SCRIPT, BAUBLE, OR MANIFESTO? UNDERSTANDING THE ARCHITECTURAL PRODUCTION OF LE CORBUSIER’S 20TH CENTURY VILLAS A DISSERTATION BY BENJAMIN STRAK
The 1920’s villas of Le Corbusier are among the most recognisable pieces of his architecture, indeed of 20th century architecture as a whole. The three-quarters of a century of critical attention they have received tends however to confuse rather than clarify the question of how the architecture of these remarkable and significant buildings came to be. This essay will conduct a detailed historical investigation of two of these: the Villa Savoie and the Villa Stein-de-Monzie in order to develop an accurate account that measures the value of the various interpretations that have been offered based on their grounding in historical fact. In developing such an account a clearer insight into Le Corbusier’s creative process will be gained – though the premise it might ever be definitively known is questioned.
I: A Formula for the Villa? I.I Pure theory at Poissy...................................................................................................................................................................................9 I.II The Limits of Canon: Villa Stein-de-Monzie..........................................................................................................................17 I.III Deviating from the Formula.............................................................................................................................................................22
II: Villa as Manifesto II.I A Manifesto for What? ..........................................................................................................................................................................26 II.II L’Architecture en tout, Urbanisme en tout..............................................................................................................................29 II.III The limits of Urbanism....................................................................................................................................................................34
III: The Villa as Bauble III.I Interfering Clients..................................................................................................................................................................................38 III.II The Image of Parisian Luxury.......................................................................................................................................................43
IV: The Mind of the Architect.............................................................................................................................................................47
Annexe of Translations.............................................................................................................................................................................51 List of Illustrations.......................................................................................................................................................................................53 Bibliography......................................................................................................................................................................................................55
Le Corbusier will be referred to as LC in the course of this essay. The Villa Stein-de-Monzie and the Villa Savoye may also be referred to by their locations, Garches and Poissy respectively, or by the names given to them by their architect, respectively Villa Les Terrasses and Villa Les Heures Claires.
The 1920’s villas of Le Corbusier are some of the most instantly recognisable pieces of his large oeuvre. Indeed some of them have gone on to be shorthand for that early phase of heroic modernism, even for the entire modern movement itself. Embedded as they are in architectural consciousness, understanding their architecture is the subject of three-quarters of a century of scholarship. The sheer volume of interpretations however begins to cloud rather than sharpen the understanding we seek.
The Villa Savoye and Villa Stein-de-Monzie are among the richest and most complex examples of these early villas. A detailed historical investigation of the circumstances and processes leading up to their completion is necessary to extract a more truthful account of the production of their architecture from the haze of alternatives. Much has been claimed about both buildings and our task is to discern the roles and relative importance of the factors at play. Constructed within two years and twenty miles of each other they usefully offer a controlled sample for such an investigation.
In the course of this investigation we will pursue three major strands of interpretation. The first understands the architecture primarily in light of Le Corbusier’s extensive published writings. Preceded as they were by extensive bodies of theory, one way of understanding their architecture is as the outcome of a theoretical formula determined in advance.
Figs. 1&2 Iconic views of the two villas
The second interprets the villas’ design as indissolubly linked to LC’s approach to urbanism - the architecture emerging from an urban discourse as much as a purely architectural one. The villas can be read as manifestos for broader urban theory, as a microcosm of a way of living or building that (it is contended) ought to be universally replicated.
Of course, as the domains of an unvaryingly wealthy clientele, we can also apprehend these villas as a luxury commodity available only to a limited audience. Our third strand of investigation will posit that they must be principally perceived as the setting for the social life of an haute-bourgoisie Parisian mileu that was far from ordinary. The relationship of the villa to the peculiar demands of its rarefied clientele being the primary generator of its architecture, recourse to theory and urbanism in the architecture being at best unconvincing, at worst downright hypocritical.
In this manner this essay will answer some of the pressing questions that are raised by these villas and the various critical positions that have emerged over the course of academic scrutiny in the last seventy five or so years since their construction. Can we simply understand LC’s architectural production as a straightforward application of written rules? To what extent does his urban position bear on the architecture? How much is the design of these villas simply the outcome of their privileged position in society?
The villa has been typologically the vehicle for many generations of architectural discourse. Ackerman in The Villa, Form and Ideology of Country Houses reflects that they are notable for this very characteristic, consistently tending to make progressive claims about their modernity1. Our focused investigation into these two, arguably among the most important of the twentieth century, will yield some insight into the limits of this format as a way of expressing new ideas about the discipline.
Ultimately however it is the question of production that concerns us. Simply put, how it is that these villas came to be as they are? Indeed, so many years of study later we are confronted by the prospect that we have reached the limit of what can ever be known of this process. Must we acknowledge a more exhaustive account than the present one impossible?
Fig. 3 Le Corbusier at Work at Rue de Sèvres
James Ackerman, The Villa, Form and Ideology of Country Houses, pp.18-23
I: A Formula for the Villa?
‘Si l’on se place en face du passé, on mesure alors que des formules neuves sont trouvés qui ne demandent qu’à être exploitées.’2 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, 1923
I.I Pure theory at Poissy
The Villa Savoye at Poissy is perhaps the most iconic building produced by the Modernist movement in
the 20th century. In its abstraction and otherness it is the paradigmatic building as theory – seemingly too alien to be anything but the outcome of a strange new architectural formula. Constructed between 1929 and 1930 it can be considered the culmination of research into a Purist design methodology that had been ongoing for the last decade3 and had been extensively published in Vers Une Architecture (1923), Precisions (1930) and numerous magazine and periodical publications such as L’Esprit Nouveau and L’Art Décoratif d’aujourd’hui.
2 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, p.240 (see p. 51 for translation) 3 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays p.85
Fig. 4 LC demonstrating a model of the Villa Savoye
At the most basic level, the fundamental precepts of LC’s theory of construction are emphatically in evidence at the villa. The so-called cinq points4 were at the centre of his architectural theory as LC considered the technological development of béton armé as the harbinger and enabler of an entirely new kind of architecture. The plans (fig. 5) demonstrate very clearly the ossature indépendante of LC ‘s pilotis, the plan libre and the façade libre that this structural system made possible, as well as the toit terrasse and the fenêtres en longueur that were the key elements of this new freedom.
But the theoretical origins of this villa go beyond merely complying to a set of novel constructional practices and deserve analysis in more detail than the necessarily bombastic brevity of the cinq points allows.
In Le Plan de la Maison Moderne, perhaps the most didactic and exhaustive account given by LC on the construction and planning of the modern home (derived from a lecture LC gave in Buenos Aires in 1929), the theoretical pedigree of the house is particularly and comprehensively apparent.
