Le Corbusier's scar

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Le Corbusier's scar, detail

The large scar on Swiss architect Le Corbusier's right thigh was the result of an accident that occurred while swimming off the coast of Saint Tropez, southern France, in August 1938.

During the 50 year-old architect's daily swim between two jetties in the town's bay, he was struck by a large motor yacht, unseen by anyone on board as he swam in the depression between two waves. Hit head-on by the boat, Corbusier was rolled under the full length of the keel, "like paste out of a tube", as he described it, into the yacht's 200HP propeller blades.

He later recalled the events in a letter to his mother:

"After the first turn of the blades, I was thrown out of the circuit and seemed not to have been hurt. I reached the surface, and breathed air. I hadn't swallowed a drop of water. I saw the boat gliding slowly away. I shouted: 'Hey, wait a second, you went right over me, there may be some damage!' Quite automatically my hand went to my right thigh, my arm fitting nicely inside. I looked down: a big area of blood-red water, and half my thigh floating like a ray (the fish!), attached by a narrow strip of flesh: 'throw me a buoy, I’m badly hurt.' The yacht headed toward me, throwing me a sort of rope knot too big to be held in one hand. The side of the yacht was too high for anyone to help me. 'Throw a lifesaver'. It comes, and I sit inside it. And here are some fishermen coming into port; their boat is low, they hold out their hands, and I give them my left hand, because I'm holding my thigh together with my right; we reach the place I started from, on the breakwater; I get up on the jetty; a kind driver appears out of nowhere and helps me sit down beside him. The fisherman gets in the backseat. Hospital. They put me on the table and begin sewing me together. This lasts from six to midnight, in two sessions. I’ve already told you the rest.”[1]

Miraculously for the architect, the boat's propeller cut lengthwise, rather than across, and no major veins or arteries were severed. He was forced to spend a month in hospital recuperating, during which time he wrote to his alarmed mother: "The wound is the size of the Radiant City (the book)." His mother replied, "Lately your description of the accident gave us all the shudders, and we have thanked God for sparing you. He will preserve you for a still higher task."

Le Corbusier painting mural at E-1027 Villa, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, 1939

Corbusier biographer Nicholas Fox Weber has noted the mental detachment with which Corbusier reacted during the incident, suspending his emotional and physical reactions in order to focus logically on the imperative of staying alive. As he sees it, Corbusier dealt with the emergency "through an architect's lens":

"[Le Corbusier] emphasized the factor of scale. When the people on the yacht threw out the rope with the large knot, what mattered was that the knot was too large to be held by a human hand. The side of the boat was too high for anyone to be able to help. [...] A command of tools and a knowledge of mechanics had enabled him to survive."[2]

The scar resulting from the accident and subsequent surgery is clearly visible in the photograph of the architect taken a year later in 1939 when, back on the Cote d'Azur, he can be seen painting, naked, one of the infamous murals[3] with which he decorated Eileen Gray's E1027 house.


  1. letter to his mother, September 21, 1938 Saint Tropez, quoted in: Nicholas Fox Weber, Le Corbusier - A Life (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2008), 397
  2. Fox Weber, Le Corbusier - A Life, 398
  3. Anthony Flint, "Restoring Eileen Gray's E-1027," The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, August 12, 2015, retrieved October 17, 2016.