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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Le Corbusier Villa Savoye - France's modern architectural treasure

Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, 1929-30

Perhaps one of Le Corbusier's most famous works of architecture - this little house on the outskirts of Paris has inspired countless young architects. Its beauty is in its simplicity and encompasses several interesting modern concepts such as a free floating facade, strip windows and the open plan. 

One of the most famous houses of the modern movement in architecture, the Villa Savoye is a masterpiece of LeCorbusier's purist design. It is perhaps the best example of LeCorbusier's goal to create a house which would be a "machine a habiter," a machine for living (in). Located in a suburb near Paris, the house is as beautiful and functional as a machine. 
The Villa Savoye was the culmination of many years of design, and the basis for much of LeCorbusier's later architure. Although it looks severe in photographs, it is a complex and visually stimulating structure. As with his church of Notre Dame du Haute, Ronchamp, the building looks different from every angle. After falling into disrepair after the war, the house has been restored and is open to the public.
Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier's machine for living - design features of the Villa Savoye include:

  • modulor design -- the result of Corbu's researches into mathematics, architecture (the golden section), and human proportion
  • "pilotis" -- the house is raised on stilts to separate it from the earth, and to use the land efficiently. These also suggest a modernized classicism.
  • no historical ornament, something quite radical at the time.
  • abstract sculptural design
  • pure color -- white on the outside, a color with associations of newness, purity, simplicity, and health (LeCorbusier earlier wrote a book entitled, When the Cathedrals were White), and planes of subtle color in the interior living areas
  • a very open interior plan
  • dynamic , non-traditional transitions between floors -- spiral staircases and ramps
  • built-in furniture
  • ribbon windows (echoing industrial architecture, but also providing openness and light)
  • roof garden, with both plantings and architectural (sculptural) shapes
  • integral garage (the curve of the ground floor of the house is based on the turning radius of the 1927 Citroen)
  • Little known fact - Le Corbusier loved privacy and liked to walk around naked hence the creation of the inner courtyard at Villa Savoye. 

Important, Interesting and Key Facts about the Villa Savoye

It was built between the I and II World Wars for a couple, Pierre and Emilie Savoye, as a country home in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, France. The house fell into disuse after 1940, and entered a state of disrepair during World War II (occupied twice during the war: first by the Germans and then by the Americans, both damaging the building severely). The Savoye family returned to their estate after the war, but, no longer in position to live as they had done before the war, they abandoned the house again shortly after.

It became the property of the French state in 1958, and after surviving several plans of demolition, it was designated as an official French historical monument in 1965 (a rare occurrence, as Le Corbusier was still living at the time). It was thoroughly renovated from 1985 to 1997, and under the care of the Centre des monuments nationaux.

Drawing inspiration from the design of early 20th century machinery such as electricity turbines and low-pressure ventilating fans, Le Corbusier conceived a space that would be similar in functionality and design to a machine, following his architectural mantra of "machines for living" (machines à habiter).
The villa was designed addressing Le Corbusier's emblematic "Five Points", the basic tenets in his new architectural aesthetic:
1. Support of ground-level pilotis, elevating the building from the earth and allowed an extended continuity of the garden beneath.
2. Functional roof, serving as a garden and terrace, reclaiming for nature the land occupied by the building.
3. Free floor plan, relieved of load-bearing walls, allowing walls to be placed freely and only where aesthetically needed.
4. Long horizontal windows, providing illumination and ventilation.
5. Freely-designed facades, serving as only as a skin of the wall and windows and unconstrained by load-bearing considerations.

Le Corbusier chose a flat roof for the Villa Savoye, a move he argued was for functionality, though it may just as well have been for the appearance of functionality. Eventually, the roof proved less than fully functional and leaked. The owners took Le Corbusier to court. But World War II broke out before the matter was settled, and the building was left in a state of disrepair.

'The approach is by car and as one passes under the building (a demonstration of urban doctrine), and follows the curve of industrial glazing (of which the geometry was determined by the car's turning circle), it becomes clear that one is to be drawn into a machine-age ritual. The plan of the building is square (one of the 'ideal' forms from Vers une architecture), curves, ramp and grid of structure providing the basic counterpoint to the perimeter. The section illustrates the basic divisions of a service and circulation zone below, a piano nobile above, and the celestial zone of the solarium on top: it's the section-type of Le Corbusier's ideal city but restated in microcosm.' Simon Glynn 2001