Vernacular and Modern Architecture
Lessons from Corbusier
Society today is so often seduced with glossy forms, machine aesthetics and the
grandeur of modern buildings driven by the architectural press. Traditional narratives
of architectural history lead us to believe that grand palaces, monuments and places
of worship were the only significant buildings of their time.
Neglected by these approaches are the buildings which are in fact, the most
pervasive of any period. Buildings sheltering ordinary people built by those with no
architectural training but were more concerned with fulfilling their needs and what
was suitable to their climate. It is such buildings we can call Vernacular.
Society continues to credit “Magazine Architecture”, the kind that makes a fashion
statement and wins critical acclaim for star architects, while disregarding vernacular
architecture, the unself-conscious product of culture that strives to do none of these
things. This research report shows a different perspective to vernacular architecture,
by analysing the vernacular influence in Le Corbusiers‟ life, one of the most
influential and admired modern architects of the twentieth century.
The author aims to show how these modest and architecturally unremarkable and
primitive buildings influence the development of Corbusiers modern designs as well
as to provide a new interpretation of the relationship between the vernacular and the
Fig.1 Le Corbusier
Modern architecture evolved less than a century ago. Its task was to reconcile an
idealized vision of society and to rediscover the „true‟ path to architecture. It was
about creating architecture that embodied the ideals of a distinct supposedly modern
age. This encompassed the works of architects who lost confidence in tradition and
rebelled against it. They believed the traditional forms of architecture, and daily lives
were becoming outdated, thus modern architecture became the creation of an
authentic style, a „contemporary‟ style, making drastic breaks from the past and
suiting the needs of a modern industrialized society. The notion of „antiquity‟
therefore became increasingly implausible.
For the purpose of this research, the term „vernacular‟, will be defined in a more
general sense, as embracing ethnic, folk, regionalist and primitive.
Vernacular architecture reflects the environment, culture and historical context in
which it exists. Vernacular forms are considered primitive and unrefined forms of
design, not commonly seen as architecture, yet these primitive forms comprise a
large percentage of the worlds built environment.
In the midst of these dogmatic versions of machinism, this „primitive‟ architecture
became a major inspiration and driving force for modern architectural designs. Many
acclaimed modern architects studied and analysed vernacular forms and its culture,
including aspects of the vernacular in their designs.
Modern Architects influenced by the Vernacular:
Louis Khan (1901 – 1974)
Louis Khan was one of the most significant and influential American Architects. The
post war architect was deeply interested in the Mediterranean and its culture and this
played a pivotal role in shaping his growth as an architect.
He captured the use of natural light and materials, as well as the employment of
permanence and the understanding of communal spaces. This is shown in
monuments such as the Salk institute and the Kimbell art museum.
Fig.4 Louis Khan Travel Sketch
Josep Lluis Sert (1902 – 1983)
Sert was one of Spain's greatest modern architects, noted for his work in city
planning and urban development. Throughout his career, Sert investigated the
vernacular forms of the Mediterranean and manipulated them into his own modern
Sedat Hakki Eldem (1908 – 1988)
Eldem acted as a major catalyst in the development of Turkish modern architecture.
He found inspiration in the Turkish vernacular, integrating elements of this vernacular
with his functionalist vocabulary.
Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris 1887-1965)
Le Corbusier‟s connection to vernacular forms covers an even longer span than
most modernists. His fascination forms a continuing thread throughout his lengthy
career. Corbusier was a pioneer in the modern movement, producing a series of
architectural masterpieces, renowned villas and theoretical urban schemes. His
strong intellectual discipline and a refinement for forms led him to the introduction of
new architectural devices such as the Modular and the five points of architecture.
Amongst other major industrial influences, Le Corbusier was deeply moved and
inspired by the vernacular of south Eastern Europe (the Balkans) which he
encountered on his Journey to the East in 1911.
The buildings which we can call vernacular, only began to be seen as worthy of
study within the last half century, with the publication of Bernard Rudofsky‟s
Architecture without Architects in 1964, as well as the accompanying exhibition at
the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By taking an interest in the vernacular
buildings on his Journey in 1911, Le Corbusier then known as a young Charles
Jeanneret was therefore ahead of time. The formative role of this voyage d‟Orient is
evident in his work thereafter. It is only natural therefore, to ask what the role of the
vernacular played in the modernist architecture of Corbusier.
How did the vernacular buildings studied during the Journey to the East influence the
development of Corbusiers modern designs and principles?