LC describes five major areas of theoretical consideration that are fundamental to the architecture of the contemporary dwelling. These are listed as Classement, Dimensionnement, Circulation, Composition,
4 Le Corbusier, L’Oeuvre Complète, p.128
Fig. 5 Plans of the Villa Savoye
Proportionnément5. In turn these major areas of concern generate four main types of plan (fig. 6): some which grow logically outwards, others which compress their activity behind a rigid boundary, some which retreat behind a structural envelope and a fourth which incorporates elements of all of these6. The Villa Savoye is trumpeted as such a building – itself being a pure singular object, expressing its structural system, but nonetheless enjoying the advantages of a complex interior plan, and LC uses it liberally as an exemplar. To go through this text is to see that the Villa Savoye can certainly be seen as the exemplary formula of the design methodology laid out.
In his first section on architectural Classement LC emphasizes the importance of having a clear knowledge and logical approach to the basic technical requirements of the rooms of the house. For each he states:
Le chauffage. Qu’est-ce? La ventilation ou l’aération… Qu’est-ce? L’éclairement diurne… Qu’est-ce? L’éclairement nocturne… Qu’est-ce? Les liaisons verticales… horizontales … Qu’est-ce?7
5 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.124 6 ibid, p.135 7 ibid, p.126 (see p.51 for translation)
Fig. 6 Sketches describing the four main types of plan
For him the modern home is generated as a strategy incorporating all technical demands efficiently and without waste. At the Villa Savoye, the careful grouping of the service elements of the building in a spine along the north-east edge of the design is an illustration of this principle, the deployment of the salle to face the northwest view and the terrasse to catch the southern daylight likewise. If we look at the design process that led to this in detail, the explosion8 of the different functions of the house into discrete elements in a November 1928 scheme for the villa (fig. 7) can be understood as the first stage in organising a rational classement for the building that takes into account every different need and the most appropriate resulting relationship.
In Dimensionnment, Le Corbusier expounds the ideal method for determining the dimensions of individual rooms and the relationship between them. He states:
Nous pouvons aujourd’hui, à notre gré, introduire dans la maison la diversité la plus grande de pièces
sans nous préoccuper de la superposition des étages.
Giving the example of a home he has designed for the shores of Lake Geneva he describes the oldfashioned method of design as first visiting a site and then designing with this place in mind. The new way, he claims, is to take a comprehensive account of what is required – design an ideal (typically
8 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.198 9 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.127 (see p.51 for translation)
Fig. 7 The exploded November 1928 scheme
Phileban) form from this – and then find the site to suit this ideal. In many ways the Villa Savoye embodies this formula (and the above quotation) perfectly. Each floor of the house unfolds according to anticipated use with no concern at all for what happens above or below. The raised nature of the building itself has little regard even for the ground it sits above. There is a generic, placeless quality. As Le Corbusier says at the end of the essay the house would look as good in Biarritz as in Poissy. It is ‘une boîte en l’air10’ – pure theory, disconnected, literally ungrounded.
Tim Benton in his account of the design of the villa confirms this ‘Apollonian’11 method of design as being literally the case. Sketches for the villa are evident in notebooks in March 1928, months before the Savoyes had even approached LC to design their suburban home.12
We can also view the Villa Savoye as an outcome of LC’s canon pertaining to Circulation. This issue is fundamental, in his own words:
C’est un grand mot moderne. Tout est circulation dans l’architecture and dans l’urbanisme.13
10 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.138 11 Stanislaus Von Moos, Elements of a Synthesis, p.118 12 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.193 13 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.128 (see p.51 for translation)
LC’s advocates a grouping of functions wherever possible, ensuring rationalization of different activities in space to minimize the unnecessary journeys that old-fashioned architecture tends to institute in its disorder. Circulation is a modern practice of efficiency modeled on the automobile.
In fact, at the Villa Savoye, the circulation of the automobile plays a pivotal role in the design of the building – indeed it is clear from sketches that a concern to accommodate and celebrate it was one of the
initial preoccupations of the building’s architecture. In the completed design the shape of a vehicle turning-circle entirely determines the ground floor envelope. Moreover Tim Benton traces the genesis of the internal ramp of the Villa – its primary mode of circulation between different activities – to an essentially vehicular conception of human movement that had the driveway taking off to first-floor level in an early sketch for the Poissy building.14
The importance of imagining human movement through the building also bears on the question of circulation. As LC stresses in his writing there is an embodied sensuous component to circulation, the promenade architecturale, as well as a purely technical aspect that pertains to efficiency. He states at the end of his passage on circulation:
14 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.194
Fig. 8 Drawing showing vehicular movement at the villa
Il faut que l’on prend l’habitude de se promener au bout de son crayon, pas à pas, en réfléchissant bien aux fonctions par lesquelles notre habitant trouvera du plaisir à habiter sa maison.15
This design method is clearly behind the architecture of the central circulation ramp at the Villa Savoye, which reveals the articulation of the architecture to the visitor whilst almost unnoticeably16 raising them up one storey. At once rational and experiential, the ramp is the outcome of a design methodology that negotiates both the technical and the lyrical, an element first deployed at the 1923 Maison La Roche.
In his section on Composition LC reaffirms the importance of inhabiting the building in this way ‘with the end of one’s pencil’. A building is described as a sequence of lighting conditions experienced as un bonhomme moves through it. Corbusier ‘composing with light’ sets up a rhythm of expansion and contraction, volumes respirantes, that produce an aesthetic sensation in the visitor. At Poissy the ramp can again be said to be the exemplary agent of such an effect providing the visitor in the architect’s own words ‘des impressions architecturales d’une diversité’17.
15 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.134 (see p.52 for translation) 16 ibid, p.136 <<..sans qu’on aperçoive presque..>> 17 ibid, p.138
Figs. 9&10 Diagram of the ramp and a view near to its summit
In LC’s writing on Proportionnément the basic Cartesian simplicity of the Villa’s form can be seen as a canonical demonstration of the assertion that architecture is pure geometry. Quite simply, for Corbusier:
La composition architecturale est géométrique.
The proportions of a building are also described in musical terms, with the view that their presence is a sensible phenomenon. We see the Villa Savoye acting out this theory being designed as it is on a five metre
column rhythm that only later had to be cut down to a less satisfying 4.75 metres due to problems of cost . The rooms on the principal floor are subdivisions of a perfect square and the elevations (figs. 11,12&13) on each side correspond to the proportion 3:4:5 – both examples of the traces régulateurs of LC’s canon.
18 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.134 (see p.52 for translation) 19 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.201
Figs. 11,12&13 The trace régulateurs of the plans and elevations of the Villa Savoye
I.II The Limits of Canon: Villa Stein-de-Monzie
In light of the evidence presented in Le plan de la Maison Moderne, L’Oeuvre Complete and Vers Une Architecture it is more than possible to understand the architecture of the Villa Savoye as the formulaic outcome of pre-determined architectural canon. It seems not too far off to say that the building’s entire conception is located in a set of design rules, unfolding purely from the dictates of the texts preceding it. Even as he railed against the formulae of the Beaux-Arts he has here instituted his own. However even Le Corbusier remarks on the unusually untroubled birth20 of this particular project and it is contingent to determine whether the other villa projects of this period also remain as much of a ‘formula’.
