Modern architecture by Le Corbusier in Switzerland – UNESCO World Heritage

The high, cubic entrance portico of Maison Clarte by Le Corbusier

During our recent guidebook research we went to see two buildings by the architect Le Corbusier in Switzerland. Both are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage. La Maison Clarté is a large modern apartment building by Le Corbusier in Geneva. By contrast, he built La Maison du Lac in Vevey as a modest retirement home for his parents.

The Tokyo National Museum of Western Art by Le Corbusier, a square beton building
A museum in Tokyo by Le Corbusier, also part of the UNESCO World Heritage

Altogether the UNESCO in 2016 declared 17 buildings by Le Corbusier, spread across seven countries, as World Heritage sites.

The architect Le Corbusier in Switzerland

Le Corbusier was born as Charles Jeanneret in a small town in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After a number of early projects he soon moved to Paris, but still returned a number of times to work in Switzerland. For the planned Palace of the Nations in Geneva, Le Corbusier submitted a design in 1927 which received a lot of support but was eventually not accepted.

Visiting La Maison Clarté by Le Corbusier in Geneva

Walking through Geneva and looking for the Le Corbusier building, we are at first surprised to find a seemingly standard apartment building with large balconies overlooking the lake. Does it look like iconic modern architecture? Or rather, at a first glimpse, like an average housing block similar to dozens down the road?

Massive window fronts of Maison Clarte in Geneve

On closer examination we notice the unusual layout and the elaborate window shades. A total of 45 units are spread out over 8 storeys.

Le Corbusier designed the apartment house in 1930 for a Geneva construction entrepreneur. The new modular system was ground-breaking and became a blueprint for many later apartment buildings. Which is the reason why it looks so familiar, nearly a century later – we realize. In contrast to post-war mass-construction apartment buildings, however, the Maison Clarté has rather luxurious details. Each flat spans over two floors, with huge balconies and two-storey windows. Apparently, there’s a classy roof terrace, too. The then rather dilapidated building received major renovations in 2007. It still functions as a dwelling and is thus not accessible to visitors.

Visiting the Villa Le Lac by Le Corbusier near Vevey

Another building by Le Corbusier in Switzerland is open to the public. The “petite villa Le Lac” on the outskirts of Vevey, by Lake Geneva, also seems unremarkable from the outside. Certainly, it occupies a beautiful spot on the lakeshore, but all visitors see upon arrival is a wall and the aluminium cladding of a small bungalow.

Exterior view of the Villa le Lac in Vevey

Le Corbusier built the house in 1923 for his parents, a retired couple who lived alone. They wouldn’t need much space, but everything should be convenient and comfortable for all kinds of activities. The size of the guest room could be adjusted with a movable wall, and kitchen and bath room were small and practical, placed in the back.

In those days, the 11 m long window over the whole front of the building was revolutionary. Combined with some strategically placed skylights, it gave ample light for reading or handicraft, and offered superb views of the lake. The simple but functional architecture became a model and prototype of modern architecture for everyone.

Iconic architecture in danger

Just when we arrive on a Sunday afternoon, an enormous thunderstorm breaks loose over Vevey and Le Corbusier’s villa. And after a while the intense rain starts leaking through the old window frames. The house hasn’t been renovated since the last descendants lived here, and many features are still the original ones. In fact, even much of the furniture is still original.

Rain coming through the windows of Le Corbusier's Villa le Lac

With other visitors, we rush to wipe the windowsills with tea towels, trying to prevent the masterpiece from water damage and mould … And about 30 minutes later the sun comes out again.

Are the architectural sites by Le Corbusier in Switzerland worth a visit?

If you have an interest in contemporary architecture you will enjoy a visit to La Maison Clarté in Geneva and the Villa Le Lac in Vevey. However if you have time only for one, the Villa Le Lac might be the better choice as it has official opening hours. The Villa is owned today by the Le Corbusier Foundation and there is always knowledgeable staff on site to answer questions.

How to visit the architectural sites by Le Corbusier in Switzerland

La Maison Clarté in Geneva is accessible from the city center on a longer walk or by public transport. The Villa Le Lac is located just off a big road on the outscirts of Vevey. Walking from the station is possible, but not nice. We would recommend taking a bus or a detour along the lake shore. The Villa Le Lac is only open to visitor on weekends: https://www.villalelac.ch

Garages and balconies of Le Corbusier's Maison Clarte in Geneva

Have you visited La Maison Clarté in Geneva or the Villa le Lac in Vevey?

Or did you visit any other buildings by Le Corbusier? Do you enjoy visiting contemporary architecture on your travels? Of course, some buildings are sightseeing spots in their own right, such as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Bauhaus School in Dessau. But sometimes, modern architecture makes for unexpected discoveries. For us, for instance, a visit to the studio of Luis Barragán was a travel highlight in Mexico. We had a fantastic tour in the house of this not so well-known modern architect.

Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

16 Comments

  1. Such a beautiful post on Le Corbusier architecture.I’m a big fan of contemporary and old architecture.And it let’s us ponder on how much thought has gone into the making of the buildings.

    1. Yes Le Corbusier was really a trendsetter for modern housing in Europe. These buidings are not only highly functional but also very aesthetic. It is fun to visit them and enjoy the design.

  2. After visiting Barcelonla I became interested in architecture. Gaudi’s work is so over the top, it will stand out to the end of time. I love that Charles Jeanneret’s work was embraced and replicated to the point that it appears common.

  3. I thought all this time UNESCO World Heritage sites are only for old architecture from hundreds of years ago. I’m more into old architecture, but Villa le Lac sounds interesting with its adjustable guests rooms. And that 11 m window is something special for sure.

    1. No – not at all! There are a LOT of contemporary buildings on the UNESCO list. The Bauhaus architecture in Germany, Luis Baragan in Mexico, Falling Waters in the US are just a few to name.

  4. So fascinating to read that Le Corbusier modern architecture pieces have a UNESCO designation. And that 17 buildings in different counties were recognized. But I do appreciate the simple but functional designs. We should plan to visit the Villa Le La in Vevey when we get back to Switzerland and check this out.

    1. The Villa Le Lac is beautiful and the setting at the shores of Lake Geneva spectacular. However it is open only at weekends. There is more sightseeing nearby like the Chaplin Museum in Vevey, Chateau Chillon and the vineyards of Lavaux.

    2. Hadn’t even heard of Le Corbusier before, but I can admire his work. I hope efforts are made to preserve these buildings for everyone to enjoy.

  5. Wow it is so good to read about Le Corbusier. I did not know that it was a UNESCO site. I have never been to Le Corbusier but at first honestly like you I thought what is so special about this building, it just looks like a standard apartment complex. But after reading it is when I realised why. And 11 metres window, that’s really cool.

  6. Fascinating read. Would have never realized this was a UNESCO site if I had not read about it. 11m windows sound intriguing. Nice to read about something new.

  7. What a layout! This is indeed a contemporary architecture I did not expect. It’s surprising to know that 45 units could fit in the whole 8 storeys. And that structure clad with aluminium? It looks lit!

  8. Architecture is always so fascinating and coming out with a modular accommodation in those days is certainly outstanding. The first look does not reveal the marvelous history about the place. Le Corbusier’s villa would be such a masterpiece to visit.

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