The author will focus on two quintessential moments in Le Corbusiers life:
1). The „Voyage d‟Orient‟ (Journey to the east) in 1911. This was the central
experience of the vernacular in Le Corbusiers youth.
The emphasis will be on:
- How the vernacular forms in the East directly influenced Corbusiers designs
and architectural principles.
2).The design of the modernist icon, the Villa Savoye at Poissy in 1928.
The emphasis will be on:
- How the vernacular played a role in the design process of the Villa Savoye.
- How this influence helped form Corbusiers strong beliefs in reconnecting an
industrialized society with nature and finding a new form of sacred for the
sceptical world of the twentieth century west.
Secondary Research – Books and Texts
This expedition taken by Corbusier is one of the best documented periods of his life.
His articles on the journey were published regularly in the Chaux-de-Fonds
newspaper La Feuille d‟Avis in 1911 and his sketchbooks from the journey have
been translated into many languages.
1). Ivan Zaknic translated and edited Jeanneret‟s publication in the book „Journey to
the East‟ (1987). In this research report, the author shall use this book as a main
reference for the analysis of Corbusiers sketches and notes.
2). Publications with Corbusiers early works and the modern icon Villa Savoye
Part 1: Voyage d‟Orient (Journey to the East, 1911)
The first powerful manifestation of this lifelong interest is recorded in his 1911 travel
notes and sketches from his trip to the East of Europe, also known as the orient. For
Corbusier, this was not the same grand tour taken by nineteenth century men, who
travelled with trunks full of books, servants, valets and interpreters. He ventured
beyond the conventional itinerary with his backpack and one companion Auguste
Klipstein, an art student he met in Berlin. Together, they set out from Germany, to
their first stop in Prague, through Austria to Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria,
Turkey, Greece and Italy.
Fig.9 Map of journey taken by Jeanneret 1911
Before Corbusier went on this trip, he had embarked on various study tours to places
such as Florence, Siena and Ravenna. His main influence at that time was Charles
L‟Eplattenier (1874- 1946), Le Corbusier‟s Professor and mentor at the La Chaux de
Fonds art school. L‟ Eplattenier was conversant with the natural landscape,
mountains and his ambition was to create a regionalist style and art movement.
Corbusier started his trip with a keen interest in landscape and in his travel accounts,
he writes about his love affair with the river Danube, as he travels from Vienna to
The solitude is incredible. For hours at a time there is nothing to be seen to the left or
the right but a line of trees along the horizon, tiny in the distance and blue in the
For Corbusier, the horizon and stretches of water were a huge inspiration for him.
The power of the horizontal is later referred to as part of his modern design
philosophy. This concept is shown in the La Tourette monastery, France 1957.
Fig.10 Sketch of the river Danube
Fig.11 Xenakis, Corbusiers La Tourette Monastery
Corbusier had a belief in finding something original and pure, and this reflected
philosopher Jacques Rousseau‟s theories which concerned the natural man and
basic life. This attitude is shown when he searched through Hungary in the town of
Baja, for the perfect archetypal vase and folk art that remained untouched by the
western industrialized civilisation. He found this traditional art to be without
constraint, the most expansive and the most beautiful.
The art of the peasant is a striking creation of aesthetic sensuality. If art elevates
itself above the sciences, it is precisely, because, in opposition to them, it stimulates
sensuality, awakening profound echoes in the physical being. It gives to the body-to
the animal-its fair share and then, upon this healthy base conducive to the
Expansion of joy, it knows how to erect the noblest columns. 2
One of the dominant features of Le Corbusiers modernism was its visual simplicity.
Whitewash was used regularly on the walls of the rural houses in Turnovo, Bulgaria
seen on Corbusiers journey, and this act was pivotal in the creation of this stripped
down, pure and original aesthetic. For Le Corbusier, the colour white represented
something pure, new, and modern, a view also taken by modernist Adolf Loos.
Corbusier links this vernacular architecture without ornamentation as superior and
Whitewash exists wherever peoples have preserved intact the balanced structure of
a harmonious culture… In the course of my travels I found whitewash wherever the
twentieth century had not yet arrived. 3
Le Corbusier saw the whiteness of the vernacular houses and the original folk art, as
evidence of a true architectural authenticity, and of architecture which had grasped
the fundamentals of the discipline without even realizing it as part of that discipline.
He acknowledges that the untutored builders did not need knowledge of
„architecture‟ or a theoretical framework, in order to create beauty in their built forms.