Useful for this analysis is the Villa Stein-de-Monzie. An investigation into this building, by virtue of its more difficult site, comparatively tortuous design process and wrangles with clients, can be a way of ascertaining if the role of theory remains pre-eminent even when buffeted by forces beyond its abstract plane of control.
20 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.196 ‘.. born happy in its limpid clarity .’
Superficially, as with the Villa Savoye the cinq points are once more strongly in evidence. The building is entirely supported on a grid of poteaux on a 5x2.5m grid. In the Oeuvre Complete LC particularly remarks how the structural system gives the building a regular rhythm and liberates the plan, and in particular the façade, from any load bearing consideration, being rather nothing more than ‘un voile de verre ou de maçonnerie clôturant la maison’21.
Usefully, the Villa Stein-de-Monzie at Garches is also mentioned in Le plan de la Maison Moderne as an exemplar of the second type of plan that compresses its internal environments within a rigid boundary22 and its presence here provides an opportunity to scrutinize its basis in theory more closely.
To survey the building, the tenets of LC’s methodology seem to hold true. The building is once again grouped in function according to the principle of classement and circulation: service areas are ranged on the ground floor around a corridor and vertical circulation stair and, as at Villa Savoye, the arrangement of the main rooms and bedrooms responds to the views into the garden and the position of the sun (albeit here less diagrammatically). Right from early schemes for the house that show an additional service wing, a rigid delineation of functions and their most efficient relationship is sought.
21 Le Corbusier, L’Oeuvre Complète, p.140 22Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme , p.134
Fig. 14 Plans of the Villa Stein-deMonzie
Beyond this, the free disposition of each floor plan complies with the dictum of dimensionnement, but it is the adherence to proportionnément as a theoretical design methodology that is most insistently demonstrated by the Villa at Garches. The ABABA rhythm of the facade organizes the placement of external apertures and was famously connected to Palladio’s Villa Foscari by Colin Rowe in his celebrated 1947 article The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa23. Drawings from the design process document the traces régulateurs that Corbusier used to generate the proportions employed (fig. 15).
So far so formulaic, but the mere presence of these precepts is not necessarily proof that their role was fundamental in design. Examining the sketches of plans and elevations, it is clear that the notion that each design formula was applied before moving on to the next one in a simple process is quite untrue. By contrast, the sequence of designs is characterised by its very disorder, the going back and forth of different ideas, ideas that cannot moreover be fully located in written theory alone.
Tim Benton’s account of the Villa’s design and construction helps us determine a truer picture of the architectural genesis of this building. Indeed it points away from an exclusively theoretical understanding of Corbusier’s production. For him the unexpected key to understanding the origins of the architecture at Garches is the naming of the scheme – Villa Les Terrasses. As reconstructed from sketches and records of meetings it is a promenade from the garden up a succession of planar terraces to the house that is the most
23 Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, Architectural Review, March 1947
Fig. 15 Elevations of the Villa Stein-deMonzie
consistent architectural idea in a project that went through numerous and diverse transformations (fig. 16). Though we could connect this sequence with the theoretical maxims of Composition and the Promenade Architecturale the centrality of it to the design seems to contradict a purely theoretical genesis. Possibly the main impulse is pictorial, rooted in the early purist paintings of the architect24 but at any rate the straightforward application of precepts is absent and the design process altogether more intuitive.
Benton claims that the other major issue that the villa is ‘about’ is the resolution of the unusual program that required separate living quarters for Gabrielle de Monzie and her daughter and Michael and Sarah Stein. Though this struggle relates to the principle of Dimensionnement as described in Precisions, the repeated and continual testing of different solutions belies any notion of ‘formula’. LC seems to be following intuitions about the space that only later are clarified and resolved with reference to theoretical principles we can recognise.
We can also call the theoretical basis of the villa’s proportions into question. In a detailed investigation of the role of the traces régulateurs at Garches, Roger Herzl-Fischer concludes that they cannot seriously be considered per se as a design methodology but rather serve a correctional role25. They are employed to verify and resolve a previous inspiration rather than providing the starting point (fig. 18)). The evidence presented in Benton’s account of the villas design process also lends weight to this claim showing how a
24 William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, p.84 25 Roger Herz-Fischler, Le Corbusier’s “Regulating Lines” for the Villa at Garches (1927) and other early works, p.57
Figs. 16&17 The planar disintegration of the architecture and a comparison of the first floor plan and a Purist painting
variety of different proportions were tested on different designs before the golden section was eventually employed26. The evidence points to an arbitrariness in their application and certainly undermines any claim that they were the generating instrument of the architecture as has been so famously held to be the case.
Fig. 18 Sheet showing sketches of different proportional systems for villa
26 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.166
I.III Deviating from the Formula
The discrepancies evident between the actual design process at the Villa Stein-de-Monzie and the methodology adumbrated in LC’s theoretical texts offers the opportunity to return to the Villa Savoye to see if, in pursuing an overly formulaic reading, we have overlooked contrary evidence there also.
The account of the 316 drawings produced by LC during the course of the Villa Savoye’s design provided by Tim Benton is once again very useful in this respect. What becomes clear is the relative disorder of the design development – a surprising récherche patiente in such a putatively ‘theoretical’ work. Though formally the final building bears strong resemblance to sketches made prior even to the project’s inception27 this did not prevent it going though a lengthy and chaotic back and forth in the months of 192829. Going through at least five major revisions, the purity of the final outcome was certainly not he result of a similarly pure formulaic design process. The challenges of fitting in automobile circulation on the ground level and the various programs of the first floor were grappled with over months, solutions emerging iteratively rather than as the result of some magic formula. Notable within this was the role of
27 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.198
cost, the initial scheme being so vastly expensive it necessitated a major reworking28. The design process became as much about complying with simple economic reality as much as a formal formula.
Beyond this there are some features such as rooftop ‘formes courbes’, the empty window at the terminus of the ramp and the vertical staircase that seem to arrive in the scheme for purely aesthetic or compositional purposes. Contrasting with the prismatic lines of the box beneath in the case of the curves, or accentuating the spatial drama of the ramp in the case of the staircase. Clearly there is an artistic virtuosity at work that cannot be boiled down to mere formula. Conventions and rules like the column grid or the regulating lines are put in place only to be broken or surpassed. This is a process that William Curtis likens to an “imaginative metamorphos[is] of the world”29 and is characterised by LC’s
formal intuition that
Eisenmann investigates in detail in his Ph.D thesis The Formal Basis of Modern Archtiecture.
