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture), where he laid out his ‘Five Points of Architecture.’

  1. Pilotis –  slim columns to support the building.
  2. Free design of the ground plan – open floor plan.
  3. Free design of the façade – absence of load-bearing walls.
  4. Horizontal window – long windows to allow more light in to increase the sense of space.
  5. Roof garden – flat roofs to allow a tranquil area that also helps protect the concrete and creates additional space.
Le Corbusier’s vision of a perfect city

These five points were expanded into not only a vision for individual buildings, but an entire city, with Le Corbusier’s Ville contemporaine (Contemporary City) concept which in turn evolved into his Ville radieuse (Radiant City) plan. The idea was to create a symmetrical and standardized built environment by designating areas separated by function, with access to communal green space and other features. Each tower block would in effect become a vertical community with core basic amenities part of the structure. This radiant city and the so-called ‘tower-in-the-park’ concept would shape the building of countless housing projects throughout the world, including here in Greenwich Village with Washington Square Village (1958) and in East Village with Jacob Riis Houses (1949) and Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village (1947). 

Jacob Riis Houses in 1949
Washington Square Village (1958)

But while Le Corbusier planned cities with straight lines, the brush strokes of his paintings, many actually created in Greenwich Village, came together to create dream-like and more free-flowing images. While working on the UN headquarters, Le Corbusier sought refuge from the stress of his work here in Greenwich Village. He had become good friends with the Italian artist and sculptor Costantino Nivola, who had fled Italy in 1939. Nivola lived with his wife and children at 47 West 8th Street. Le Corbusier stayed with Nivola at his homes in Greenwich Village and Long Island.

47 West 8th Street today

Surprisingly, Le Corbusier was himself a life-long artist whose paintings were influenced by Picasso and surrealism. Throughout his life he would create several hundred works, many of which eventually became part of Nivola’s own personal collection. 

Le Corbusier, Femme a la Bougie I, 1946-47

It is a strange twist that an architect who so profoundly influenced architectural design, both in New York and around the world, by infusing it with an almost antiseptic sense of order and structure, himself lived for a time in New York’s most charmingly rambling and un-orderly neighborhood, creating surrealist works of vivid imagination.  

Le Corbusier and Costantino Nivola in front of UN Headquarters

Want to learn about other rigidly geometric modern architects who paradoxically found a home and inspiration in historic, irregular Greenwich Village? Read about godfather of corporate modernism Gordon Bunshaft and his time in Greenwich Village.

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