Le Corbusier developed a deep respect for the creators of the vernacular forms, and
believed that a high degree of sophistication could be found in cultures which had
remained untouched by Western influence. He writes telling his friend Leon Perrin
that „we others from the centre of civilization, are savages‟, in comparison to the
„peasants‟ he met in small Serbian villages.
Sketches made on the journey to the east were mainly of small rural dwellings, and
Corbusier used these dwellings as architectural precedents. He was inspired by the
Turkish and Ottoman dwellings, in terms of their interior organisation around their
central hall, their simple spaces, massing and blank street facades. These
vernacular qualities surface in his early built work – for example the Villa Schwob
(1916) shows how Corbusier uses simple profiles, bold masses and takes the street
as a baseline.
Fig.13 Sketch of house in Vienna Fig.14 Villa Schwob 1916 – simple, bold massing
Fig.15 Sketch of Inclined Street in Istanbul Fig.16 Villa Schwob 1916 – Street entrance
Continuing his description on the „folk‟ houses, Corbusier singles out balconies and
terraces as „charming small places‟ , where „ men sit on sofas and quietly smoke‟.
He describes a unique quality of this space where one can enjoy being inside and
outside at the same time
..opened out onto a wide wooden balcony, a true example of construction on piles
[…]. The vine branches over the ancient pergola […], like the painted trellis over the
house illuminated from below by hanging lanterns, were rippling in the night air
[…]The hill stretched down toward the sea, and from a high suspended terrace […]
we caught a glimpse of the sea, framed by the nervous architecture of a wooden
trellis covered entirely with vines whose clusters of blue and golden grapes hung
heavily down. 4
He describes pergolas, balconies and terraces, spaces which fuse the interior and
exterior. These are shown as „summer rooms‟, loggias and terraces in his designs,
such as the Villa Stein (1927) also named „Les Terraces‟, which takes visitors on a
spatial journey between the inside and outside. He also explores the architectural
promenade which links internal rooms with external terraces and roof gardens in his
earlier designs, the Villa Jeanneret-Perret (1912).
Fig.17 Sketches of Balcony and elongated terrace
Fig.18 Villa Stein, 1927 showing roof terrace
Le Corbusier is credited for his poetic play of light and shadow in the chapel of Notre
Dame du Haut, as well as his interplay of curves and rectangles in many of his well
known designs. These qualities are the defining characteristics of the vernacular
architecture and therefore it is to the Istanbul mosques we find the important source
for the collision of form, light and shadow which was so crucial in Le Corbusier‟s
Fig.19 Analysis Sketches showing light and shadow of Istanbul mosques
Fig.20 Sketch of Suleymanie Mosque 1557 Fig.21 Geometric composition of Villa Savoye
Le Corbusier admired the vernacular (folk) culture, and continued to value it as a
primitive equivalent to machine form. He identified with archetypal objects in his
journey to the east, primitive, simple, honest objects that show the heart and nature
of its culture
Part 2: Villa Savoye (1929)
Le Corbusier‟s discoveries from the vernacular are found evident in the Villa Savoye
at Poissy (1929). The Villa is considered by many, as the icon of modern architecture
and a masterpiece of Corbusier‟s purist design. The design features include the
modulor design, “pilotis”, roof garden, and ribbon windows providing openness and
Fig.22 Villa Savoye at Poissy 1929
The Author shall look at three main elements in the Villa which show the quality of
this vernacular experience.
1). Architectural glazing
Corbusier uses glazing to define the entrance space of the villa. The glass can be
viewed as a standardized industrial glazing widely used commercially. Corbusiers
sketches of the Orient show his fascination with boundaries, particularly the wall. He
was interested in the way the wall forms transitional and threshold spaces between
the inside and outside (Fig 23).The glazing around the entrance to the villa can be
viewed as blurring the boundary between the exterior and the interior of the villa.
Fig.23 Sketches showing entrances and wall
Fig.24 Villa Savoye – entrance glazing
2). The Ramp
Corbusier uses an ordinary, industrial ramp in the villa as a means of main
circulation. The ramp takes the visitor through a journey of inside and outside
spaces, an architectural promenade. The ramp shows how Corbusier attempts to
reinforce a „sacred‟ sense that one has not yet arrived, evoking ceremonial ramps as
those in the Oriental mosques he came across.