According to K Michael Hays there are several definitions that one might attach to the word theory in an architectural context. The first describes theory as a method or design technique for generating form, the second describes theory as a procedure for delivering form to architectural interpretation30. Though this second type is more traditionally associated with architectural criticism or historiography (and thus the
28 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.87 29 William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, p.7 30 K. Michael Hays, Architectural Theory since 1968, introduction
work of critics and historians), by confining our analysis thus far to the texts produced by the architect himself we must be sure that what is being described is the former rather than the latter.
Though Vers Une Architecture was published earlier than the villas, they precede or are contemporaneous with both Precisions and the Oeuvre Complète and so the account of the architecture’s origins is liable to be constructed or at the very least idealised. Indeed the Villa Savoye was part of a highly selective historiography produced by Siegfried Giedion even whilst it was under construction31. Giedion visited the Poissy site numerous times during 1929 in order to take photographs for an article he was writing on the development of modern architecture for the fourth edition of Cahiers d’art. Sections of this writing would later be found in Space, Time and Architecture, Giedion’s magnum opus of ‘operative criticism’, where the architectural method of Le Corbusier was incorporated into a grand trans-historical narrative of changing conceptions of time and space.
It is therefore not entirely surprising that the reality of the design process should differ from published theory. Bound up as it was in a highly self-conscious modernist project there is perhaps an inevitable simplification of methodology that is more concerned with disseminating an image of techno-rational modernity, rather than recounting what strictly took place. The idea of an architectural ‘formula’ certainly
Panayotis Tournikiotis, Le Corbusier, Giedion, and the Villa Savoye. From Consecration to Preservation of Architecture, pp. 1-4
Fig. 19 Corbusier and Giedion at 1928 CIAM fancy dress ball
had its uses in framing an architectural polemic but in our attempt to develop an accurate account of origins of these villasâ€™ architecture it can only go so far.
II: Villa as Manifesto
‘.. circumstances .. did not stop him from using individual commissions as laboratories for architectural devices with broader relevance. The house might even be an allegory containing the dream of the new city in miniature.’
William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, 1992
Fig. 20 Drawing by Corbusier showing the concept behind his mass-housing projects
II.I A Manifesto for What?
To say then that the architecture of these villas was made by theoretical formula provides at best a partial, and at worst a historigraphical understanding. But in spite of this there is clearly a consistent vision that drives both schemes – what we might understand as an ideology – that the architecture seems to stem from and even proclaim. This ideology can be understood as a combination of an idealised conception of a particular lifestyle, a utopian philosophy of the individual and his place in society, and an almost prophetic sense of the ‘spirit of the age’. This ideology reverberates through every scale of LC’s production
from early Purist paintings to later vast works of speculative urbanism, and is perhaps a more useful way of understanding the deeper intentions that result in the architecture we experience.
Both villas seem to embody the ideal relationship LC proposes between man, technology and nature. In Precisions he speaks of the reve virgilien that the Villa Savoye encapsulates32. The form of the house is essentially an environment for civilized modern man to contemplate nature assisted by the latest in human technological invention. Indeed this elevated symbolic program is spatially sensible in the ascension of the
ramp from the undercroft up to the day lit roof-terrace. Likewise at the Villa Stein-de-Monzie the relationship of the terraces of the house to the garden can be seen as the spatial implication of the same philosophical agenda. Care (and expense) were taken in the landscaping and roof planting to reinforce the continuum between man and nature, a continuum that LC would go on to investigate most enigmatically at the 1930 Beistegui apartment.
There is even a moral philosophy that can be said to motivate Corbusier’s architectural production. The notion of ‘honesty’ that LC sees throughout history guiding the means of wall construction is central to his conception of his own architecture33. The frame construction of his villas updates this concern for ‘truth to materials’ for the béton armé and acier of the modern period and in its direct relationship between exterior and interior retains the veracity he held to be moral.
32 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme , p.13 33 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, p.177
Fig. 21 The roof-terace of the Beistegui apartment
In both villas, the provision of light and air, the orientation and spatial sequences are motivated by a strongly held conviction to provide for the health and well-being of their inhabitants. At the close of Vers Une Architecture Corbusier laments the current state of housing in France:
.. [pour l’homme actuel].. son gîte; sa ville; sa rue; sa maison; son appartement se dressent contre lui et, inutilisables, l’empêchent de poursuivre dans le repos le développement organique de son existence, lequel est de créer une famille et de vivre, somme tous les animaux de la terre et comme tous les homes de tous les temps, en famille organisée.34
These villas must be understood as the urgent production of an alternative to this crisis. The architecture is a manifesto for this new and better way of living. They can be seen to accompany and develop the polemic of his texts, supporting his central thesis that architecture can be the means by which an efficient and healthy modern society is brought into being. The villas are the harbingers of such a utopia, the architecture instead of the revolution.
34 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, p.243 (see p.52 for translation)
Fig. 22 Sketch showing Villa Savoye’s relationship with the sun and landscape
II.II L’Architecture en tout, Urbanisme en tout
This ideology however, more than merely providing general principles by which we might understand the motivations of his architectural production, has a more detailed bearing on the design process in the way it pertains to larger urban theory. As is clear from LC’s written output, as an architect he was preoccupied with larger questions of urbanism from the earliest stages and his architectural production on the scale of the domestic residence is intertwined with that of an urban scale.
Design problems were tackled
repeatedly in the search of a universal ‘type’ solution according to his principle of ‘Architecture en tout, Urbanisme en tout’35 where a design solution is an ‘emblematic device’36 that must satisfy the universal as well as the particular.
These ‘type’ solutions are to be found everywhere in both villas. Not least in the application of the cinq points themselves (fig. 23) whose value was predicated on an understanding of their mass applicability. The pilotis and façade libre are understood primarily as the constructional agents of a revolution in mass housing, while the toit terrasse is urbanistically a design strategy to make the most of space on tall buildings in a crowded urban environment.
35 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, pp.70-‐84 36 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.84
Fig. 23 Drawing showing the application of the cinq points at an architectural and urban level
Details as small as the concrete profiles and the chimneys had to be justified on an urban as well as domestic scale. Indeed in both villas the fenêtres en longueur, (a key component of LC’s thinking on mass housing due to their more even distribution of light and ability to accommodate storage space beneath then) are applied almost indiscriminately. Even Le Corbusier notes the irony of the long redundant Southwest window across the empty first floor terrace of the Villa Savoye37. Such a design choice can only be explained by its rhetorical content at an urban level, part of a manifesto for a new way of building that extended beyond the confines of its mere usefulness in one single project.
It is in this light that we must see the bio-technical determinism and rationalist rhetoric that underpins LC’s design methodology at the two villas. The drive for the most efficient and universal solution, whilst admirable does obviously not impel necessity at the weekend pavillion. Thus it is that the architect’s intense
preoccupation with the forms and processes of industry and the American Taylorist and Fordist developments only makes sense when viewed against the backdrop of a perceived wider urban crisis. Whilst the problem of the suburban villa does not necessarily precipitate such a thorough reconsideration of the basic tenets of architecture, when understood as being in the same conceptual field as the housing question the sense of urgency that characterises Corbusier’s architectural production is explained. The agonizing over plans we see at both villas, the iterative recourse to first principles is an outcome of an urban-minded design process.
