Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital
An Infinite Expandable Architectural Ideal
Anderson Lee 李亮聰
The unprecedented pressure placed on medical systems and their associated infrastructure during the recent Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for our profession to re-examine health-care architecture. While the arguments for having functional and efficient modern hospitals are indisputable, the relationship of hospital buildings to a city’s fabric, its planning logistics and its social and cultural impacts should never be overlooked. Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital Proposal by raised these kinds of poignant questions more than half century ago; they remain as valid as ever today. Under the current competition between cities to build the tallest and the biggest, the significance of designing buildings such as hospitals as alternative ‘landmarks’ embodying architectural values beyond the pragmatic should also be closely examined. This essay attempts to analyse Le Corbusier’s architectural ideas and ideals through the Venice Hospital Proposal of 1964-1978. It also explores how the practice of architecture is neither a purely functional pursuit nor an effort of sheer artistic interpretation, but rather involves both – as epitomised by the clasped hands that appeared on the last page of Le Corbusier’s Creation is a Patient Search. There are always lessons we can learn from the great masters as we ponder the current state of the practice in our discipline.
Affinity: Venice and Le Corbusier
In autumn 1907, Charles Eduard Jeanneret (1889-1965) chose Northern Italy as the beginning of his ‘Grand Tour.’ From Florence he travelled to Siena, Verona, and Vicenza before concluding his journey in the great city of Venice. Influenced by his teacher L’Eplattenier, Jeanneret filled his sketchbooks with drawings of details of the Venetian palaces and palazzos he visited during the final two weeks of this two-and-a-half-month journey. This Ruskinian way of seeing and visually recording allowed him to avoid depicting Venice as a city rising up from water. Rather, it was the internal composition of the buildings and their magnificent details which fascinated the young Jeanneret, still an artist and yet to become Le Corbusier, the architect we know of today. This trip must have left a lasting impression. It was the first time he had left the quiet Swiss village of Le Chaux-de-Fonds. The drawings and sketches he produced during this time hinted that he was intrigued by the history and culture of Venice, especially through its built forms rather than the city as a whole. The fine details pencil and ink sketch for the Palazzo Ducale conclude his first encounter with the City on Water.
In 1922, Jeanneret returned to Venice with his patron and friend Raoul La Roche to look for art and architectural references for the soon-to-be commissioned Villa La Roche (1923-25). With Maison-Dom-Ino as his manifesto (1914-15), Le Corbusier observed Venice as an architect for the first time. The city as a collection of juxtaposed artifacts and edifices, infused with piazzas of historical significance at various sizes and scales and with different modes of circulations each with an intricate relationship with its waters, seemed to have caught his attention. Architectural historian Stanislaus von Moos argued that Venice remained a ‘mythical’ presence in Le Corbusier’s heart.² ‘In later years, Le Corbusier referred to Venice as a model for the solution of the widest range of architectural problems: repetition used to organize the surfaces of large buildings (the Procurazie Vecchie); separation of traffic lines to organize circulation (the canals); and the acceptance of tension and contrast of forms and styles within an urban whole, as opposed to superficial “harmony” (Piazza San Marco).3 Sketches produced during this period further reinforced his keen observations and interests in the lagoon city, especially its logic, circulations, movements and the infinite spatial possibilities these presented.
In 1934, Le Corbusier visited Venice to attend a symposium organised by the Institute of Intellectual Co-operation. The year before, in La Ville Radiuese, he had praised Venice as a city full of energy and lessons. It was in fact the precursor of the Antwerp Plan he also proposed in 1934. ‘Venice is a precise mechanism, wisely and justly used, an exact product of human dimensions. Venice, a functional city, so extraordinarily functional, is a model to the city planners of today, a real example of the strict pattern exerted by the urban phenomenon,’ he noted.⁴
In the summer of 1963, after over a year of courtship from the mayor of Venice and others, Le Corbusier accepted an invitation to design the New Venice Hospital. This would be the last known project from the studio at 35 Rue de Sevres. Le Corbusier died following a cardiac arrest while swimming off the coast of his favorite Le Cabanon in Cap Martin on August 27, 1965 at the age of 76. A young Chilean architect named Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente was immediately put in charge of finishing the working drawings of the hospital project, though in the years that followed, the project was eventually cancelled for political reasons, officially ending an architectural affair that had lasted more than 14 years.
