Icons of 20th Century: Pierre Jeanneret

A visionary of modernist architecture and design, Swiss-born architect and furniture designer Pierre Jeanneret worked for most of his life alongside his cousin Le Corbusier. Together, the pair pioneered a new aesthetic vocabulary that placed function and order over embellishment – Jeanneret’s work imbuing the strict geometry of modernism with energetic diagonals and lighter materials like cane and wood. A consistent innovator, he collaborated with Charlotte Perriand on experiments in aluminum and wood and developed prefabricated housing with Jean Prouvé.

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Arnold Andre Pierre Jeanneret – Gris was born in Geneva on March 22nd. in 1896. He grew up in the typical Jura landscape that influenced his early childhood and his Geneva Calvinism roots. He attended the School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Geneva). As a young student, he was a brilliant painter, artist and architect, greatly influenced by Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), his cousin and mentor for life. Le Corbusier took the young Jeanneret under his wing and introduced him to his circle of friends. By the early 1920s, they had entered into a formal partnership and thus began a collaboration that lasted until 1940. During this period they executed several important projects and developed a strong ideology of modernism.

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Pierre Jeanneret was the silent and unassuming hero of the Chandigarh story.

In the early 1950s, Jeanneret joined his cousin in Chandigarh, India, where they embarked on a massive urban-planning project, laying out the city and designing low-cost buildings and furniture. Though Corbusier abandoned the project halfway through, Jeanneret remained for 15 years as the project’s chief architect. The city remains a masterpiece of modern vision.

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The relationship between Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier was symbiotic. Corbusier valued Jeanneret’s frankness; he was perhaps the only one in their team who could give him candid feedback and challenge his ideas. Jeanneret had a tremendous work ethic, practical knowledge of materials, sound architectural skills, an ability to get things done, and modesty that complemented Corbusier’s volatile temperament. Above all, Corbusier had immense trust in Jeanneret and knew that he could always count on his support. For Jeanneret, Corbusier was a genius and a hero who shared his hatred of bourgeois conservatism. He was shy and introverted by nature and this partnership allowed him to remain in the background. Jeanneret’s role was critical in Corbusier’s success and rising fame during this period.

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An important development during this period was the beginning of Jeanneret’s interest in furniture. He collaborated with Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, a young designer who had joined their firm in 1927, and together they designed a series of furniture made from recycled steel tubing. They subsequently designed furniture using hardwoods, creating their own distinctive style of joineries and leg styles. Jeanneret continued evolving these ideas, which culminated in the large number of distinctive furniture designs he created for Chandigarh. 

Easy Armchair, 1955

Library Chair, 1959

With the advent of the Second World War and the occupation of France, things changed in the world of Corbusier and Jeanneret. They had to leave Paris and each chose to take up different assignments – Corbusier with the pro-German Vichy government, and Jeanneret with a firm called BCC in Grenoble. It has often been speculated that political and ideological differences caused the split; however, they clarified later that the decision was more for practical reasons. Jeanneret took up several assignments during the 1940s, including a stint in the US as a designer for the furniture-manufacturing firm Knoll.

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LC4 Chair, designed with Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier

When Le Corbusier took on the role of Chief Advisor to the Chandigarh Project, he convinced Pierre Jeanneret to take up a full-time position with him. Jeanneret first came to India in February 1951. and stayed on until August 1965. Jeanneret embraced India, its culture, and its people, with honesty and sincerity. He understood the local context, climate, materials, and designed buildings accordingly. Apart from his own designs, he was responsible for executing Corbusier’s projects – no mean task considering Corbusier’s sporadic unreasonableness and the reality of India. Corbusier only visited Chandigarh twice a year for brief periods, and the responsibility for the ambitious Capitol Project, which comprised several monuments including the Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, and High Court, fell on Jeanneret. He was appointed as the Chief Architect of Chandigarh in 1955., the Urban Planning Advisor to the Government of Punjab, and made the Head of the Chandigarh College of Architecture. He designed several civic buildings, private residences, schools, hostels, and university buildings. The Gandhi Bhawan, an auditorium within the Punjab University campus, is considered one of Jeanneret’s finest buildings in Chandigarh.

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Punjab University campus

Jeanneret lived a simple and austere life in Chandigarh. He designed furniture for his home from simple local materials like bamboo, canvas, and rope. He became great friends with his cook and caretaker. In his spare time, he would build boats and sailed them on Sukhna Lake, near his house. By 1965 his health was failing and, unable to continue in Chandigarh, he went to Geneva where he was looked after by his niece.

Pierre Jeanneret died on December 4th. 1967. in Geneva, and as per his wishes, the ashes were scattered on the waters of Sukhna Lake in his beloved Chandigarh.

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Home in Chandigarh

In the architectural and design pantheon of the 20th century, Jeanneret’s work recognized after his death. This humble and modest genius chose to live his life in the shadow of the great Le Corbusier, and would not have wished for it to be any different.