37 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.84
Fig. 24 Drawing showing the scaling up of the Villa Savoye at the Palais de Congrès at Strasbourg (1964)
Beyond this, at a more gestural level, the ‘lifting’ of the living functions of Villa Savoye originates in a mode of urban thinking that had vehicular transportation sectionally separated from living and recreational zones above (figs. 25&26). The decision to site both this villa and the one at Garches, at the end of long drives can also be located in his general enthusiasm for the automobile so strongly in evidence in any of his large urban schemes. Even the diagrammatic division of household functions resonates at an urban level where in projects such as the Ville Contemporaine (1922) or the later Ville Radieuse (1935) a rigid delineation of work, living and recreational areas is rigidly observed. As it is in the house, so it is to be in the city: the micro- anticipates the macro-scale.
The architecture of the two villas can also be understood as very literally originating in two earlier projects
for mass housing. The 1914 Maison Domino project and the 1922 Maison Citrohan projects illustrate the construction practices as well as the rational approach to planning that characterise both villas. The ossature independante of both mass schemes and the villas supports a free and simplified plan capable of generating
variety from a standardized kit of components. At the Stein-de-Monzie particularly, the formal similarities with the Citrohan are substantial, with both projects featuring two major free facades and exterior stairs leading to a roof terrace. Inside the prototype, as at the villa, double height spaces lead one up the building, the villa operates merely on a larger scale and more confidently disturbs the column grid to institute its rich spaces.
Figs. 25&26 The section of the Villa Savoye reproduced on a urban scale
In a revision of the scheme for the 1922 Salon d’Automne the pilotis that are added to the design formally bring to mind the Villa Savoye, which can be seen as a more spatially complex development of the same ‘box on stilts’.38 Once more it is the willingness to disrupt and surpass an imposed order that marks out the villa from the simpler prototype (fig. 27). What the architecture of the villas consist of is a unified design ‘vocabulary’ – what LC referred to as a ‘syntax claire’ - that was developed for a variety of different programs and at different scales but found use in novel and inventive reapplication for successive projects, most of which are beyond the remit of this essay.
The lodges for both schemes are useful in understanding the urban subtext of LC’s design process. At the Villa Savoye the lodge was conceived in terms of designs he made for Maisons Loucheur, a series of modest steel structure semi-detached houses that were a response to the Loi Loucheur of 1928. Drawings made by LC during the design process for the lodge bear a strong resemblance to this earlier project and Tim Benton suggests it must be understood as a ‘bridge’ between the architecture of the mass-housing prototypes and the more spatially complex villa.39 The Lodge at Garches also has its origins in another of LC’s mass-housing schemes, this time for a 1924 development of standardised housing at Pessac. The external staircase and L-shaped porch of earlier designs have an immediately recognisable formal resemblance and programmatic intention to the houses at Pessac. Though the completed design is more retiring, the origins are once more clearly urban (fig. 28).
38 Stanislaus Von Moos, Elements of a Synthesis, p.88 39 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.92
Fig. 27 Plans of the Lodge at Poissy
Corbusier would go on to attempt to literally translate the way of life he achieved at these villas to large scale standardized housing blocks. Projects such as the Immeubles Villas (1922) and even the much later Unite d’habitation at Marseilles (1947-52) show the reciprocity of his architecture and his urbanism, underlining the point that the production of the one cannot be fully understood in isolation from the other.
Fig. 28 The Lodge at Garches (below) compared to precedents at Pessac
II.III The limits of Urbanism It is clear however that this mode of understanding LC’s production has limits in light of the economic situation of these villas. For indeed there seems to be a glaring hypocrisy in the insinuation that these villas might be replicated universally – an idea that LC frankly states at the end of Precisions.40 These villas were incontestably beyond the means of all but a small privileged group of wealthy industrialists and haute bourgoisie, their construction, financing and fitting out all totally unaligned with the large-scale deployment imagined in LC’s urbanism.
The Villa Stein-de-Monzie was at the time of its completion one of the most expensive houses of its kind to be built in France and hands down the costliest project of Le Corbusier before the war. Costing in excess of 1.5million francs, well over twice initial estimates, it was within the budget of a tiny minority and certainly in itself could not claim to be anything like a solution to the housing question. The Villa Savoye too, coming in at 815,000 francs was similarly expensive.
Of course the programs of both, though basically rooted in the domestic, exhibit a spatial luxuriance that also cannot really be said to match the exigencies of large-scale urban housing. One needs only to think of
40 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.138 << .. nous aurons vingt maisons surgissant des hautes herbes d’un verger .. >>
the scale of the bathroom of the Villa Savoye with its built in mosaic chaise-longue, or the well-equipped garage at the Villa Stein-de-Monzie to see the limits of such a reading of their architecture.
The specifications of the villa to be found in the tender documents also indicate a level of finishing that makes pretensions to universal replicability seem somewhat absurd. At the Villa Savoye documents specify the use of oak parquet flooring a l’anglaise for the main living area and graiblanc for Madame Savoye’s bathroom41. The large strip windows of the villa at Garches required a bespoke oak framing solution from a local artisan and made use of specially made plate glass supplied by St. Gobain. The Lodges of the two villas, allegedly based on mass production models were also luxuriantly expensive at 70,000 francs at Garches and a similar figure at Poissy. The sliding wire and steel gate at the lodge at Garches even had to be made in a workshop by hand42. The industrial ‘look’ concealing a bespoke reality that would certainly not be economically reproducible on the scale of LC’s rhetoric.
Beyond this we even see that many of the putatively ‘universal’ solutions in fact are more costly than their more conventional counterparts and at times less successful. The ‘toit terrasse’ of the Villa Savoye led to problems with leaking that persisted almost a decade following completion. Similarly at Garches, records show serious alterations needed to be made to two pilotis near to the entrance in order to guarantee their
41 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.92 42 William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, p.81
Fig. 29 The Mosaic Bathroom at Poissy
structural integrity43, that very quality they are supposed to be derived from. Issues at Poissy with insulation and the boiler led to problems with condensation and humidity that rendered the house virtually uninhabitable for several years44. A stream of anxious letters record Madame Savoye’s growing frustration with Le Corbusier’s lack of interest in resolving these issues, a lack of interest that belies the apparent ideological zeal to provide the most dignified industrial comfort for modern man. Demonstrably his zeal was more concerned with the general image than the specifics of this vision – a reminder to us to take the urbanistic origins of his architecture less seriously at a practical level.
