In his seminal work “Toward an Architecture” (1923), Le Corbusier compelled his contemporaries to forget the “kissing doves” of old architecture and embrace the beauty of the machinery and construction expanding before them. “May our eyes see,” he said, praising the innovative lines and structures of planes, ships and other transport vehicles.
But before he was considered the father of Modernism, the indefatigable Le Corbusier was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, an art student whose comprehensive sketches of classical monuments and ruins lay the foundation for his ground-breaking work in modern architecture, as well as his visionary theories on functionalism.
Architect and teacher Jacob Brillhart has gathered 175 of the young Jeanneret’s studies, for the first time, in the book “Voyage Le Corbusier.” Featuring his early drawings, sketches and watercolors taken from archives at Fondation Le Corbusier, this slim volume is a visual diary of the travels Jeanneret took through Europe between 1907 and 1911.
Brillhart, who used the sketches as a road map for his own European drawing trips, presents the book as an example of Jeanneret’s unflagging commitment to truly “looking and drawing to see and to understand in order to know.” While Jeanneret did not train formally as an architect, his sketchbooks were a laboratory that helped the young artist develop the philosophies he would expound upon in “Toward an Architecture” and later on as Le Corbusier.
Each of the book’s five sections encompasses a period of Jeanneret’s travels: “La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland,” where he was a high school student under renowned tutor Charles L’Eplattenier; “Italy”; “Europe”; “Germany”; and a section entitled “Journey to the East.” A map of Jeanneret’s travels and Brillhart’s commentary accompany each section.
For those who know Le Corbusier’s work, the detail and commitment these youthful sketches display will not come as a surprise. In the section entitled “Italy,” several analytical watercolors of the facades of the Baptistery in Siena reveal an intensity and rigor unusual for a 19-year-old. In “Europe,” looser sketches of Nuremberg would provide an accompaniment for the ideas presented in his book “Urbanism” (1925) and later inform his visionary city planning.
Brillhart describes Le Corbusier as “a deeply radical and progressive architect, a futurist who was equally and fundamentally rooted in history and tradition.” But those without an existing knowledge of Le Corbusier may find it difficult to sift through these sketches to see the specific connections between his early work and his revolutionary ideas on functionalism. Anyone looking for a deeper analysis of his work will have to turn elsewhere, perhaps to Nicholas Fox Weber’s excellent 2008 biography or Le Corbusier’s own journals.
But for those seeking inspiration for travel drawing, this book is sufficiently annotated and provides a useful road map of Jeanneret’s experience “on the road.” As a commentator and guide, Brillhart is adept, pointing out Jeanneret’s developing skills and philosophies in a way that’s easy for an amateur artist or art student to understand. It’s fascinating, for example, to see the comparisons between the detailed drawings and watercolors of the earlier section and the fluid pencil sketches created later. Yet more of this commentary from Brillhart would have been useful.
Still, “Voyage Le Corbusier” is beautifully presented and a pleasure to view and hold. Brillhart’s collection of a young artist’s formative work is a useful addition to understanding the work of Le Corbusier and the tradition of travel drawing. It’s a reminder of how essential it is to truly see.
Nicole Lee is a writer based in New York.
By Jacob Brillhart
Norton. 192 pp. $35