Villa Savoye, southwest facade, Photo Inexhibit
LE CORBUSIER – VILLA SAVOYE | PART 1, HISTORY
For an architect, to visit Villa Savoye it’s a bit like for a cinema enthusiast to go to Manhattan for the first time and discover with stupor that it actually exists.
Indeed, you have read about it, seen it in photographs, and drawn it, maybe even written on it, hundreds of times and now you are watching the real thing.
Villa Savoye is widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Le Corbusier, perhaps his greatest one. Even if I have personally found the experience of visiting Notre Dame du Haut or the tiny cabanon in Cap Martin possibly more empathic, I must agree that the Villa is still utterly fascinating. Thus, I am pleased to present you this piece, which is both a short historical essay and the account of a visit.
Le Corbusier (1) and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret were contacted in spring 1928 by Pierre Sayoye, a wealthy French insurer (2), and his wife Eugénie who wanted to commission them the design of a country house near Poissy, a small town on Paris’ outskirts.
Pierre Savoye, portrait courtesy of Gras-Savoye
Although the Swiss architect was 41 years-old and famous as a theorist and for his speculative projects, he hadn’t built much until then. Therefore, the commission was an unique occasion for him to demonstrate, with a real building and without great economical constraints, the principles he had expressed in his seminal essay Toward an Architecture.
Clients like the Savoyes are probably what every architect dream of: they left Le Corbusier largely free to design the house he wanted, only requiring a precise program of spaces and, later on, some changes in order to reduce costs.
The plot of land chosen for the house was a beautiful wooded site about 30 kilometers / 18 miles north-west of central Paris.
It is still not clear if the Savoyes, who had a home in Rue de Courcelles in Paris, simply wanted a country house or were planning to relocate to the new villa permanently. Le Corbusier once wrote that “they wanted to live in the countryside; linked to Paris through 30 kilometers by car”; other documents, especially letters from Eugénie Savoye to the architect, suggest that the building was possibly intended as a rural retreat rather than a permanent abode.
The Savoye family was from Lille, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, and it had no strong sentimental bounds with the French capital, it is then possible that, given the short distance between Poissy and Paris, where Pierre was working, they actually wanted to live in the new house full time or at least to do that when retired.
For sure, in a 1928 letter to Le Corbusier, Eugénie required the house to be easily expandable (I would like that the house could be expanded within some years, without that such expansion would damage it), thus somehow suggesting that it would become their main residence, sooner or later.
Southwest elevation, original drawing, image courtesy Fondation Le Corbusier
The house under construction in 1928, photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier
The architectural concept
Villa Savoye is broadly considered the best embodiment of Le Corbusier’s Five points of a new architecture (les cinq points d’une nouvelle architecture), namely:
– the use of thin columns (called pilotis) to elevate the building from the ground and create a continuity of landscape at the ground level
– the free internal layout (Plan libre) that a column-based structure could provide if compared to load bearing continuous walls made in masonry
– the beam-column structure made the facades non-structural, leaving the architect free to design them as pure functional/ estethical elements (Façade libre)
– the inclusion of an habitable flat roof (Toit terrasse) to be used as a garden, a solarium, and an “outdoor living-room” in Summer
– the adoption of horizontal ribbon windows (Fenêtre en longueur) to provide plenty of natural light to the rooms.
An original sketch of the terrace, image reproduced from the Harvard Design Magazine
The terrace just after completion in 1929, photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier
The terrace today, Photo Inexhibit
Nevertheless, to limit the innovations made with the Villa to only those elements is somehow reductive.
First of all, all five points rely, in a way or another, on the use of reinforced concrete as preferred construction material, which may seem not that original today but it was so in the 1920s.
In the early 20th century, reinforced concrete was still considered more an engineering material than an architectural one; it was mainly adopted in infrastructures, industrial buildings, defensive constructions and casemates during the WW I, and experimented in civil buildings only by few architects, such as Auguste Perret, Le Corbusier’s mentor.
Yet, to achieve the functional flexibility Le Corbusier much needed for his new architecture, a framed system was necessary; the Swiss architects chose reinforced concrete as the elective material for it, while others, such as Mies Van Der Rohe, preferred steel.
Strangely, almost none among the masters of the International Style considered timber as an alternative.
Another important point was the role of automobile. Motor car played a major part in influencing the functional layout of the building; a large part of the ground floor was indeed reserved to a garage for three cars and the house included a small apartment for the chaffeur. Le Corbusier himself wrote to Madame Savoye that “it’s the minimum turning radius of a car which defines the dimensions of the house”.
Ground floor plan showing the garage for three cars and the chauffeur’s dwelling (bottom left)
View from south, photo Inexhibit
More generally speaking, mechanics and technology were perceived as something extremely positive at the time, something capable to transform a dwelling into a machine-à-habiter (Vers une architecture, 1923), which also explains the attention reserved by both the client and the architect to technical systems, which included state-of-the-art heating, water supply, and artificial lighting. “Here is the detailed list of the main elements I would like to be included in the country house. I want cold and hot water, gas, electricity (lighting and force), and central heating” (3); the “force” was intended to be used for an electric washing machine.