Beyond all these contradictions, it may be academically unacceptable to characterise these villas as merely part of a larger research project into the forms and processes of the contemporary city. The architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, in his 1975 essay on the architect’s attitude to the city, Machine et Memoire, contends:
Too often, indeed, Le Corbusier’s urbanism has been viewed as the ultimate goal of his research. According to this interpretation, in all of Le Corbusier’s works – from the Maison Domino to the Citrohan Cell to the Immeubles villas- with first the Ville Radieuse and then the trois etablissements humains as thefinal syntheses – the architect’s idea of city gives us a picture on a small scale of the entre process of his research. But clearly this is an inevitable reductive interpretation. Not only is it
43 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, p.175 44 ibid , p.93
difficult to grasp from this viewpoint the full richness of a plan such as the Obus for Algier, but it is also impossible to appreciate the fundamental distance between Le Corbusier’s theory and his production.45
So if LC’s ideology and urban theory alone is not satisfying as an answer to the origins of the architecture of these villas (and at worst diminishes and distorts our perception of his architectural production) then we must seek a more refined understanding that begins to take into account the social and economic context in which they were produced. This is particularly relevant in relation to the consistent ideology in which we have been able to situate Corbusier’s design process. An ideology which all too often promotes an architectural image over substance can begun to be understood more comprehensively only in relation to the period’s structures of power.
45 Manfredo Tafuri, Machine et Mémoire: The City in the Work of Le Corbusier, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.204
Fig. 30 Drawing of the Plan Obus for Algiers (1933)
III: The Villa as Bauble
‘All these house with their technical luxury, and radical design devices, with all their formal originality, are really nothing other than new versions of opulent baroque palaces, that is, seats of the new financial aristocracy. A machine for living? No, a machine for representation and splendor, for the idle, lazy life of the bosses playing golf and their ladies bored in their boudoirs. ‘ Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, 1932
III.I Interfering Clients
As the above quotation illustrates, politically engaged designers such as Teige were sceptical about the self-advertised revolutionary character of modern architecture even during and before the period in which these villas were constructed. In such a reading of the architecture of the villas of Le Corbusier, which owes much to Marxist methods of enquiry, the architecture is seen as fundamentally the consequence of social and economic functions and the representation of power by a particular class in capitalist society.
The relationship between the client and the architect is clearly crucial in understanding how these villas came into being. As much as anything their architecture is the outcome of the agon between these two parties, one of whom provides the financial capital (and thereby the possibility) of realisation. The architect, aware of the uneven distribution of power in such a system of patronage, can be seen to be designing to meet the stated (or more often tacitly understood) needs of the client in order to make the realisation of his architecture possible. Thus at both the Villa Savoye and the Villa Stein-de-Monzie we see design decisions that either come directly or collaboratively from the clients, or are derived from an expectation of their lifestyle, that have their roots in the landscape of haute-bourgoisie luxury of the time.
At both villas the grouping of service areas and servant accommodation, linked by separate circulation routes is the consequence of the constant presence of servant help that the lifestyle of LC’s clients was founded on.
The closeness of the kitchen to the salon and their disposition in both villas is the
architectural expression of a need to have servants appear and disappear from entertaining rooms as unobtrusively as possible. At Poissy, the ramp and the stair can be seen as proposing a very literal distinction between master and servant circulation. The lifted piano nobile sitting atop servant accommodation recalls the hierarchy of a long genealogy of aristocratic homes. At Garches the dramatically articulated front porch and entry stair lends itself to grandly receiving guests and the en-suite chambres d’amis on the top floor speak of a lifestyle that revolved around a busy social calendar with frequent guests.
Fig. 31 The piano nobiles of the Villa Malcontenta and the Villa Savoye
Crucially however his clients were willing participate in an architectural experiment that went beyond merely providing a setting for conventional social ritual. Rather than clients we must consider them patrons of what was expected to be a work of art. Michael and Sarah Stein (along with Gabrielle de Monzie a close friend of the couple) were the patrons of the villa at Garches. They were the brother and sister-inlaw respectively of Gertrude and Leo Stein, and, like their more famous brother and sister, were active participants in the lively intellectual and artistic scene that clustered around Gertrude’s salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Originally from San Francisco but spending most of their time in France, they were long-standing patrons of Matisse among other notable artists. They saw themselves at the forefront of modern taste and took great pride in associating themselves with the avant-garde. A postcard written by Michael to a friend back in the USA includes the following passage:
‘After having been in the vanguard of the modern movement in painting in the early years of this century, we are now doing the same for modern architecture.’46
This attitude to the construction of their new home demonstrates the way they saw themselves as active participants in the modernist project of Le Corbusier. In his architecture they saw consistencies with their own minimalist aesthetic attitude (much of which originated in Sarah Stein’s strongly held beliefs in
46 Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House, p.116
Fig. 32 The Steins (left) with the painter Matisse and friends in Paris 1924
Christian Science), and enthusiasm for healthy living and physical pursuits. Their interest in modern technological progress and their belief in the advantages of a suburban life were also matched in LC’s architecture and thus the villa is the production of an alignment of ideologies between designer and user.
There are some features included in the villa that can be traced to simple demands made in early meetings – a garage for Michael to work on his motors for example or space to hang their large collection of paintings by Matisse47. Other occasions can be cited where the Steins sent a particular scheme back to the drawing board for slightly changed programmatic requirements or economy. Critically though it is an over-arching shared vision that locates the origins of the villa’s architecture as much in their hands as in Le Corbusier’s. As William Curtis puts it, a particular piece of Corbusian architecture is the translation of shared programmatic aims and ideological assumptions into the ‘terminology’ of the architect’s vision48, a fundamentally reciprocal transaction.
It is obvious though that such a collaborative reading of the architecture can only go so far. Quite aside from the inevitable technical ignorance that restricts any client input to a generally superficial or pragmatic kind, Le Corbusier’s notorious aloofness in his dealings with clients is well documented. We can recognise the agon of the typical architect/patron relationship at the Villa Savoye. Certain design features stipulated by Madame Savoye at an early meeting, such as a separation of the wine cellar from the fruit store, and the
47 Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House, p.116 48 William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, p.12
placing of her own bedroom facing East are flatly ignored only later to be reincluded49. Other input from the family appears to have been minimal with Le Corbusier claiming of them later ‘ ..they are totally without preconceptions, either ancient or modern.. ’50. While there were contested minimum expectations he did in effect have carte blanche.
Beyond these instances Le Corbusier lays out in no unclear terms the scant regard he holds for the contemporary clients in Vers Une Architecture:
“Nous savons bien qu’une grand part du malheur actuel de l’architecture est due auclient, a celui qui commande, choisit, corrige et paye. Pour lui nous avons ecrit: << DES YEUX QUI NE VOIENT PAS >>. " 51
With such a published attitude it seems unwise to pursue this reading of Le Corbusiers’s method much further.