Fig.25 Sketches showing Journey and inclined street
Fig.26 Villa Savoye- ramp inside and outside
She opens the door that leads to the terrace and goes up the ramp towards the roof
garden...She appears to be moving from the inside of the house to the outside, to the
roof garden but this outside is again constructed as an inside with a wall wrapping
the space in which an opening with the proportions of a window frames the
3) Wash Basin
One of Le Corbusiers‟ principal aims was to bring reconciliation between nature and
man. The Journey to the east exerted an important influence towards this. In the
Radiant City, he wrote that „we will learn from the savages, from men close to nature,
who the academies have not touched‟. This shows his belief that the ideal
architectural form with which he credits the vernacular builders, was rooted in their
connection with the natural environment.
A sketch drawn of a „water temple‟ built into the side wall of a house; show
Corbusiers‟ interest in bringing nature (sacred water) into the domestic setting. The
washbasin placed in the entrance of the Villa (Fig 28), suggests the ablutions of
rituals taken in a mosque. The act of washing your hands before entering held for Le
Corbusier, connotations of cleanliness, rebirth and initiation. This shows Corbusiers
attempt to reconnect nature with the modern.
Fig.27 Sketch showing water temple
Fig.28 Villa Savoye- interior, sink
Le Corbusier finds in the Journey to the East, a spiritual richness and a sense of self
affirmation. Voyage d‟Orient was more decisive for him than schools and teachers.
Corbusier became acquainted with the traditional and the spontaneous, the
masterpieces of learned architecture, constructions in landscapes, human scale and
the mastery of light. The orient helped Corbusier formulate his own goals, and it was
because of this experience that he decided to be an architect.
“How painful was the ecstasy that seized us in those temples of the East! How
Withdrawn I felt, overcome by shame. Yet the hours spent in those silent sanctuaries
inspired in me a youthful courage and the true desire to become an honourable
Le Corbusier left Western Europe in search for the exotic, the primitive, and he found
it in the orient. The travels to the east opened wide horizons and exposed him to an
immense new social and visual culture.
Folk culture is a magnificent creation. An achievement purified by time and
number...Folk culture is so powerful that we all immediately respond to it; it offers the
broadest channel for the expression of the mind and the heart. Whether Tartar,
Romania, Scandinavian, Negro, or Bavarian, it holds past ages within itself. 7
Fig.29 Sketches if mosques and city of istanbul
Through pure and simple forms without nonessential decoration with a close
connection with nature and the nature of the society, a new kind of architecture
capable of rediscovering its original and sacred meaning, as in vernacular
architecture could be born. Can one reinvent a symbolic meaning in a society which
has lost a symbolic mode of thought, and to what extent can we question Corbusiers
approach to the „Orient‟?
Western contact with eastern countries have often been theorized and defined as an
idealized vision through the pre-existing fantasies of the visitors‟ imagination.
Corbusier admits that he had to work at experiencing the Vernacular tradition, “most
of all I wanted to love this place.” He knew what he wanted to see and clearly had a
case of a pre-existing notion of the culture. However, the purity and beauty of the
vernacular forms and culture in the east helped Le Corbusier create a new modern
aesthetic as well as inspiring him to reconnect with the nature in his own society.
In spite of this, Le Corbusiers attempt to instil a new modern and secular sense of
the sacred and traditional based on his impression on non-western cultures still
poses some challenging questions still relevant in our own contemporary context.
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1. Journey to the East pg .35
2. Journey to the East pg.15
3. Le Corbusier, Decorative art pg189
4. Journey to the East pg 179
5. Dwelling as a figure of thought by hans corneliss
6. Journey to the East pg xiv
7. Le Corbusier, The decorative art of today, 36
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Fig.3 - Personal Photos, Ladakh Himalayas
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Fig.10 – Le Corbusier The creative Search pg 149
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Fig.12 - Personal Photo
Fig.13 – Le Corbusier The creative Search pg 140
Fig.14 – Le Corbusier, early works by Charles Edouard Jeanneret, pg 44
Fig.15 – Journey to the East pg 163
Fig.16 – Le Corbusier, The creative search pg 92
Fig.17 - Le Corbusier, The creative search pg 37
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Fig.19 - Journey to the East pg 102
Fig.20 – Journey to the East pg 148
Fig.21 – Le Corbusier, The creative search pg 37
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Fig.23 – Le Corbusier, The creative search pg 155
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Fig.25 – Journey to the East pg 12
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Fig.27 – Journey to the East pg 112
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Fig.29 – Le Corbusier, the Creative search pg 163