The Venice Hospital Project comprised five levels totaling 35,000 square metres spread along the old Gidudecce neighborhood in Venice. Its importance as a ‘gateway’ for the lagoon city as one approaches from the Mestre district is beyond doubt. As illustrated in many of the sketches Le Corbusier produced for the new hospital, he was clear about the symbolic meaning of the project, equating the significance of the hospital to that of the Campanile di San Marco (fig 1). Le Corbusier might not have foreseen this was his last work, but the Venice Hospital Project revealed the architectural ideals based on steadfastness and tenacity he had pursued throughout his life.
‘All pictorial form begins with the point that sets itself in motion … the point moves … and the line comes into being – the first dimension. If the line shifts to form a plane, we obtain a two-dimensional element. In the movement from plane to spaces, the clash of planes gives rise to a body (three-dimensional) … A summary of the kinetic energies which moves the point into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a spatial dimension.’
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
The idea of expansion from a single point to a line, a plane and ultimately to a volume are a common teaching tool in the education of an architect. The Venice hospital can be seen as a reiteration of this operation both formally and conceptually, allowing it to be seen as a plausible new reading of the ‘Analytical Five Points’ and further revealing the pursuit of architectural ideals that stamped all Le Corbusier’s work.
1. The Point is the beginning; it is a point of departure from a collective whole. It implies expansion. Upon the completion of Villa Savoye in 1928, Le Corbusier was invited to deliver a lecture in Argentina. For the first time in public, Le Corbusier demonstrated that the Villa Savoye could be envisioned as a ‘repeatable’ unit. ‘The same house. I should set it down in a corner of the beautiful Argentina countryside; we shall have twenty houses rising from the high grass of an orchard where cows continue to graze.⁵ Besides the well-known ‘Five-Points in Architecture’, of which Villa Savoye is an example par excellence, this was the first time that the villa was treated as part of a collective whole. Despite his interest in the housing conditions of an individual, Le Corbusier was far more concerned with the relationship between the cell and the organism.⁶ Moving onto a larger scale, Unite d’habitation (1952) has never been seen as a single block of housing either. It is a block within a field as shown in his ‘Master-Plan of South Marseilles’ proposal. The important relationship between the single point of origin within a collective network was further substantiated in the relationship between the Calle (line) and Campiello (point) in the Venice Hospital.
In the technical report written by Le Corbusier, he described the importance of these nodal and linear elements: ‘The Structure created by the Calli and Campielli becomes the domain of the upright man. These places are not only for circulation, but are equipped with all the necessary to permit social life … that the patient would experience the same feelings that he would have in the city.⁷
The importance of the Campiello is further highlighted by the placement of an elevator in the middle of the space to facilitate movement to the other levels of the hospital. If an obelisk, a water fountain or a historical statue could serve as a focal point in the old campiella in the fabric of Old Venice, the heart of the campiella in the New Venice would be replaced by the Machine – the Elevator. It completed the idea that ‘a house is a machine for living’ in the most literal and symbolic sense. Much care and attention have been given to emphasising the importance of this campo-inspired space in the project. Each campiello is a conceptual equivalent of Villa Savoye as a ‘formal absent.’ This ‘charged -void’ extended itself from its four corners to become the calle – the line of infinite expansion. Together, the lines combine to form a network of movement within the project on multiple levels.
2. The Calle is the line expanded from the Campiello; it creates the ‘Pinwheel’ Plan: One should note that the campiello spread into calli from its four corners, rather as one would approach the Piazza de San Marco. Le Corbusier was strongly influenced by a book written by Sitte and Brickmannn in 1889. In this book, the historian Schnoor argued that ‘When the accesses to the square were not placed between the walls, but when they were born hidden near the corners …[they] demonstrate the beauty of an irregular space of this type that hides perfectly the accesses.’ Le Corbusier was influenced by Sitte’s plan of the Piazza San Marco in Venice⁸. Besides providing a spectacular perspectival and diagonal approach to the campiella, as suggested by many sketches Le Corbusier of Venice during his multiple trips there, his off-centre approach to an intersection avoids the confluence of traffic. In La Ville Radiuese, he pointed out the problems of this kind of intersection and its potential dangers, further describing its shortcomings in When the Cathedrals were White about his first visit to New York in 1935. His ‘pinwheel plan’ addressed the ‘collision’ issue, but, more importantly, also gave rise to the spiralling plan partially inspired by the shape of a seashell in the competition entry for the Museum of Infinite Growth he proposed in 1939.
