The architectural work of Le Corbusier,
an exceptional contribution
to the modern movement

Road to World Heritage

The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier: an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement, a Nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List (2002-2015).

What is World Heritage? On what basis and with what methods were attempts made to define it? Although the concept is now widely familiar, we need to outline it here to help us situate our approach to Le Corbusier’s work. The underlying principle of the “World Heritage Convention” [1], adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in 1972, is that States ratifying the Convention commit themselves towards the international community to preserving, in the name of all mankind, the internationally recognized properties located on their territory and officially recognized by inscription on a list. The World Heritage List is drawn up by the World Heritage Committee, the elected representative of the signatory States, on the basis of their proposals, on condition that the properties are considered as being of Outstanding Universal Value.

Olivier Poisson, Honorary General Curator of Heritage.
The World Heritage List

Numerous properties have by now been inscribed on the World Heritage List [2], a proof of the success of this convention: ratified by almost all world States, it gives the properties inscribed on the List exceptional visibility and attests to the contribution made by each of them to a universal culture. In this context, it is interesting to observe retrospectively the answers given to the question posed above: what is World Heritage? What can legitimately be inscribed on this list? If we look closely, the answer to the question appears to be something that has evolved significantly and, one could say, progressed, since the first inscriptions in 1978. Perhaps predictably, the first reactions were to place on the list what could be defined as the “new wonders of the world”. For the idea of ​​a world list gathering the major elements of mankind’s heritage immediately began to resonate with long-prevailing mental concepts: those of major monuments recognized by international tourism, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Statue of Liberty, etc. – rather in the way that the Western literary tradition had retained the idea relayed by the Greeks of ​​the “seven wonders” of the ancient Mediterranean world. This tendency was  confirmed in France: the first selections in 1979, the second ones in 1981, in each case a series of five or six inscriptions, were monuments or architectural ensembles that reflected an artistic and historical image of France in its best-known, even familiar aspects, perhaps not entirely avoiding stereotypes. Such an approach is not difficult to imagine, and has been more or less the same in countries worldwide, at times with symbolic or patriotic motives [3].

After two decades, both the thematics and the implementation of World Heritage had come of age and we were now wondering what the next step would be – especially so since the initial accumulation of properties had come up against certain limits. The World Heritage matrix is European and it had been realized that through application of the accepted criteria, many of the world’s territories, particularly Africa, were fairly generally excluded. Admittedly, there had been inscriptions of non-European “monuments”, for example vernacular architectures such as the mosques of Djenné [4] and Timbuktu [5] or historic cities in Yemen [6], which by their appearance fitted into this architecture-based value system, but not all of Africa is built in this way. At the end of the 1990s, when the convention was being ratified by a growing number of States, the representative character of the List consequently became a real issue. The World Heritage Committee took up this question by seeking a new balance, without which the inscription process ran the risk of  losing its credibility. After much discussion it emerged that one of the main objectives of the Convention was to build a “balanced, representative and credible” list, accessible to all the world’s regions and on which they could have their properties inscribed.

There is a paradox here: the World Heritage List is drawn up by the world’s states. The World Heritage Committee consists of 21 countries elected by all the signatory states and the proposals emanate from the states alone, in most cases individually. But the history of heritage in the different countries is, to begin with, if not the history of nationalism, at least the history of modern national identities. And the paradox is that we must build the world heritage, of necessity non-national or beyond the national framework, with national proposals from national cultures. It is therefore easy to see that the states with the  longest-standing involvement in the Convention had supplied it with properties corresponding to their own cultural histories, making the list a reflection of these. Is it possible to overcome these contradictions, given that we are working to establish something that is, really or at least potentially, a shared heritage in a world culture? We have certainly made progress in this direction, but the challenge remains to be met. In the years up to 2000, while we had not yet ironed out the contradictions I have just mentioned, we had nonethelesss achieved a major methodological advance marking a new point of departure. This was the definition of cultural landscapes as objects susceptible of being inscribed on the list. By loosening the excessive architectural or monumental constraints that had so far regulated it, the List became potentially available to a much greater number of properties, particularly in areas that had hitherto been practically excluded. This was also in line with a degree of decompartmentalization between nature and culture. As a result, the answer to the World Heritage question has become a more open one than before [7].

