Le Corbusier's Polychromie Architecturale

Le Corbusier’s life was as intense as his architecture is influential, his career as vivid as his work. Color, not surprisingly, was a consuming interest and a consistent focus of his attention. He was an excellent painter, as well as a great architect. From the beginning of a long career, in which he designed 75 buildings in a dozen countries, Le Corbusier (b.1887, d.1965) was intrigued by the architectural possibilities of color. More than that, he was convinced of the centrality of color to human experience. “Man needs colors to live,” he wrote. “It is an element as necessary as water and fire.”

Right from the start, Le Corbusier took responsibility for the color scheme of his buildings. His concern with the role of color in architecture deepened over the years, and his thinking evolved as his career progressed. When he was a young architect, in the years after the First World War, form came first, but even then he believed that color is one of the “fundamental elements in the architectural perception”. Busy with building, Le Corbusier nevertheless put huge effort into developing an ‘architectural polychromy’ based on the harmonious use of natural colors. He drew inspiration from the colors that occur in nature because those are the colors most familiar to us; their associative properties, Le Corbusier believed, enrich our experience of architecture, and therefore of life.

To produce nature’s colors, Le Corbusier argued, you must use nature’s materials — the pigments of the earth. This was not just a matter of polychromatic honesty, which Le Corbusier expressed by naming his colors for the pigments which made them; it was also a means of achieving a color standard independent of manufacturers’ idiosyncratic color charts. In 1931 Le Corbusier systemised his color philosophy in a commercial collection of 12 ‘color keyboards’ made up of 43 colors, a method, he wrote, “that makes it possible to plan, in the modern home, color harmonies which are definitely architectural and yet suited to the natural taste and needs of the individual”.

Le Corbusier’s belief in the supremacy of natural colors strengthened over time and his own palette shifted as his estimation of the architectural value of color increased. By the mid-1930s, he had recast the relationship in his architecture between color and form. They are, he wrote, of equal importance: “Polychromy is an architectural technique as powerful as the plan and the section. Better than that: polychromy is itself an element of the plan and the section.”

Villa La Roche

The assertion of the autonomous power of color in architecture is reflected in the vibrant hues Le Corbusier added to his color repertoire in the 1940s and ’50s, and which he presented in his second color collection of 1959 — a ‘keyboard’ of 20 strong, plain colors. Again, natural selection was the principle that guided the composition of the ‘keyboard’. Le Corbusier chose colors from nature because they offer the people using them the opportunity to express their nature: “Color is intimately attached to our being,” he wrote. “Each of us perhaps has their color.”

Le Corbusier’s holistic, systemic approach to space-shaping through color, and the color collections he devised, are as potent now as at the time of their creation. The Fondation Le Corbusier, which owns all the rights to Le Corbusier’s estate, has granted Les Couleurs Suisse AG the exclusive rights to preserve, honour and promote Le Corbusier’s ‘architectural polychromy’, and the right to license use of Le Corbusier’s color collections. Les Couleurs® Suisse carefully selects international partner companies with which to work. In Australasia, Hong Kong and the United States the company selected to continue Le Corbusier’s legacy of color — to use the same natural pigments he used, to produce the same natural colors he produced, and to meet the same standards he set — is drikolor.

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