49 Tim Benton, Villa Savoye and the Architects’ Practice, contained within Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, p.87 50 William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, p.96 51 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, p.8 (see p.52 for translation)
III.II The Image of Parisian Luxury
But then, if we are to enlarge our idea of the transaction between client and architect to incorporate an idea of an ‘image’, the terms of Corbusier’s engagement with capitalist society can still be seen as a primary generator of the villas’ architecture. If we understand, as Beatriz Colomina has persuasively argued,52 Le Corbusier’s villa architecture as primarily preoccupied with the production of an image or images that evoke an industrially-manufactured but nonetheless luxurious domestic modernity then the client relationship remains centrally important.
What we can see is that the architecture shares the tendencies of a particular idea of luxury evident across Europe and particularly in Paris at that period: the Art Deco and ‘International Style’ architecture that was being produced in and around Paris by architects such as Robert Mallet-Stevens, Michel Roux-Spitz and
Gabriel Guevrekian. Mallet-Steven’s Villa Poiret of 1924 (fig. 33) bears a strong superficial resemblance to LC’s villa designs. Earlier homes such as the luxurious Jugendstil 1904 Palais Stoclet by Joseph Hoffman (whom Le Corbusier admired and met in 1908) and certain other work of the Wiener Werkstatte also begin to situate the villas - the bespoke craftsmanship of which is also not far off elements of the villas’ detailing
52 Bétriz Colomina, see Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Le Corbusier and Photography, L’Esprit Nouveau, Architecture & Publicity
Fig. 33 The Villa Poiret designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens (1924)
such as the windows at Garches that have already been discussed. The importance Corbusier attached to the furnishing of these villas, that extended as far a selecting artworks for certain patrons53, certainly recalls the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk that motivated the Werkstatte. His collaboration with furniture designer Charlotte Perriand in the design of appropriate industrial feeling pieces (that were nonetheless prohibitively expensive and hand-finished) can also be seen in this light.
Of course these villas in their response to this landscape were as much setting themselves up in opposition as they were conforming to general tendencies. Le Corbusier’s position is unambiguously adversarial in
certain parts of Vers Une Architecture:
Ces sanctuaires étouffés de coco ou par ailleurs les bêtises ‘gnagnan’ des paysanneries nous offensent.54
Though this condemnation is addressed to the arts decoratifs in general it is not difficult to single out the Compagnie des arts Français and constituent architects such as Louis Sue and Andre Mare who were producing an ornamental art deco architecture at the time The starkness and simplicity of the Corbusian planning stands out next to Sue et Mare examples, the spatial variety emerging from standard elements contrasting strongly with the enfilade sequences and forced symmetry of the latter (fig. 35).
53 as for Raoul La-‐Roche at Maison La-‐Roche see Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House, p.107 54 Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, p.70 (see p.52 for translation)
Figs. 34&35 Charlotte Perriand’s Chaise longue à réglage continu and the plan of Louis Sue’s Villa Renouardt
Thus the architecture of these villas can be seen to react to what was being designed elsewhere during this period. Inevitably LC would have been aware of, and perhaps more importantly his clients would have been aware of the milieu in which they were operating. We can see Le Corbusier’s architecture as a collaboration with media that aimed at the production of an image that selectively corresponded with and reacted against prevailing notions of luxury.
This architectural collaboration with media is prolific and not restricted to publications of his own writings such as Vers Une Architecture or Precisions. Neither is it limited to commentary of his own work such as that of the various editions of the Oeuvre Complete. Periodical publications such as L’Esprit Nouveau were also important sites of the dissemination of his architecture. In particular L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion that was exhibited at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs conveyed a strong image of his architecture to a wide audience that was in opposition with other more conventional interiors on display.
It is notable that this exhibition was presided over by the then husband of future client Gabriel de Monzie, Anatole de Monzie, Minister for Education and Fine Arts. It was at shows such as this that the architecture was exposed to its potential clients and the image presented: a pithy iconoclastic modernism ideally suited to dissemination on the printed page and at such trade fairs.
At the villas the architecture manifests itself in some well-known photographs such as the highly choreographed depictions of the cuisine at the Villa Savoye (fig. 38). The scrupulous control that Le Corbusier exercised in the picture, that extended down to the choice of the type and positing of the loaf of
Figs. 36&37 An example of the Esprit Nouveau magazine and the interior of its namesake pavillion
bread on the counter, shows how conscious he was of the role of the image of his architecture. The image of the approach to the villa sitting in splendid isolation on its verdant site instantly evokes a lifestyle that is unambiguously modern whilst appealing to the refined tastes of the bourgeois classes who were to make it possible economically.
Images in the Oeuvre Complete of the Villa Stein-de-Monzie place it in view from behind the windscreen of a Citroen (fig. 40) connecting the home with the luxurious technological modernity of the automobile. Yet others recall the salutary environments of a modern liner. Taken as a whole these images successfully convey a sense of a bright modern setting for life, unapologetically different from other homes of the period but not without a reassuring sense of luxury. Corbusier’s particular brand of spatial and material novelty twinned with the familiar comforts of high-end living was instrumental in seducing the
fashionable clients who would go on to make these and future projects possible. The architecture, in the knowledge of the conditions of its realization, is designed and represented to make the impression necessary to guarantee this. But these readings - of the influence of the systems of cultural exchange in operation at the villas - perhaps over-privilege the role of vast impersonal forces in a design process that is inevitably conducted on the scale of the individual. It with this in mind that we can begin to draw some conclusions from our investigation into the architectural production of these villas.
Figs. 38,39&40 From top: Photo of the kitchen of the Villa Savoye; the villa seen on its prairie; the Villa Garches as seen from the road
IV: The Mind of the Architect ‘..One might attack Le Corbusier for what his writings and urban plans seem to say – perhaps judging individual projects to be incoherent and contradictory – by refusing to see, in those contradictions, “faithful” discrepancies and essential differences’
Manfredo Tafuri, Machine et Memoire 1975
In our account of these villas so far we have investigated multiple possible readings of Le Corbusier’s architectural production. A purely theoretical understanding has been supplemented by one that takes into account the operations of his urbanism, which has in turn been counterposed with a reading that draws on the socio-cultural context. Evidently they all have their own drawbacks and are individually able only to provide an incomplete account of the origins of the villa architecture under discussion. What we have seen is that a plurality readings is possible (and indeed such a plurality does not necessarily diminish the value of each) and that all are in play in the design history of these pieces of architecture. But at this juncture it seems critical to site this design process - a process that we have established is working on many different levels. Where is it that the tensions and ambiguities of these multiple layers of intent and motivation are worked out?
Fig. 41 A portrait of the architect
In answering this question we can return to the text of Precisions where we first began. The locus of all the conflicting processes that lead to the architecture we can experience is of course fundamentally in the mind of the architect. As Corbusier puts it:
“L’idee architecturale est un phenomene peremptoirement individual, inalienable.”55
In this affirmation of the central role of the individual designer we are offered a timely reminder of the role of the personal, even the intimate in the design process. Corbusier himself is the agent by which we are able to understand the architecture of these villas on so many levels. It was he (and to a lesser extent his cousin Pierre Jeanneret) that compressed the hybrid meanings and intentions into the architectural object that we experience.
