Le Corbusier in Africa and elsewhere

Le Corbusier (1887-1965) is such a world-famous name that it’s hardly worth introducing him again, as one of the pillars of 20th-century architectural history. Born in Switzerland (in La Chaux-de-Fonds) and naturalised in France, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (real name Le Corbusier or Corbu) continues to arouse admiration, debate and controversy, regarded by some of his peers as a visionary and by others as a poor builder. The discovery of the designer’s ‘dark side’, with his long-hidden extreme right-wing convictions, did not leave his admirers indifferent either.


An architect, town planner, decorator, painter, theorist and sculptor, his projects have ranged from collective housing, standardised housing, detached houses and studio residences to industrial programmes, sacred architecture and a host of other unbuilt projects. Having worked in many countries (Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Japan, Argentina, India and Tunisia), his projects have become veritable symbols of modernism, considered revolutionary. Seventeen of them, including ten in France and the others on three continents, are listed as Unesco World Heritage sites. A European cultural itinerary entitled ‘Destinations Le Corbusier: architectural walks’ has been created in 2019 to invite us to discover them.


A protagonist of the ‘modern movement’, defined by five points (the pilotis, the banded window, the free plan, the free facade and the flat roof), his work and thinking have had a particularly strong influence on generations of architects from the post-war period to the present day. As the inventor of the housing unit, Le Corbusier introduced new ideas to European architecture, such as functionalism, purism (geometric simplicity, simplicity of form, organisation, rigour), adaptation to constraint and the link between nature and architecture. His architectural ‘language’ applies equally to low-cost housing and luxury villas. ‘A house is a living machine. Where there is order, there is well-being”, he used to say.


Throughout his life, Le Corbusier spent many weeks on planes and in airports, acquiring new techniques and perfecting his knowledge by drawing inspiration from the countries he visited and the architectural elements he found here and there. He also had a strong interest in so-called ‘primitive’ arts and ‘cultural traditions’, which he loved to admire in ethnographic museums. While his main projects are well known, such as the Villa Savoye (1928-1931), the Cité Radieuse (1947-1952), the Ronchamp chapel (1953-55) in France and the city of Chandigarh (1950-1965) in India, the Villa Baizeau in Carthage, Tunisia, is less well known.


Built between 1928 and 1930 on the Sainte-Monique hill in the Carthage district north-east of Tunis, it is the only architectural project that Le Corbusier designed on the African continent. Lucien Baizeau, a French public works engineer and contractor (Schwich & Baizeau) based in Tunis, went to the Swiss architect’s Paris studio to commission a holiday villa that he had designed himself and would like to see adapted. The numerous exchanges and complicated counter-proposals between the client and the architect continued right up to the end. Lucien Baizeau asked him several times to revise his copy, complaining in particular about the lack of protection against the sun and the sirocco. ‘The challenge was to protect the house from light and ensure constant ventilation,’ explains the architect. 


The white building, all stilted walkways, sleek lines and roof terrace, looks like an ocean liner. Visible only from Carthage Amilcar beach and further along the coast, it stands on a hillside, planted against the Mediterranean azure, with a breathtaking 180-degree view: to the left, the blue-and-white paradise of Sidi Bou Saïd, opposite the Djebel Boukornine mountain, to the right Carthage and its archaeological sites, in the background, the port of La Goulette and in perspective, the city of Tunis. The villa remained inhabited by its original owners until Tunisia’s independence in 1956, when it became part of the presidential palace and is now home to the Tunisian secret service. Unfortunately, it is no longer accessible to the general public, arousing keen interest among lovers of architecture and Le Corbusier. In the first volume of his Œuvre complète 1910-1929, Le Corbusier devoted four pages to it, which can be consulted in the archives at the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris.


The exhibition at 32 Bis, which was devoted to him for almost 6 months (from 15 January to 31 May), featured a wealth of documentation including plans, photographs, models, texts, recordings and more. The exhibition, curated by architectural historian Roberto Gargiani, Professor Emeritus at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, explored every facet of the project, including the moving testimonies of members of the Baizeau family who happily lived there.


But Le Corbusier’s curiosity did not stop at La Tunisie. His attraction to the Mediterranean took him to Morocco and Algeria in August 1931 and March 1933, where he filled his usual pocket notebooks and large drawing albums with sketches of a project for the Algerian capital, genre scenes captured in villages, portraits of Moorish women, female nudes, landscapes of the Bay of Algiers, aerial views of the Saharan desert and the oasis of Ghardaïa, captivated by the discovery of an unexpected civilisation a thousand years old.


Text by Christine Cibert

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