‘The history of architecture is the
history of the struggle for light’
Le Corbusier (right) inspects
his work at Ronchamp
So, whereas the purist light compositions of his early
work seek balanced harmony through a measured
layering and sequencing of space and light (light
structures spatial layering, compositions in light
demonstrate spatial order), in his post-war projects
it is the restructuring of spatial fields through a more
aggressive contrapuntal orchestration of light and
shadow that matters (fields of space are restructured
as fields of light, fields of light determine spatial order).
This can be taken as a sign of his growing awareness
of the architect’s role in controlling visual perception,
in deciding not only on the rhythms of spatial
compression and extension, but their temporal
equivalents, not only on what should and should not
be seen, but how long this might take.
On the course of this journey Le Corbusier’s windows
change dramatically. Having rethought the window
at the start of his career, he reinvents it again as his
constructional preferences and material vocabulary
evolve. First of all they are given three-dimensional
depth – the windows in the north and south walls,
Mary’s niche. Secondly, as one aspect of his increasingly
assured manipulation of curvilinear and rectilinear
form, they become gaps or fissures between elements
that qualify the perception of form and weight (the
crack of light below the roof, the light slots beside the
processional door). Thirdly, he realises that depending
on their distribution, they can transform walls into
screens of differing depths, weights and opacities (the
south wall, the brises-soleil of the light towers).
Although roof-lights and fenêtres en longueur are
still deployed on occasion, large wall areas entirely of
glass, pans-de-verre, are used more sparingly. Whereas
darkness, by implication, had once been something Le
Corbusier could not have too little of, its role in the
structuring of luminosity becomes increasingly evident
as he seeks more actively to ground his architecture,
to employ more highly textured surfaces and stronger
colour, and to qualify, redirect or filter light.
If the dialectics of matter and either mathematics or
language lie at the heart of l’espace indicible, this was
manifest in Le Corbusier’s architecture as a dialectics
of matter and light. More generally, the late works
show a dialectics of light and earth, where raw concrete
(beton brut) sustains primordial qualities. Often
qualified by harsh colour contrasts, this earthly, henge-
like architecture also sustains a more subtle luminosity
than the purist works, with their regular invocation of
a Mediterranean life in the sun, even in northern cities.
At the same time, Le Corbusier’s fascination with
opposites allowed his settings to compose themselves
from randomly disposed fragments that also obeyed
precise geometric relations, inspired by an experience
on the Brittany foreshore recounted in his book Une
Maison – Un Palais.
One can see premonitions of the later work already
in the early 1920s, such as at La Petite Maison; and
a turn towards more primitivist themes is evident in
architecture generally during the 1930s and certainly
after World War II. The dialectics of light and raw
matter itself first appears in the stage sets of Adolphe
Appia at the beginning of the century; and it is easy to
see that it has its source in the turn to poésie in German
Romanticism at the beginning of the previous century.
The romantic classic interpretation of this preference for
a more archaic or primordial architecture was reserved
for the totalitarian regimes; but the persistence of the
theme itself even into computer-generated, translucent
earth forms in recent architectural speculation suggests
that Le Corbusier’s work must be seen as part of this
more broad phenomenon.
Mary Ann Steane is an architect and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
This article is composed of edited extracts from her book The Architecture of Light:
Recent Approaches to Designing with Natural Light.
Published by Routledge, Oxford 2011; 246pp
ISBN 978-0-415-39479-6 (HB), £ 95
ISBN 978-0-415-39479-9 (PB) £ 29. 99
Also available as an e-book from Taylor and Francis