Villa Savoye, the kitchen with original equipment and furniture, photo Inexhibit
Another innovation is the strict relationship between architecture and landscape; something that doesn’t emerge much in the usual photos of the building but become evident when you visit it. I will cover this point later.
PART 2 – THE ARCHITECTURE OF VILLA SAVOYE
1) Le Corbusier’s real name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (b. 1887, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland); he adopted the nickname in the early ’20s as a nom de plume for his writings in the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau and maintained it also as an architect; his paintings were initially signed Jeanneret, thereafter Le Corbusier, or L-C. The nickname, and its shortened version Corbu, originate from the French word corbeau (raven) as an allusion to the physical aspect of their owner
2) In 1907, Pierre Savoye founded, together with Gustave Gras, the insurance company Gras Savoye. The company still exists and is one of the largest insurance brokers in France, albeit no longer owned by the Savoye family
3) From a letter by Eugénie Savoye to Le Corbusier, June 8, 1928
Villa Savoye (French pronunciation: [sa.vwa]) is a modernistvilla in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, France. It was designed by SwissarchitectsLe Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and built between 1928 and 1931 using reinforced concrete.
A manifesto of Le Corbusier's "five points" of new architecture, the villa is representative of the bases of modern architecture, and is one of the most easily recognizable and renowned examples of the International style.
The house was originally built as a country retreat on behest of the Savoye family. After being purchased by the neighbouring school it passed on to be 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, the refurbished house is now open to visitors year-round.
In July 2016, the house and several other works by Le Corbusier were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
By the end of the 1920s LeCorbusier was already the internationally known architect. His book Vers une Architecture had been translated into several languages, his work with the Centrosoyuz in Moscow involved him with the Russian avant-garde and his problems with the League of Nations competition had been widely publicised. Also he was one of the first members of Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and was becoming known as a champion of modern architecture.
The villas designed by Corbusier in the early part of the 1920s demonstrated what he termed the "precision" of architecture, where each feature of the design needed to be justified in design and urban terms. His work in the later part of the decade, including his urban designs for Algiers, began to be more free-form. .
History of the commission
Pierre and Eugénie Savoye approached Corbusier about building a country home in Poissy in the spring of 1928. The site was on a green field on an otherwise wooded plot of land with a magnificent landscape view to the north west that corresponded with the approach to the site along the road. Other than an initial brief prepared by Emile for a summer house, space for cars, an extra bedroom and a caretaker's lodge, Corbusier had such freedom with the job that he was only limited by his own architectural palette. He began work on the project in September 1928. His initial ideas were those that eventually manifested themselves in the final building but between Autumn 1928 and Spring 1929 he undertook a series of alternatives that were influenced primarily by the Savoye's concern about cost. The eventual solution to this problem was to reduce the volume of the building by moving the master bedroom down to the first floor and reducing the grid spacing down from 5 metres to 4.75 metres.
Estimates of the cost in February 1929 were approximately half a million Francs, although this excluded the cost of the lodge and the landscaping elements (almost twice the original budget). The project was tendered in February with contracts awarded in March 1929. Changes made to the design whilst the project was being built including an amendment to the storey height and the exclusion and then re-introduction of the chauffeur's accommodation led to the costs rising to approximately 900,000 Francs. At the time the project started on site no design work had been done on the lodge and the final design was only presented to the client in June 1929. The design was for a double lodge but this was reduced to a single lodge as the costs were too high. Although construction of the whole house was complete within a year, it was not habitable until 1931.
The Villa Savoye is probably Corbusier's best known building from the 1930s, and it had enormous influence on international modernism. It was designed addressing his emblematic "Five Points", the basic tenets in his new architectural aesthetic:
- Support of ground-level pilotis, elevating the building from the earth and allowed an extended continuity of the garden beneath.
- Functional roof, serving as a garden and terrace, reclaiming for nature the land occupied by the building.
- Free floor plan, relieved of load-bearing walls, allowing walls to be placed freely and only where aesthetically needed.
- Long horizontal windows, providing illumination and ventilation.
- Freely-designed facades, serving only as a skin of the wall and windows and unconstrained by load-bearing considerations.
Unlike his earlier town villas Corbusier was able to carefully design all four sides of the Villa Savoye in response to the view and the orientation of the sun. On the ground floor he placed the main entrance hall, ramp and stairs, garage, chauffeur and maid's rooms. At first floor the master bedroom, the son's bedroom, guest bedroom, kitchen, salon and external terraces. The salon was oriented to the south east whilst the terrace faced the east. The son's bedroom faced the north west and the kitchen and service terrace were on the south west. At second floor level were a series of sculpted spaces that formed a solarium.