A more refined version of this spiral and pinwheel ideas was further developed and realised in the Museum of Western Arts in Tokyo in 1958. The idea of infinite expansion as a direct spatial result of the pinwheel plan is undoubtedly one of Le Corbusier’s trademarks.⁹ It is interesting to note that the idea of infinite growth is in essence a linear expansion. Each route in the plan could be traced back to a single point of origin (fig 2). That a line is an infinite expansion from a point is illustrated convincingly via the pinwheel plan.
At the same time, the Calli in the hospital project were not merely perceived as circulations but as programmed space such as lounges, reading corners, chapels and so on according to Le Corbusier’s ‘Technical Report’ for the scheme. On other floor levels of the project, the circulation networks performed distinctive roles and purposes. The extension of these circulation lines defined the uniqueness of each level according to its function and purposes, with their programmed surfaces meeting the complex requirement of the client’s brief.
Worth noting are Le Corbusier’s keen observation on the multi-modes of circulation in Venice. The early traces of his understanding of such overlaying of modes of circulation was first suggested in his Antwerp plan (1933) subsequently published in La Ville Radiuese in 1937. Declaring Venice’s role in his inspiration and influences, he said that the city and what he learnt from it formed a ‘preamble to the Antwerp Plan’. A unique aspect of the Antwerp plan was the presence of three distinctive layers of circulation: an overlapping diag-grid, an orthogonal grid with a ‘nature-grid,’ and a ‘mesh in the network of ground-level highways, and the pedestrian system with 4 “valleys”¹² (figs 5 & 6). It is crucial to understand the implication of overlaying three system types as a design strategy because while they on the one hand provide a high degree of independence they also allow for inter-dependence between layers. This is not unlike the three distinctive layers/levels seen in the Venice Hospital project. It is precisely the independence of the layout of each floor and its associated circulations and movements that provide a strong argument for Jullian’s defence of why the hospital project should not be mistaken as another ‘mat’ building.¹³ Unlike Piet Blom’s Noah’s Ark Project of 1962, the layout of each floor in the Venice Hospital is not repetitive and therefore cannot be perceived as infinitely expandable in any direction; it must follow the same strict logic seen in the ‘pinwheel plan’).
4. The volume is a series of composed planes. Klee once noted, ‘[A] clash of planes gives rise to a body (three-dimensional).’ Such clashes allow a design team to formalise solid and void spatial relationships between campiella, water courtyards, the ground level and the levels above. They also present an opportunity to investigate the sectional quality of buildings. Based on a set of an almost mystical numerical dimensions, Le Corbusier introduced various cuts and openings to the floors in the Venice Hospital in order to provide spatial richness to the project, as can be seen in study models from Jullian’s Studio.¹⁴ Where the pilotis layout hit the Veneto water surface, it opened up spatial possibilities in all directions. This idea was a grand return to the fundamentals of the ‘five-points’ on ‘free-plan’ and ‘free-section’ concepts as found in Villa Savoye.
Unquestionably, it was the top level (Level 3) where the Unite Lit, Campiella and Calle were placed, that the design team would devote the most significant part of their efforts. This was to be a floor dedicated to the wellness of patients suffering from long-term illness. The level summarised Le Corbusier’s life-long pursuits to combine the modular, light, air and space with the idea of infinite growth. The design of the Unite Lit (the care unit) is comparable to that of a gallery in an art museum. One can easily find close resemblances in the architectural section of the Cite Universitaire (1925) and the Tokyo Western Art Museum (1958) to that of the Unite Lit, almost down to their physical dimensions. The indirect and diffused lights which enter the unit, with raised hospital beds seemingly inspired by a painting of Carpaccio,¹⁵ together with the meticulous specifications offered by Le Corbusier himself in his Technical Report, provide a glimpse into the importance of the unit to the building as a whole¹⁶ (fig 7). With its volumetric studies resulting in the most recognisable feature of the project, the roof became the building’s fifth facade. Its uniquely shaped skylight punctuates the Venetian blue sky, evoking a memory of the sculpted roof of the Ronchamp Chapel (1958), though with the scale magnified and the quantity multiplied.