Intriguing developments have been made in constructing a sense of the Corbusian psychology by certain academics. H. Allen Brooks in an exhaustive survey of the architect’s formative years finds architectural prototypes in Jura Farmhouses and the vernacular examples encountered in the architect’s travels as a young man56. More recently, research has come to light by Adolf Max Vogt on the earliest childhood experiences of Le Corbusier in his schooling in the Swiss Jura. Aside from noting the possible significance
55 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un Etat Présent de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme, p.134 (see p.52 for translation) 56 See H. Alen Brooks, Le Corbusier’s Formative Years: Charles Edouard Jeanneret at La-Chaux-de-Fonds
Fig. 42 A photo of a Jura Farmhouse taken by LC in 1910
of the Froebel kindergarten on the infant architect, he has suggested that his fixation with elevating domestic architecture originates in a childhood understanding of history that equated the earliest form of living as taking place in such an elevated fashion on the lakes of pre-historic Switzerland.57
This is not however to dwell inordinately on the man’s psychology or personal biography (and indeed most work in this area is limited to intelligent speculation) but an opportunity to conclude this investigation with both an intact sense of admiration at the synthetic abilities of a remarkable architect whilst acknowledging the limits by which our understanding of these villas must inevitably be bounded.
In Vers Une Architecture Le Corbusier describes architecture as the pure creation of the mind. In light of this it is imperative not to forget that this mind - the mind of the architect - is a highly contested site, the territory where these divergent processes, methodologies, and motivations meet (or clash). It is testament to the creative ability of the mind responsible that the imbricated layers of meaning result in the celebrated works of architecture that continue to captivate and delight even to this day.
Indeed it seems at this point that we reach the limits of scholarship. We cannot enter the mind that was the theatre of all these conflicts, but are limited to deduction, inference and speculation. The most complete understanding of where these villas’ architecture originates is unavailable to us. Possibly, given the
57 See Adolf Max Vogt, Towards an Archeology of Modernism
Fig. 43 Illustration of the lake-dwellers houses taken from a late 19th century Swiss textbook
vagaries of the creative process and inconstancies of memory, it was unavailable even to Le Corbusier. We can only continue to pore over, reassemble and uncover anew traces left behind in an attempt to approximate ever more closely what we can never fully know. In the act of criticism we must show humility, acknowledging, as Alan Colquhoun has sagely pointed out58, the impossibility of a definitive evaluation.
58 Alan Colquhoun, Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change, p.25 ‘the last word on the modern movement has not been said – and will not be said for some time to come.’
Annexe of Translations Please note translations of Vers une Architecture are taken from the 1927 Frederick Etchells translation (from the thirteenth French edition). The translations of Précisions are taken from the 1991 Edith Schreiber Aujaume translation (from the first French edition).
p. 9 If we set ourselves against the past, we can then appreciate the fact that new formulas have been found to bring about a genuine liberation…
p.11 Heating. What is it ? Ventilation or airing. What is it ? Daylighting. What is it ? Artificial lighting. What isit ? Vertical connections… horixontal connection… what are they ?
p.12 Today we can, as we like, introduce the greatest variety of rooms in a house without concern for superposing floors.
p.13 It is a great word of the moment. Everything is circulation in architecture and urbanism.
p.15 You must get into the habit of walking around with the ens of your pencil, step by step, all the time considering the means by which our inhabitant is finding pleasure in living in this house.
p.16 The composition of architecture is geometric.
p.28 [for the man of today] .. his town, his street, his house or his flat rise up against him useless, hinder him from following in his leisure the organic development of his existence, which is to create a family and to live, like every animal on this earth and like men of all ages, an organized family life.
p.42 We are well aware that a great part of the present evil state of architecture is due to the client, to the man who gives the order, who makes his choice and alters it and who pays. For him we have written ”EYES WHICH DO NOT SEE.
p.44 These sanctuaries stifling with elegancies, or on the other hand with the follies of `’Peasant Art,” are an offence.
p.48 The architectural idea is strictly an individual phenomenon.
List of Illustrations 1 Iconic view of the Villa Savoye 2 Iconic View of the Villa_Stein-de-Monzie 3 Le Corbusier at Work at Rue de Sèvres 4 LC demonstrating a model of the Villa Savoye 5 Plans of the Villa Savoye 6 Sketches describing the four main types of plan 7 The exploded November 1928 scheme 8 Drawing showing vehicular movement at the villa 9 Diagram of the ramp at the Villa Savoye 10 View near the summit of the ramp 11 The trace régulateurs of the plans of the Villa Savoye 12 The trace régulateurs of the elevations of the Villa Savoye 13 The golden ratio at the Villa Savoye 14 Plans of the Villa Stein-de-Monzie 15 Elevations of the Villa Stein-de-Monzie 16 Drawing showing the planar disintegration of the Villa Stein-de-Monzie 17 A comparison of the first floor plan at Garches and a Purist painting 18 Sheet showing sketches of different proportional systems for villa 19 Corbusier and Giedion at 1928 CIAM fancy dress ball 20 Drawing by Corbusier showing the concept behind his mass-housing projects 21 The roof-terrace of the Beistegui apartment 22 Sketch showing Villa Savoye’s relationship with sun and landscape 23 Drawing showing the application of the cinq points at an architectural and urban level
24 Drawing showing the scaling up of the Villa Savoye at the Palais de Congrès at Strasbourg (1964) 25 A sketch section of the Villa Savoye 26 The same section reproduced at an urban scale 27 Plans of the Lodge at Poissy 28 The Lodge at Garches (below) compared to precedents at Pessac 29 The Mosaic Bathroom at Poissy 30 Drawing of the Plan Obus for Algiers (1933) 31 The piano nobiles of the Villa Malcontenta and the Villa Savoye 32 The Steins (left) with the painter Matisse and friends in Paris 1924 33 The Villa Poiret designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens (1924) 34 Charlotte Perriand’s Chaise longue à réglage continu 35 The plan of Louis Sue’s Villa Renouardt 36 An example of the Esprit Nouveau magazine 37 The interior of the Esprit Nouveau pavilion 38 Photo of the kitchen of the Villa Savoye 39 The Villa Savoye seen on its prairie 40 The Villa Stein-de-Monzie as seen from the road 41 A portrait of the architect 42 A photo of a Jura Farmhouse taken by LC in 1910 43 Illustration of the lake-dwellers houses taken from a late 19th century Swiss textbook
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Published on Sep 16, 2012
This essay was completed as my undergraduate dissertation. It recieved the David Roberts Prize for the highest mark. The 1920’s villas of L...