A Le Corbusier project

In 2001-2002, having completed some two years of monitoring World Heritage questions for the French Ministry of Culture, I was asked by the prefecture of the Haute-Saône department for help in dealing with the question of the Notre-Dame-du-Haut Chapel at Ronchamp. Both to mark the 2005 50th anniversary celebration of its construction, and the better to bring together local opinion and various partners in support of the building, which is the private property of the  Notre-Dame-du-Haut fabric fund, a suggestion was being considered for its nomination to the World Heritage List. At the same time, in the course of work to complete the French indicative list for Unesco, several voices had risen in favour of also nominating the Villa Savoye, the property of the French State, which had bought and rescued it from ruin shortly before the architect’s death.

It was both because it was difficult to imagine a piecemeal approach to work like that of Le Corbusier and because, as described above, the whole concept of World Heritage had been changing, that the idea of ​​multiple nomination seemed evident. Le Corbusier’s work possessed obvious unity not only in view of its fame, but also of the numerous publications and inventories making it a major field of study in 20th century art history. Moreover, the “centre of gravity” of these studies was the Le Corbusier Foundation, the inheritor of the architect’s built work and custodian of his archives, for long seconded by the leading Le Corbusier specialists. The Foundation was therefore the first body to be contacted and consulted on the scope and composition of the list of the architect’s buildings to be selected for the project.

At the time when the idea of a world heritage file was being considered, the world heritage sphere was still traversed, and even agitated, by the profound changes it had undergone  between the late 1990s and the onset  of the new millenium. As I have already said (but in a discussion of  decisions taken by France, the question has renewed relevance) the idea of ​​an “overall strategy” had emerged, not without difficulty, to help the World Heritage List out of the impasse it had got into in the view of many observers. From the French standpoint, the overall strategy principle, by drawing attention to under-represented categories of properties, opened up new prospects for advancement. Under-represented categories, i.e. cultural landscapes, industrial or technical heritage, 20th century architecture or urban planning would make it possible to diversify the List and to provide new opportunities for properties or countries that might, until then, have considered that it was “not for them”. If we think of the main French files I was involved in at that time, be it the city of Le Havre rebuilt by Auguste Perret [8], the extension of the Saline d’Arc-et-Senans to include the salt works of Salins-les-Bains [9], the cultural landscape of the Causses and the Cévennes [10], of the Nord Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin [11] and others, we may with some asssurance claim that it was from this perspective that the Le Corbusier file was considered.

The French authorities were well aware of this. However, the French policy of constantly submitting new files has been subject to criticisms, explicit or implicit, which may have played a role in the subsequent development of this file and that is why I must mention them here. In fact, over the years in which the “overall strategy” principle was developed and affirmed, a more or less emphatic appeal to refrain from new nominations was addressed to countries already well represented on the List; France’s failure to respond to this was viewed with annoyance (and continues to be so). However, the imbalance of the List is also due to the fact that many States from regions of the world that are little represented on the List do not submit files. There are various reasons for this; they may be economic and related to questions of unequal development, they may be cultural, the concept of heritage not perhaps having the same importance in the collective representations of different cultures, they may be political and administrative, or again they may be a matter of operational capacity. Indeed, since the 1990s the creation of a file has come to involve considerable efforts of preparation and drafting, not to mention the setting up of property management systems themselves, their efficacity requiring to be demonstrated.

