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Le Corbusier and Villa Savoye Remembered Print E-mail
Written by Camille Chami   
Wednesday, 24 October 2007 19:00

2008-09 will mark the 80th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, an outstanding achievement from a leading figure of Modern Architecture. It was the embodiment of Le Corbusier’s philosophies.

Years of research done through previous works, painting and architecture, that helped in bringing his ideas to maturity. The  Architect transformed a simple week-end country house into a thoughtful project that brought in innovative concepts, volumetric ideas, and spatial organization still present in Architecture as we know it today.

Pictures courtesy of Nick Ehert



To better understand the project and Le Corbusier’s creative approach, one has to backtrack several years prior to its conception. In the 1920s a new Architectural language was emerging that got to be known as ‘International Style’. Projects were emerging around the world, in Europe, Russia and North America adopting the new style and its aspirations. The style revolted on the prevailing tendency of creating the building as a block and decorating the external enclosure with ornaments. The new movement stripped the building from its ornaments and focused more on three-dimensional exploration of the volumetric intricacies within the architectural space. This new style aspired to represent what was thought to be the machine age. It used the new construction techniques based on concrete,  steel, and industrial glazing to build its hovering planes and interaction of the solid concrete and steel with the lighter glass. The Style wanted to project a utopian image of the future where the Machine brought a higher level of living.

VS_001.jpg Le Corbusier strongly believed in this new trend. He was a purist totally dedicated to the new theoretical principles that he believed defined this new Architecture. He imagined houses built like cars in a standardized production process. He admired the ocean liners for their ‘tenacity and discipline’. In 1022 he sketched a prototype called Maison ‘Citrohan’ referring to carmaker Citroën. He intended it as a ‘machine to be living in’ .It was a white cube with industrial size windows. He introduced reinforced concrete round columns, the pilotis to enable the car to go under  the house, provide a garage space, eliminate the bearing walls and large spans.

In 1923 famous book ‘Towards an Architecture’ (‘Vers une Architecture’) Le Corbusier pleads the case of the new language. He writes about the underlying structure of primitive shapes. He concludes that the primary geometric forms should be used to embody the Architecture of the age of the machine.  “Architecture is the masterly, correct and  magnificent play of volumes brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light: Light and shade reveal these forms: cubes, cones, spheres,and cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveal to advantage. The image of these is distinct and tangible within us and without ambiguity, It is the reason that these are beautiful forms.” He establishes the relationship between the plan and its surroundings: ‘The plan proceeds from within to without; the exterior is the result of the interior, The elements of Architecture are light and shade, wall and space.’ Through this fusion, Architecture focuses on space and volumes and their interaction rather than the two-dimensional cosmetic treatment of the ‘Façade’.

In 1926, Le Corbusier established five points as the core of his design language he called them ‘Certainties from discoveries to date’. Described briefly, those five points were as follows:
Use of pilotis to raise the buildings above ground and free the space under the building.
Free the plan: using a frame construction to free the plan from load-bearing walls to flow according to function and aesthetics.
Free the Façade that can become a void, a large window or a thin membrane.
Use of ribbon windows (horizontal strip windows) that let in the most light.
The roof garden: switching from pitched roof to a flat roof and using the space as a garden terrace and bringing the landscape into the house.

VS_003.jpgWith all that in mind, it becomes easier to describe Villa Savoye. Unlike the houses that he designed prior to this one, where he was confined to their urban surrounding, the site here is located around twenty miles off Paris, at the outskirts of the small town of Poissy, within a valley and  surrounded on three sides by trees. This freed Le Corbusier to ingeniously build on his concepts to provide the most powerful expressions of his ideas to that date. He also added the element of time as a fourth dimension  in the project.

Le Corbusier conceived the approach towards the house to be best experienced by a car passenger. Past the entrance gate, the visitor’s vision is blocked by trees. The house reveals itself all at once as a grand white box, hovering on pilotis. This is a powerful expression of an elevated primitive shape with openings that reveal glimpses of the interior. The elevations get animated by the interplay of light and shade, solid and void, glimpses of the interior carefully framed by the external enclosure.

VS_004.jpg As the car is drawn closer to the house and into it, the passenger realizes he is experiencing a temporal progression through an ingenious link of spaces that allow a gradual exploration of the project. What Le Corbusier called a ‘Promenade Architecturale’. Our perception of the space and the elements surrounding it changes progressively depending on their location in space and time within the project.

The car gets under the pilotis and circulates around a glazed curved wall. At the apex of this wall is located the main entrance door where the  car passengers are dropped off (At that time cars had chauffeurs). The chauffeur continues to the parking space. The passenger goes past the entrance door and into a vestibule, a ramp placed in the axis of the entrance invites the user to go to the  upper floor.


Basement Plan VS_FFP.jpg
Basement Plan First Floor Plan



The First Floor constitutes the living quarters of the house. The different spaces are organized in a U shape around an open terrace enclosed by walls with a series of uniform openings. The terrace brings light to the inside of the house all day. The layout of the plan is simple, this was a house to be used by the Savoye family on the week-end.





VS_RFP.jpg The ramp continues to a solarium, a roof garden. The wall of the solarium has a window cut in the middle of it that frame the outside view. Being the culminating point of the ‘promenade’, Le Corbusier wanted to reverse the perception. From the outside, the building is first perceived framed by the landscape and now the landscape is framed by the building. The idea was to unite the building and its surrounding landscape and make   greenery a vital part of the architecture language. The form of the solarium with its curves is striking.  This interaction of primitive shapes, when seen in plan, remind us of earlier paintings by the Architect. Seen from the outside it looks more like the funnel of an ocean liner. Maybe Le Corbusier wanted a different perception for his shapes.
VS_016.jpg VS_118.jpg

A house by Le Corbusier goes well beyond ‘machine à habiter’ (machine to to live in). As seen in Villa Savoye, he has put the human experience at the core of the house. He brought nature inside the house with the first floor terrace  and the roof garden. The forms, cylindrical columns and primitive shapes are intellectual abstractions of the Classical orders. If we realize today that the early 20th century purist vision of a brighter future triggered by the machine had its flaws, It shouldn’t lessen the impact Villa Savoye has on Architecture. Rich with ideas that transcended time we will still be inspired by this modern Classic for years to come.

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Comments (2)Add Comment
Re: uninhabitable
written by L'architecte, June 14, 2011
The comment is harsh and not well thought. The house might have become a Museum, but so are most landmark Modern Architecture houses. Le Corbusier's architecture in general and Villa Savoye in particular still acts as an inspiration to architects worldwide, the proof is in this web site's featured houses. Remember that Villa Savoye is a week-end country house built during 1920s described as'les années folles', it actually adapts perfectly to its functions and the lifestyle of then owners.
written by jon goodhue, June 03, 2011
The odd thing that they don't teach us in architecture school is that this supposedly profound residence has been uninhabited for much of its existence. Like many of Jenneret's residences, people did not want to live there; it is uninhabitable! Yet the professors, critics and cognoscenti continues to rave, despite its failures as a residence. Interesting concept, maybe, but good architecture must effectively address basic human needs and not just be aesthetically/conceptually pleasing, otherwise it is mere art. Villa Savoy suceeds as art, but fails as Architecture.

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