Voyage Le Corbusier, by Jacob Brillhart, collects for the first time a compendium of sketchbook drawings and watercolors of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret—a young student who would go onto become the singularly influential modernist architect, Le Corbusier. Between 1907 and 1911, he traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean carrying an array of drawing supplies and documenting all that he saw: classical ruins, details of interiors, vibrant landscapes, and the people and objects that populated them.
Le Corbusier was a deeply radical progressive architect, a futurist who was equally and fundamentally rooted in history and tradition. He was intensely curious, constantly traveling, drawing, painting, and writing, all in the pursuit of becoming a better designer. As a result, he found intellectual ways to connect his historical foundations with what he learned from his contemporaries. He grew from drawing nature to copying fourteenth-century Italian painting to leading the Purist movement that greatly influenced French painting and architecture in the early 1920s. All the while, he was making connections between nature, art, culture, and architecture that eventually gave him a foundation for thinking about design.
To learn from Le Corbusier’s creative search and to see how he evolved as an architect, one must understand where he started. He never attended a university or enrolled formally in an architecture school. His architectural training was mostly self-imposed and was heavily influenced by the teachings of his secondary-school tutor Charles L’Eplattenier, who taught him the fundamentals of drawing and the decorative arts at the Ecole d’art in his hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. Upon Jeanneret’s graduation from secondary school in 1907, L’Eplattenier encouraged him to leave behind the rural landscapes and broaden his world view by making a formal drawing tour through northern Italy. This pedagogy of learning to draw and learning through experience was likely influenced by the long tradition of the Grand Tour, a rite of passage for European aristocrats. Travel was considered necessary to expand one’s mind and understanding of the world. Architects, writers, and painters seized upon the idea, taking a standard itinerary across Europe to view monuments, antiquities, paintings, picturesque landscapes, and ancient cities.
The experience ignited in Jeanneret an enormous desire to see and understand other cultures and places through the architecture and urban space that shaped them. In Italy, he expressed his first real interest in the built environment, primarily studying architectural details and building components. Shortly after his return, he set off again, for Vienna, Paris, and Germany, becoming increasingly interested in cityscapes and urban design. Periodically he returned home to recharge and reconnect with L’Eplattenier.
During his travels, the sketchbook emerged as Jeanneret’s premier tool for recording and learning, and drawing became for him an essential and necessary medium of architectural training. Between 1902 and 1911 he produced hundreds of drawings, exploring a wide range of subject matter as well as means and methods of recording. With each trip he gained a broader view. As his interests shifted and expanded, so did his process of documenting what he saw. To his repertoire of perspective drawings of landscapes, beautifully detailed in watercolor, he added analytical sketches that captured the core of spatial forms and became a means of shorthand visual note taking. All the while, he frequently returned to old and familiar subjects to study them through different lenses in order to “see.”
Giuliano Gresleri, architectural historian and author of Les Voyages d’Allemagne: Carnets and Voyage d’Orient: Carnets (which include reproductions of Jeanneret’s notebooks during his travels to Germany and the East), said, “What distinguished Jeanneret’s journey from those of his contemporaries at the Ecole and from the tradition of the Grand Tour was precisely his awareness of ‘being able to begin again.’ Time and again, this notion stands out in the pages of his notebooks. The notes, the sketches, and the measurements were never ends in themselves, nor were they a part of the culture of the journey. They ceased being a diary and became design.”
In 1911 Jeanneret completed the capstone of his informal education, a second drawing tour that Corbusier eventually coined his “Journey to the East” (actually the title of a book of essays and letters that he wrote during his travels there, published in 1966). By this time, he was interested in understanding more than just the monuments: he looked at the architecture and everyday culture. He had mastered the art of drawing through the daily practice of observing and recording what he saw. Through this rigorous exercise of learning to see, he had developed a vast tool kit of subject matter, means of authorship, drawing conventions (artistic and architectural), and media. More important, through drawing he came to understand the persistencies in architecture—color, form, light, shadow, structure, composition, mass, surface, context, proportion, and materials. As he reached Greece (halfway through his Journey to the East), Jeanneret not only proclaimed that he would become an architect but was working toward a theoretical position about design around which he could live and work.
L’Eplattenier was not the only influence on Le Corbusier’s views of architectural theory and culture. In Paris he worked for the French architect Auguste Perret, who taught him to appreciate proportion, geometry, scale, harmony, and the classical language of architecture. In Germany, he met William Ritter, who would become another of Jeanneret’s mentors and closest confidants. A music and art critic, intellectual, writer, and painter, Ritter exposed Jeanneret to new ideas in the art and architecture worlds. Indirectly Ritter led him to architect Peter Behrens (for whom he would work for several months in Germany), encouraged Jeanneret to experience the beauty of peasant life while traveling abroad, and inspired him to write. Jeanneret and Ritter corresponded through many letters, and Ritter constantly challenged Jeanneret to look beyond the comforts of La Chaux-de-Fonds and the more conservative views of L’Eplattenier.
While traveling to Germany, Jeanneret also discovered buildings by Theodor Fischer, a Munich-based architect and professor of urban planning. Jeanneret greatly admired his work and was also impressed by Fischer’s aristocratic lifestyle. Though Fischer could not hire Jeanneret, he exposed him further to urban planning and reinforced the importance of geometric proportion in architectural design. In Germany Jeanneret also made friends with fellow painter August Klipstein. Thanks to their friendship, Jeanneret ultimately decided not to stay and work in Germany, but rather joined Klipstein as he traveled East. Their lively discussions on the road further allowed Jeanneret to flesh out his developing architectural ideals.
In the end, however, travel drawing was Jeanneret’s education and his rite of passage. Embodied in his sketchbooks is an incredibly comprehensive means of visual exploration and discovery. Though he never had a formal architectural education, his intense curiosity to understand the world through drawing and painting and writing is what made him such a dynamic architect, one from whom we can still learn today. The lessons he learned formed the basis of his general outlook and provided content for his later seminal text, Vers une Architecture. They also prepared him to become Le Corbusier.
An extract of this new book, which "is at once a critical introduction to Jeanneret's budding practice and a richly detailed visual travelogue," is presented here with a selection of