To suppose that the actions of some (the well-represented countries active in the field of World Heritage) paralyse those of others is, in my view, to seriously misunderstand the situation. Certainly new inscriptions by these countries can only lead to further imbalance, but to claim to remedy this by urging them to desist, rather than by inciting others to take action, is to act on  consequences without acting on causes, to reason in terms of  figures and not of facts. It is important to consider World Heritage as a dynamic field. It expresses the vitality of human societies and the states that represent them, their ability to take over a theme or a subject, a property or a territory – one that belongs to them or that they endow with their collective spiritand offer it to the world as a shared asset. Admittedly, not everyone is going ahead at the same speed, not everyone has the same resources to devote to the field (and not only material ones). But to advocate strategies of restricting, withholding or desisting is a discouraging doctrine, the opposite of encouraging a competitive spirit between states.

To come back to the notion of an overall strategy, the idea of ​​a serial file on the work of Le Corbusier, a file that was multinational and that might even testify to the impact of the architect’s creations and ideas all over the world seemed a legitimate implementation of such a strategy. This, from the beginning, was the vision adopted by France and the countries that she was able to mobilize around this project. It remained to choose the ways and means. 

Serial inscription

Among the most promising courses of action that appeared to be available was that of a serial inscription, a concept that seemed obvious from the beginning of the project. It was an approach already present in the World Heritage List opened in 1978, but we may have been slow to recognise its implications in the context of the List’s overall strategy and development. Indeed, apart from being a single object, masterpiece or monument, which is unique even if the associated perspective may be wider, a World Heritage property may also be a combination of a number of objects which, when taken together, make up a heritage property. Already at the second session of the Committee, for example, when the cave of Lascaux was proposed as being representative of French prehistory, the proposal was not limited to this site alone. In fact, the cave belongs to a whole series of prehistorical sites, their density probably corresponding to the conditions prevailing in the milieu at the time. Thus we prepared a Serial Nomination consisting of some fifteen archaeological deposits and decorated caves in the area of the Vézère valley. Lascaux is undoubtedly the best known of these, but if Eyzies and others had been ignored, the property as proposed would have given an incomplete picture of the area’s interest [12].

Serial nomination, in other words the nomination of a serial site consisting of a set of components which justify the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value only when considered as a whole,  was often used from then on, opening up new horizons as to ways of conceiving a heritage object. Belfries can be taken as an example: a Franco-Belgian transnational series of these was put together in several stages (1999, 2005). It comprised a set of 56 belfries and constituted a single heritage object representing an aspect of the urban civilization of the southern Netherlands [13]. It is important to note here to what extent the idea of ​​serial nomination has made it possible to combine heritage objects that are more complex and exist on very different scales (here I refer to files that were successful during the period of the Le Corbusier file, or which were developed in parallel). An example is the Struve Geodetic Arc, a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Norway to the Black Sea and used by the astronomer Struve at the end of the 19th century to measure  the terrestrial meridian (inscribed in 2005) [14]. The British property of Hadrian’s Wall (1987) and the German property of the Roman Limes, 500 kilometres long from north-western Germany to the Danube (2005, 2008), were also included in a single nomination. The World Heritage Committee brought together these two sections under the name “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” [15], thus opening the door to other proposals on any frontiers of the Empire of which traces remain. This is clearly a change of scale.

To realise that the usual ways of seeing national heritages are ipso facto out of date for properties like these may help us to see how we can devise a heritage object of truly global scale and significance. This approach had already been used in an attempt to give an idea of the work of a certain number of architects and, when it was being considered for Le Corbusier, these precedents obviously had a role to play. Spain had presented the work of Antoni Gaudí [16], with an initially somewhat draconian selection of three (1984), later seven  buildings (2005). In 1994, Italy presented the serial site of the city of Vicenza and the twenty-four Palladian villas of the Veneto region [17]. Other, smaller serial properties were composed around architects: the works of Lluís Domènech i Montaner in Barcelona (1997) [18] and Victor Horta in Brussels (2000 [19]). These proposals, accepted without difficulty by ICOMOS and the World Heritage Committee, emphasized the artistic aspect of the architectural works. In 2007, in an approach comparable to that involving Le Corbusier, Vauban’s work was proposed by France in both its poliorcetic and historical aspects. Here, the simple fact of locating the properties was enough to illustrate Louis XIV’s frontier project, his “special preserve”, and the map itself gives an eloquent account of the property’s identity. In this case it is something specifically national (the political and military definition of the territory of a nation), but – unlike series consisting of equivalent, analogous objects (belfries, caves), each offering the same answer to the same core issue – the series demonstrates its relevance through the diversity of its objects. For Vauban’s work, objects of a different nature have been brought together, ranging from a simple coastal defense tower to complete fortified urban complexes, illustrating moreover the development of projects and systems in their inventor’s work [20].