The plan was set out using the principal ratios of the Golden section: in this case a square divided into sixteen equal parts, extended on two sides to incorporate the projecting façades and then further divided to give the position of the ramp and the entrance.
In his book Vers une Architecture Corbusier exclaimed "the motor car is an object with a simple function (to travel) and complicated aims (comfort, resistance, appearance)...". The house, designed as a second residence and sited as it was outside Paris was designed with the car in mind. The sense of mobility that the car gave translated into a feeling of movement that is integral to the understanding of the building. The approach to the house was by car, past the caretaker's lodge and eventually under the building itself. Even the curved arc of the industrial glazing to the ground floor entrance was determined by the turning circle of a car. Dropped off by the chauffeur, the car proceeded around the curve to park in the garage. Meanwhile, the occupants entered the house on axis into the main hall through a portico of flanking columns.
The four columns in the entrance hall seemingly direct the visitor up the ramp. This ramp, that can be seen from almost everywhere in the house continues up to the first floor living area and salon before continuing externally from the first floor roof terrace up to the second floor solarium. Throughout his career Corbusier was interested in bringing a feeling of sacredness into the act of dwelling and acts such as washing and eating were given significance by their positioning. At the Villa Savoye the act of cleansing is represented both by the sink in the entrance hall and the celebration of the health-giving properties of the sun in the solarium on the roof which is given significance by being the culmination of ascending the ramp.
Corbusier's piloti perform a number of functions around the house, both inside and out. On the two longer elevations they are flush with the face of the façade and imply heaviness and support, but on the shorter sides they are set back giving a floating effect that emphasises the horizontal feeling of the house. The wide strip window to the first floor terrace has two baby piloti to support and stiffen the wall above. Although these piloti are in a similar plane to the larger columns below a false perspective when viewed from outside the house gives the impression that they are further into the house than they actually are.
The Villa Savoye uses the horizontal ribbon windows found in his earlier villas. Unlike his contemporaries, Corbusier often chose to use timber windows rather than metal ones. It has been suggested that this is because he was interested in glass for its planar properties and that the set-back position of the glass in the timber frame allowed the façade to be seen as a series of parallel planes.
Problems with the Savoyes caused by all the requests for additional payment from the contractors for all the changes were compounded by the requirement for early repairs to the new house. Each autumn the Savoyes suffered problems with rainwater leaks through the roof. By refusing downpipes and sills which would interrupt their aesthetic, the white surfaces were more susceptible to staining and erosion due to the water pour-down. Additionally, these building was also scarred with cracks because the material was not designed for structural durability. The Savoyes continued to live in the house until 1940, leaving during World War II. It was occupied twice during the war: first by the Germans – when it was used as a hay store – and then by the Americans, with both occupations damaging the building severely. The Savoyes 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. The villa was expropriated by the town of Poissy in 1958, which first used it as a public youth center and later considered demolishing it to make way for a schoolhouse complex. Protest from architects who felt the house should be saved, and the intervention of Corbusier himself, spared the house from demolition. A first attempt of restoration was begun in 1963 by architect Jean Debuisson, despite opposition from Corbusier. The villa was added to the French register of historical monuments in 1965, becoming the first modernist building designated as historical monument in France, and also the first to be the object of restoration while its architect was still living. In 1985, a thorough state-funded restoration process, led by architect Jean-Louis Véret, was undertaken, being completed in 1997. The restoration included structural and surface repairs to the facades and terraces because of deterioration of the concrete, the installation of lighting and security cameras, and the reinstatement of some of the original fixtures and fittings.
The Villa Savoye was a very influential building of the 1930s and imitations of it can be found all over the world. The building featured in two hugely influential books of the time: Hitchcock and Johnson'sThe International Style published in 1932 and F. R. S. Yorke's The Modern House published in 1934, as well as the second volume of Corbusier's own series The Complete Works. In his 1947 essay The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, Colin Rowe compared the Villa Savoye to Palladio'sVilla Rotunda.
The freedom given to Corbusier by the Savoyes resulted in a house that was governed more by his five principles than any requirements of the occupants. Despite this, it was the last time this happened in such a complete way and the house marked the end of a phase in his design thinking as well as being the last of a series of buildings dominated by the colour white.
Criticism has been levelled at Corbusier's five points of architecture from a general point of view and these apply specifically to the Villa Savoye in terms of:
- Support of ground-level pilotis – the piloti tended to be symbolic rather than representative of actual structure.
- Functional roof – poor detailing in this case led to the roof leaking.
After the Villa Savoye Corbusier's experimentation with Surrealism informed his design for the Beistegui apartments, but his next villa design, for Mademoiselle Mandrot near Toulon had a regionalist agenda and relied on local stone for its finish.
The west wing of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra designed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall, is a near exact replica of the Villa Savoye, except its black colour. This antipodean architectural quotation is according to Howard Raggat "a kind of inversion, a reflection, but also a kind of shadow".
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