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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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!