It is here that we see how a heritage object can be put together from building blocks that vary in type, scope and importance, for what really makes sense is the fact of assembling them, and only that. I wanted to recall these contemporary examples to help put in perspective the approach underlying the project, since it was in this spirit that France proposed to take on this file on Le Corbusier’s architectural work.

An eventful candidacy

For the experts from the seven countries preparing this dossier (Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland), it was as necessary to think in overall terms of what Le Corbusier’s work as a whole had contributed to the architecture of the 20th century, as to think about what such a project might contribute to the very idea of ​​World Heritage. It can be said that  motivation for the scale of the project was extremely strong. One of the main reasons, moreover, for proposing this complex transnational file involving a series of buildings spread over seven countries on three continents, intentionally organized as an overall project, was the way in which it corresponded to the life and career of Le Corbusier, the first architect in human history to have built around the world. The scale of the project was also related to the very notion of the Modern Movement, which undeniably transformed ways of building around the world in the 20th century. While the Modern Movement cannot of course be limited to Le Corbusier alone [21], he was one of its most eminent representatives and one of its theoreticians. As I have already mentioned, the first selection was made by the Le Corbusier Foundation’s council of experts and resulted in an initial list of 22 buildings, mainly in France and Switzerland, with only one item for each of the other countries, whereas the final series included 17 sites. In putting together this series, France and the six partner countries of the nomination were attempting to give an account of Le Corbusier’s ideas and proposals, of the works that conveyed them and revealed their impact. Above all, they wanted to show how these ideas influenced world architecture in the 20th century.

Many years have passed between the original selection of 22 buildings and the final list, together with some events that need to be mentioned. My purpose here is not to give an account of the file’s many ups and downs, simply to point out the main adjustments that were made, since they help to illustrate the approach adopted. In addition to the early works at La Chaux-de-Fonds and a more extensive list of buildings, the first version of the file included proposals on Le Corbusier’s work in urban planning. These included the Firminy complex, certainly left incomplete but still representing an urban project, and above all the Indian project of an entire city, Chandigarh.

This part of the file was defended by Kiran Joshi, who emphasized the importance for the Indian officials of associating the 20th century city of Chandigarh with India’s heritage image, thereby signifying the nation’s entry into the modern age. However, reasons internal to this great country led to the unexpected withdrawal of the candidacy in December 2007, shortly before it was due to be signed. This was a painful setback for the project initiators, but we could not back down. The proposal was therefore submitted nonetheless, divested of its Indian component and prepared by UNESCO and ICOMOS for the World Heritage Committee meeting in Seville in June 2009. I do not need to say how disappointed the project initiators were on reading the ICOMOS evaluation. It was negative, not only in terms of the file itself, in view of import of the Committee’s debates on it, but also of the very principle on which it was based: a serial inscription  of which the scale, representative value and geographical diffusion were intended to demonstrate the property’s Outstanding Universal Value.

On the contrary, criticism of the selection was based (in somewhat vague terms) on the assumption that each of its components needed to have intrinsic merits in order to be recognized as being of Outstanding Universal Value. This assumption took no account of the fact that these components were part of a whole, nor did it make any attempt to appreciate the overall value of the selection. From the ICOMOS standpoint, only three buildings – the Villa Savoye, the Marseille Unité d’Habitation and the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut – might be considered as having had a major influence on 20th century architecture. The architect’s work as a whole, of which the Series was an attempt to bring together the significant components, did not qualify [22]. This pronouncement amounted to a fundamental divergence of views since, for the file’s proponents, the Series did not derive its value from being a combination of outstanding buildings, but constituted, in itself and through the fact of assembling its components, a single property. What manifested the property’s universal value was the link – of necessity an immaterial one – between these components.