5.Time: Volume is expanded through time; the Venetian lagoon would have been the next frontier. Once expansion across three dimensions was completed, the Venice Hospital Project was left with just one other direction to move in – through time. As Le Corbusier had shown in his ideas for the Museum of Infinite Growth, the pinwheel plan he developed over the years would have allowed such a mission to occur. Perhaps it is noteworthy here to foreshadow the architectural climate and debates of the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to position the Venice Hospital Project in relation to its influences or inspirations. That period saw the rise of a group of post-war young Japanese architects who identified themselves as the Metabolists. Led by the future ‘godfather’ of the Japanese modern architecture movement Kenzo Tange, the group participated in international conferences and promoted the idea of a new future mode of living. Kenzo Tange openly declared his admiration of Le Corbusier and was also a disciple of Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986), perhaps the first Japanese to work at Atelier 35, Rue de Sevres. Maekawa’s footsteps were followed by Junzo Sakakura (1901-1969) and Takamsa Yoshizaka (1917-1980).¹⁷ Yoshizaka was closely involved with Le Corbusier in the execution and completion of the National Western Art Museum. Sakakura and Yoshizaka also collaborated with the young Tange in Team Tokyo.¹⁸ During the museum project, Yoshizaka must have been in constant communication with his mentor in Paris, thus making Le Corbusier plausibly aware of the architectural activities taking place in this part of the world by his distant disciples.
Kiyonori Kikutake (1928-2013), another member of the Metabolist group, first proposed his Marine City in 1958. That idea was supplemented by Tange’s iconic Tokyo Bay Master plan in 1960. It is hard not to believe such a media-savvy person as Le Corbusier was not aware of the daring proposals at such grandiose scale being drawn up by these young counterparts of his on the other side of the globe. Even if Le Corbusier claimed to be too occupied by his daily routine, even urging his collaborators at the Atelier not to engage in small talk, the young Jullian, who participated in some of these international conferences, such as CIAM and Team X, where Kikutake, Tange Kurokawa’s projects were presented, would have known of these ambitious schemes on the sea, and perhaps even participated in some of the heated debates.¹⁹ The sea, that infinite expandable horizon and so the next frontier for expansion, was the perfect laboratory for experimentation on future living and urbanism. The heated discussion and debates of those times, together with their possibilities for technological advancement, might have planted a seed, consciously or not, in the atelier for the yet to be envisioned Venice Hospital project. At a very early stage, Le Corbusier adamantly opposed the idea of building tall in Venice; instead his gaze was already set on a horizontal building that would stretch out to the lagoon as a new landmark for the city.
Though an unrealised project, the Venice Hospital Project reflected the culmination of architectural and urban ideas from an architect who completed his first building at the age of seventeen and a half. It represented the pursuit of issues pertinent to the core thinking of an individual who committed most of his life to looking for solutions: The idea that the mode or methods of production should reflect its time; that humanity, and not machine nor technology, should be placed at both the forefront and the heart of architecture; that one must understand and learn from history and the city, absorbing its culture, in order to progress; a building is a cell within a collective whole. The hospital project was never envisioned as a single building, but as an extension of the city’s fabric, culture, history and morphology. A methodical and keen observation of Venice, through its movements, perspectives, layerings of land, structures and waterways, that spanned almost six decades from 1907 to 1965, inspired the design of the hospital. In Le Corbusier’s mind, Venice is but a gigantic building with multiple parts. ‘Venice would not need its Palace (Grande Renaissance) to be an admirable creation of man’ he once said²⁰. The New Venice Hospital would have been an inseparable organ from Venice created by this most dedicated of men.
