This article was originally published on August 15, 2016. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Le Corbusier made an indelible mark on Modernist architecture when he declared “une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (“a house is a machine for living”). His belief that architecture should be as efficient as machinery resulted in such proposals such as the Plan Voisin, a proposal to transform the Second Empire boulevards of Paris into a series of cruciform skyscrapers rising from a grid of freeways and open parks. Not all of Le Corbusier’s concepts, however, were geared toward such radical urban transformation. His 1965 proposal for a hospital in Venice, Italy, was notable in its attempt at seeking aesthetic harmony with its unique surroundings: an attempt not to eradicate history, but to translate it.
There was no shortage of demand for Le Corbusier’s work in Italy after the end of the Second World War. The country experienced incredible economic growth in the decades following the war; what had previously been primarily an agricultural economy rapidly transformed into a major industrial nation. The architect had already been commissioned to design a new headquarters for the Olivetti Company outside of Milan when the city of Venice approached him with their own commission for a new hospital. The new building, which would stand in the neighborhood of San Giobbe, was to serve as a facility for care of the seriously and terminally ill.
Le Corbusier’s proposal did not stand out from the rest of the city as a brazen Modernist landmark. Rather, it utilized the existing urban vocabulary to appear as a seamless continuation of the old city. The hospital was conceived as a network of interconnected modules clustered around a number of square courtyards, a clear analogue for Venice’s traditional urban fabric. As with the rest of the city’s buildings, the new hospital was supported by a number of piles driven into the Venetian silt. However, these were not typical wooden piles; in reference to his own design canon, Le Corbusier chose instead to perch the hospital atop a grid of his trademark concrete pillars, or pilotis. The overall intent was that the new hospital would extend the urban fabric rather than interrupt it.
While Le Corbusier chose to emulate the typical Venetian structural typology, he did not sacrifice functionalism to do so. The modules that comprised the hospital were to be almost identical, featuring 28 patient rooms facing onto three corridors; four of these squares, dubbed “care units,” were arranged around a small central square, the corners of which branched off into corridors connecting to other squares. The system was designed to allow the hospital to expand as needed in the future, ensuring it would have space both for added patient load and newly-invented medical equipment. The hospital was also vertically stratified programmatically: administrative and entry services were located at the ground level, patient bedrooms were on the top floor, and all other hospital program needs on the level between the two.
One curious aspect of the design was the lack of conventional windows in the care units. The only daylight to enter the space did so through clerestory windows along the inner corridor walls of each hospital room; an American journal considered this an “unkindness,” as it denied patients the opportunity to gaze out at the Venetian lagoon during their stay.
Another design move which elicited concern was the automobile gangway leading from the Santa Lucia Railway Station directly to the hospital’s ground level entry. Though an automobile causeway had already been built alongside the rail bridge leading from the mainland to the station, Le Corbusier’s proposal would have brought cars even further into a city that remained largely devoid of their presence – firmly out of choice. The same journal which questioned the lack of conventional windows considered the provision for automobiles “inexcusable,” even declaring that it was the one feature that would prevent the hospital from achieving the same architectural vitality as the surrounding historical structures.
Given Le Corbusier’s typical contempt for pre-existing urban fabrics, his deference to the traditional Venetian aesthetic seems anomalous. In the brief of his Plan Voisin, he decried the Haussmann-era buildings and boulevards of Paris as a grotesque mix of mismatched buildings and narrow trenches – a relic which, he insisted, was nothing short of disgusting. While he reviled Paris, however, he developed a peculiar fondness for Venice. As early as the 1930’s, he referenced the Italian city as an ideal urban model, lauding its canal network and the acceptance of multiple architectural forms and styles without the need for false, superficial continuity. While Paris would represent his Modernist desire to wipe the slate clean and build anew, it was in Venice that he would contradictorily espouse the benefits of historic preservation.
The Venice Hospital project came very late in Le Corbusier’s life; he proposed the final design only a few months before his passing in 1965. Debates over the value of the hospital as a form of urban renewal ultimately became moot as, due to a lack of funding, the city ultimately chose a different design for a site on the mainland. Nonetheless, Le Corbusier’s proposal represents the synthesis of his seemingly contradictory viewpoints – a sort of functional, Modernist historicism. It was fitting, perhaps, that Le Corbusier’s final design project was for a city that he came to admire so deeply.
 Le Corbusier. “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925.” Fondation Le Corbusier. Accessed May 18, 2016.
 Signoretta, Paola E. “Italy – The Economic Miracle.” Encyclopedia Britannica. May 12, 2016. [access]
 Flint, Anthony. Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. p184.
 Verderber, Stephen, and David J. Fine. Healthcare Architecture in an Era of Radical Transformation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000. p24.
 Fabrizi, Mariabruni. “The Building Is the City: Le Corbusier’s Unbuilt Hospital In…” Socks Studio. May 18, 2014. [access]
 Verderber, Stephen, and Fine, p24.
 Le Corbusier, “Plan Voisin.”
 Corbusier, Le, Stanislaus Von. Moos, and Arthur Rüegg. Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier: Applied Arts, Architecture, Painting, Photography, 1907-1922. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. p153.
 Verderber, Stephen, and Fine, p24-25.
- Architects: Le Corbusier
- Location: Venice, Italy
- Architect In Charge: Le Corbusier
- Client: Comune di Venezia
- Project Year: 1965
- Photographs: Fondation Le Corbusier (FLC/ADAGP)