Beyond this divergence, there could also be seen a reluctance to consider the work of one man. This question had occupied the attention of the World Heritage Committee until the 1980s, and gave rise to observations on this subject by Michel Parent, observations which had guided the Committee’s policy [23]. But the question that had been asked at the time concerned places whose only value was supposedly that of being linked to a man, his life or his memory and the use of criterion (vi) concerning the association with intangible values. This was probably a legitimate precaution in 1980, since the List is initiated by the States, and the founders of World Heritage wanted to guard against a possibility of systematic aggrandisement of the “great men” of each country. But, beyond this problem, which is one of “places of memory” [24], the fact remains that all cultural properties are made by the hand of man and thus have one or more creators, whom it is difficult to disregard. However we realised that the fact of proposing a modern property, with its closeness to us in time and its plentiful documentation making it impossible to ignore its originator (the question is never posed for ancient or medieval sites, whose designers or project managers are generally unknown), this fact was detrimental to our project, the man concerned being, in a sense, “too present” in his creations [25].

Failure, however, is always an opportunity for an examination of conscience and, despite the divergence of views between the project initiators and ICOMOS on the very concept of the nomination already pointed out, the referral granted by the Seville Committee opened up a new period of reflection and work to rewrite and improve the file. Everyone was aware that the first attempt, both in the subject and the arguments, had been neither convincing nor clear enough, nor sufficiently ordered. It clearly needed to be revised.

A new file was all the more necessary in that the unexpected withdrawal of India had created an imbalance in the original proposal. It was rapidly decided to abandon any reference to urban planning and to adopt stricter selection criteria in the choice of buildings, while maintaining the idea of a transnational series as being an essential option. So as to focus on the most significant works, the architect’s youthful efforts in La Chaux-de-Fonds and several buildings in Paris were discarded. The text was revised and simplified, its structure improved. The management plans for each component, developed at local level by the responsible authorities in each country, were coordinated through the creation of an Association of Le Corbusier Sites, called on to form a network bringing together the properties making up the series, the regions concerned and even wider areas.

Unfortunately, the file resubmitted in 2011 received a further unfavorable evaluation, without any change in the position of the Consultative Body. The latter concluded that the proposal should be rejected outright, recommending in the future to keep to a “separate” nomination of “three masterpieces”, the Villa Savoye, the Marseille Unité d’Habitation, the Chapel of Ronchamp, all of which had already appeared in the 2009 report. Thus, opposition to the very principle of the file continued. The Committee, however, aware that things had come to a deadlock, asked in its decision for the Consultative Body to enter into a dialogue with the project initiators, with a view to conciliating the two standpoints if possible.

The discussions with Ms S. Denyer, delegated by ICOMOS, took place on several occasions from 2012. At least indirectly, these discussions encouraged a more detailed analysis of each component and the tabulation of the links between each component in the series and the criteria used to justify the OUV and the attributes that characterized them. The resulting table made it possible to express more clearly the contribution of each component to the series and we believe that this way of presenting things helped to clarify the way in which the nomination was perceived.

In addition, renewed contact with the Indian authorities made possible India’s return to the file in October 2013. Now that the file was limited to its purely architectural aspect, the Capitol of Chandigarh with the three emblematic buildings that compose it could be included. This was really an essential factor and it was thus that the third nomination, presented in January 2015, was very favourably received both by ICOMOS and the World Heritage Committee.