Anderson Lee is an architect registered in Hong Kong and New York State, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, and an independent curator. He is also the Principal of Index Architecture Limited in Hong Kong.
¹ The draft of this essay was first prepared on August 27, 2020, the 55th Anniversary on the death of Le Corbusier.
² Von Moos, Stanislaus. Album La Roche (Italy: Monacelli Press, 1997), p 37.
³ Von Moos, Stanislaus. Venice. Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier. 1907-1922, (New Haven, Yale University Press. 2002), pp 150-153.
⁴ De la Fuente, Guillermo Jullian, The Venice Hospital Project of Le Corbusier: Architecture at Rice 23 (Houston, Rice University 1968), p 9.
⁵ Le Corbusier, Precisions: On the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1991), pp 138-139.
⁶ Le Corbusier repeatedly used body organs as references and illustrative tools in La Ville Radiuese (The Radiant City) published in 1937.
⁷ de la Fuente, Guillermo Jullian, The Venice Hospital Project of Le Corbusier: Architecture at Rice 23 (Houston, Rice University 1968), p 22.
⁸ Schnoor, C., ‘L’Italia come modello di spazio urbano: iriferimenti a Venezia, Firenze e Roma ne La Construction des villes’, in M. Talamona (Ed.), L’Italia di Le Corbusier, (Milano, Electa), pp 175-187.
⁹ More details on this argument could be found in The Venice Variations by Sophia and Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital Project: An Investigation into its Structural Formation by Mahnaz Shah.
¹⁰ The Venice Hospital Project has five levels in total but in essence is composed of three major levels with Level 2 being split into level 2 and level 2a as described in the Technical Report by Le Corbusier. Sarkis, Hashim (ed), Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital (Harvard Graduate School of Design, Munich, Prestel, 2001).
¹¹ De la Fuente, Guillermo Jullian. The Venice Hospital Project of Le Corbusier: Architecture at Rice 23 (Houston, Rice University 1968), p 8.
¹² Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (New York, Orion Press, 1967 Reprint), p 281.
¹³ Sarkis, Hashim (ed), Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital (Harvard Graduate School of Design, Munich, Prestel, 2001), p 28.
¹⁴ Eardley, Anthony, Atelier Rue de Sevres 35 (Lexington, Kentucky, College of Architecture, University of Kentucky Art Gallery), p 60. Le Corbusier’s note to Jullian: ‘366+226=rich combinations.’
¹⁵ Shah, Mahnaz, Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital Project (Surray, Ashgate Publishing, 2013), pp 15-16.
¹⁶ De la Fuente, Guillermo Jullian, The Venice Hospital Project of Le Corbusier: Architecture at Rice 23 (Houston, Rice University, 1965), pp 21-22
¹⁷ These three Japanese architects who helped Le Corbusier complete the National Museum of Western Art in 1958 were labelled the ‘Three Musketeers.’
¹⁸ Koolhaas, Rem and Obrist, Han Ulrich, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Taschen, 2011), p 96.
¹⁹ Eardley, Anthony, Atelier Rue de Sevres 35 (Lexington, Kentucky, College of Architecture, University of Kentucky Art Gallery), p 23. Le Corbusier’s note to the Atelier: ‘Do not, I pray you, hold “round table” confabulations over those things.’
²⁰ De la Fuente, Guillermo Jullian, The Venice Hospital Project of Le Corbusier: Architecture at Rice 23 (Houston, Rice University, 1965) pp 21-22.
Fig.1 Sketch by Le Corbusier showing Campanile and the Venice Hospital
Fig.2 Villa Savoye (top) shown as collective dwellings (bottom)
Fig.3 Museum of Infinite Growth, 1939
Fig.4 Diagram showing concept of linear expansion in the Museum of Infinite Growth (© author)
Fig.5 Design proposal of Antwerp Plan
Fig.6 Details showing the overlapping of three grid systems,1933
Fig.7 Care Unit Section of Venice Hospital, 1965
Fig.8 Analytical “Five Points” showing the Idea of Infinite Expansion (© author)
Images 1,2,3,5,6,7 © F.L.C./ ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2020