“The house must be the case of life, the happiness machine”

The architect, urban planner, painter and sculptor Le Corbusier, one of the leading figures of the avant-garde of the 20th century, did not hide his admiration for Gaudí’s work, which he knew on his visit to Barcelona in May 1928 to give lectures. (1) Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, such his real name, was born on October 6 in Switzerland and became a French citizen. In the prologue to a book dedicated to Gaudí in 1958 he recalled that trip and the impression that the contemplation of the Güell  Winery in Garraf and the works in Barcelona caused on him: “On the Paseo de Gracia, large buildings attracted my attention; in the background, the Sagrada Familia… the Gaudí event was making its appearance!”. (2)

bodegas Güell
Güell Winery in Garraf, that impressed Le Corbusier. © Fundación Antonio Gaudí

Le Corbusier used to draw pictures on his travels. An expressive sketch of his visit to Barcelona (3) analyzes the geometry of the Sagrada Familia schools, (4) which he accompanies with a constructive scheme of a thin brick vaulted structure. (5) This system will be applied in works such as the Jaoul houses, although it will be only used there as permanent formwork for reinforced concrete vaults.

The attached imitation of Gaudí’s signature shows that he was shown plans of his works, probably during a visit to the workshop where they were kept until their destruction in 1936. He thus denotes his admiration: “Gaudí was a great artist. Only those who touch the sensitive hearts of men stay and will remain”.

Croquis Gaudi-LC
Le Corbusier's sketch of his visit to Barcelona in 1928. © Fondation Le Corbusier

Gaudí, on the other hand, did not have such a favorable opinion of the buildings of Le Corbusier and his companions of the architectural avant-gardes. Of them he said for example that “they look like a station dock where they have unloaded containers”. (6) It should be noted that at that time the most dogmatic stage of functionalism and rationalism was forged, avant-garde currents that under the influence of the German and Dutch schools made functionality and utilitarianism prevail.

Despite the fact that he was a co-founder of “Purism”, linked to the aesthetics of the machine, and that his fame was founded on his role as an ambassador of “modern architecture”, Le Corbusier always understood architecture as an art where beauty and emotions play a fundamental role, gradually abandoning rigid positions to explore the expressive possibilities of materials and embrace a vision where plastic freedom gained ground.

Aerial view of the schools of the Sagrada Familia. © Art Anderson / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

His famous definition coined around 1920 of the house as a “living machine” includes all the factors about the idea of living and not only minimal spaces and functional relationships. “The house must be the case of life, the happiness machine” he added, expanding that concept. Remarkably, it was close to what Gaudí had stated almost half a century earlier in his writing “La Casa Pairal”: The house must be the place where strong and healthy beings and endowed with integrity of character are formed.

The reference to machinism was also related to his idea of industrially producing quality architecture, embodied in his project of “Maison Dom-Ino”, and perfected in the “Maison Citrohan” of the 1920s, which goes beyond the concepts of radical functionalism by giving ambiences a spatial quality capable of satisfying not only basic needs, but also psychological and emotional ones.

The Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier. Exterior and interior. © Fundación Antonio Gaudí

Around the middle of the century, works such as the chapel of Ronchamp or the buildings of Chandigarh fully introduced poetics into the panorama of “International Style” architecture, a curious expression coined to describe what was purported to be the absence of style. (7) He thus joined others who were not carried away by fashions such as Wright or Aalto who put human beings and nature at the center of architecture.

Ronchamp Chapel © https://megaconstrucciones.net/?construccion=capilla-notre-dame-du-haut
Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh. © duncid / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Despite the great constructive, expressive, contextual and philosophical differences between the works of Le Corbusier and Gaudí, there is a similar attitude of respect towards the needs of the user of architecture and a vocation to create by merging the useful and the beautiful. Art is capable of overcoming all ideological differences and propaganda intentions and what is finally left is the quality that the works of great creators embody.

It is not by chance then that we find coincidences in some of their sayings. The famous expression of Le Corbusier “Architecture is the wise, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together under the light” (8) can be matched by Gaudí’s saying “Architecture is the first plastic art. All its excellence comes from the light. Architecture is the ordering of light.”

 When Le Corbusier explained that architecture is much more than construction, expressing “Architecture is a matter of art, a phenomenon of emotions, which remains outside and beyond construction issues. The purpose of construction is to keep things together and that of architecture is to delight us” (9) said the same thing as Gaudí: “Build! Build Beauty! Search in nature for the image of mystery and turn it into architecture”.

(1) La Vanguardia. Barcelona. 5-15-1928. P. 10; 5-15-1928. Pp. 6,27 y 28; and 5-17-1928. P. 30.

(2) Preface. Gaudí. Gomis, Joaquim and Prats Vallès, Joan. Barcelona. Ed. R. M. 1958.

(3) Le Corbusier. Travel card C11. 1928.

(4) Although it could also be the disappeared workshop of the Sagrada Familia, with the same roof system but with flat walls instead of ondulated ones as in the schools. http://jaumeprat.com/las-otras-pedreres-y-4-un-le-corbusier-posible/ 

(5) Due to the shape and dimensions, it could correspond to the Gandesa or Sant Cugat cooperative wineyards, both works by César Martinell, or the Masia Freixa de Terrassa, by Lluís Muncunill.

(6) Gaudí’s expression towards “modern architecture” after visiting an exhibition of the projects for the Barcelona Municipal Theater competition. Bergós Massó, Juan. Gaudí El Hombre y la Obra. Universidad Politécnica de Barcelona. 1974. P. 135.

(7) Russell-Hitchcock, Henry. The International Style: Architecture Since 1922. W. W. Norton & Co. New York. 1932.

(8) “L’architecture est le jeu savant, correct et magnifique des volumes assemblés sous la lumière”. Le Corbusier. Vers une architecture. Les éditions G. Crès et cie. París. 1924. P. 16.

(9) “L’ARCHITECTURE est un fait d’art, un phénomène d’émotion, en dehors des questions de construction, au delà. La Construction, C’EST POUR FAIRE TENIR; l’Architecture, C’EST POUR ÉMOUVOIR”. Ibíd. P. 9.