To conclude, I would say that, to my mind, the long history of this file sums up the progress of World Heritage since the implementation of the “overall strategy” principle and the search for a more satisfactory contextualization of cultural properties, far from the vision of the individual “monuments” I described at the beginning of this article as the “new wonders of the world”. Not that visions of iconic properties and great masterpieces are completely outdated: there are surely still individual buildings that will be put on the list for their own merits, and not necessarily aesthetic merits at that. But, confronted in the 20th century with a major change in the manner of conceiving architecture and building cities, a change that Le Corbusier’s work helped to inspire and spread throughout the world, we had to change our way of looking at things and, in so doing, change the answer to the constantly renewed question posed by the very idea of ​​a universal heritage: “What is World Heritage?” By inscribing a property on a world scale, the Committee recognized the universality of a work that, to quote Jean-Louis Cohen, actually takes “the planet as a building site” [26].

[1] Or more exactly, "Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage".
[2] In 2018 it comprised 1092 properties.
[3] For example, Independence Hall, U.S.A. : 78, 1978 (vi) [following common practice we give World Heritage properties with their reference number, year of inscription and criteria fulfilled].
[4] 116r, 1988 (iii, iv)
[5] 119r, 1988 (ii, iv, v)
[6] Shibam: 192, 1982 (iii, iv, v); Sanaa: 385, 1986 (iv, v, vi); Zabid: 611, 1993 (ii, iv, vi)
[7] An account of the establishment of the Convention and the emergence of an "overall strategy" principle can be found in Christina Cameron's and Mechtild Rössler's study, La Convention du patrimoine mondial, Montréal, Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2017, 374 p.
[8] 1181, 2005, (ii), (iv).
[9] 203b, 1982, (i), (ii), (iv) – extension in 2009.
[10] 1153r, 2011, (iii), (v).
[11] 1360, 2012, (ii), (iv), (vi).
[12] 85, 1979 (i, iii).
[13] 943b, 1999-2005 (ii, iv).
[14] 943b, 1999-2005 (ii, iv).
[15] 430t, 1987-2005-2008 (ii, iii, iv).
[16] 320b, 1984-2005 (i, ii, iv). In 1984 : Parque Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà; in 2005 : Casa Vicens, Nativity façade and crypt of La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, crypt in Colònia Güell.
[17] 712b, 1994-1996 (i, ii).
[18] 804b, 1997 (i, ii, iv). Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau.
[19] 1005, 2000 (i, ii, iv). Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, Horta House & Workshop, Brussels.
[20] 1283, 2008 (i, ii, iv).
[21] We may note that the Modern Movement entered the List in 1987 with the inscription of Brasilia [445, 1987, (i), (iv)]; this was followed in 1996 by the Bauhaus buildings in Germany [729r, 1996, (ii), (iv), (vi)], 2001 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat in Brno [1052, 2001, (ii), (iv)] and the White City of Tel Aviv [1096, 2003, (ii), (iv)].
[22] Affected by the resulting situation, I outlined a response to ICOMOS: « Le Corbusier sur la Liste du Patrimoine mondial : qu’est-ce qu’une œuvre ? » in DoCoMoMo Journal, 41, 2009, p. 13-25, English transl., p. 12-24 [with the collaboration of M.-N. Tournoux]. It should be pointed out that the identity of the authors of the ICOMOS recommendation remained unknown to the project initiators, who were never able to discuss matters with them.
[23] Cameron and Rössler, op. cit., p. 274.
[24] We should however mention – apart from the serial inscriptions of the works of architects mentioned above, with decisions covering the years 1984, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2005 – the inscription in 1996 of places associated with the life of Martin Luther [783, 1996, (iv), (vi)] and that of Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned [916, 1999, (iii), (vi)].
[25] The ICOMOS evaluation was expressed in these terms: "if identifying examples associating typologies with the deployment of a work during the life of an architect may be a valid approach in terms of the history of architecture it is not an approach conducive to the identification of exceptional properties in the context of the World Heritage Convention."
[26] Cohen, J.-L., Le Corbusier, la planète comme chantier, Paris, Textuel, 2015, 224 p.