Parisian International Style: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

Lara Lemley

Paris during the 1930’s was a period of design that merged modern styles to the pre-instilled Haussmannian style that was imposed by Napoleon III in the late 1870’s, and survives today as Paris’s current urban plan of long narrow boulevards. Within this design, each building stood unique from its neighbors as a means to create a city of absolute individuality and utmost taste in aesthetic representation. Architecture of the period can be associated with a desire to embrace nature within the “machine form” of industrialized production, something that Le Corbusier and other architects of the International Style each strove for in their inimitable creations. Elegance and simplicity of form were combined during this period, featuring structures with stylish but neat front walls, limited structural walls allowing for reorganization, single corridors to mimimalize building design, and the massive windows to incorporate the natural elements of light and scenery that each contributed towards the modern and minimalist international style that stood in strong competition against the competing Art Deco and Baroque or Art Nouveau styles at the time.

The provocative design of Le Corbusier’s La Villa Savoye (1929-31) is situated in Poissy, which is located in the suburbs of Paris in north-central France. Originally designed as a summer home for the wealthy Savoye family, the house was constructed with the idea of a “bourgeoisie retreat” in mind, with servant quarters separate from living quarters. As the Savoye family was rarely at the home, the house became occupied by the German army during World War II and eventually fell into a state of absolute disrepair. Today the house has been restored as a national historic monument and, as historians call it, a “living manifesto for modernism”. Le Corbusier’s meticulous construction marks and “end to the series of white ‘Purist Villas’” constructed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the areas surrounding Paris, as this private country home is a synthesis of urban themes and architectural vocabulary, “asserting both classical values—the temple that surveys the surrounding landscape—and a contemporary paradigm of the modern dwelling” (Sbriglio, 6). As seen in the Maison Citrohan design of 1919-1922, Le Corbusier had an ambition of abolishing conventional walls and rooms and in turn developed the design of raising the structure up off of the ground upon stilts or pilotis; with this design, the architect incorporated split-level planning and rooftop patios (Watkin, 611). In accordance to his theory, one can read the home as a model of the “Palladian country residence” and as a “symbol of vernacular architecture, articulated in its flows of interior heterogeneous volumes” (Sbriglio, 6).

Considered by many to be his seminal work, standing characteristic and true to his theory, La Villa Savoye was built in accordance to Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture that he discusses in his journal L’Esprit Nouveau, as well as his book Vers une architecture. Standing as the architect’s personal formula for the International Style, each of the five points include the following: standing situated on pilotis, or stilts, to create a “box in the air”, a flat-roofed terrace, an open or free plan design, horizontal windows, and a free-floating façade (Sbriglio, 176). Though these points are addressed in groups within his other Villa designs, it is only within the Villa Savoye that all of them are effectively combined, especially the employment of the pilotis concept. “[The pilotis] form the dwelling’s very raison d’etre, as does the strip window which, here, solves the façade problematic in one radical design solution” (Sbriglio, 176). Tethered to his foundational theory of air, space, and light (as rooting from Godin’s 1870 completed design of Guise), Le Corbusier utilizes the same design solution in the roof garden and free plan and façade, as all are meticulously contrived as a means to effectively distribute light, circulation, and a balance of space. Le Corbusier’s work “plays with opposites with the contrasts between solid and void, light and dark, between Apollo and Medusa—this permeates his architecture and is evident as a habit of mind in most of his theoretical texts” (Frampton, 149).

Standing centered upon a stretch of lawn that is enclosed by an expanse of trees, La Villa Savoye starkly contrasts the competing Art Deco designs of the time as its entrance is nontraditional, as Sbriglio states, “The house is a box in the air, pierced all around, without interruption, by a long window. No more hesitations about architectural play of space and mass. The box is in the center of fields, overlooking orchards” (Sbriglio, 40). As the villa is designed within the International Style, it appropriates its glass, steel, and concrete construction beneath geometric and linear forms, standing completely stripped of ornamentation in a weightless appearance through beam or cantilever construction. The structure sits atop twelve steel-enforced concrete pillars (four on each of the four sides of the home), allowing for modernist and minimalist play on the concept of the first level’s “wraparound” porch. Within the first level one enters the home through a cylindrical entryway that acts as a housing unit for the stairs that ascend to the second story. The cylinder stands in 360-degree rectangular glass windows, allowing for light to travel into the stairs and ramped walkway that lead up to the second story. This room, as well as the second level, are effectively illuminated by the natural light that the windows allow in; the white plaster home distributes light in a manner that no light is trapped beneath dark colors. The only darkness visible is that of shadowplay, something of which Le Corbusier took into strong consideration in constructing the upper levels of the home. Upon the second story, glass windows of an enormous size span all around the level’s perimeter, mimicking the cylindrical lighting of the first story in a now rectangular and linear form. The upper level is equal in simplicity, with a single corridor, as trademark to the International Style that spans off into the different house quarters, all which are composed of white materials of stucco, plaster, or tile. Colors used within the house design are highly monochromatic, however, when less-neutral colors are included in the design, they stand in the palate of cool colors including blues, grays, and soft pinks.

Le Corbusier employs logical or rationalist design concept with what he calls the machine aesthetic, allowing a “transparency” of the structure to be felt with the aid of mass-produced materials. The appreciation of industrialized production of building materials is foundational within the international style, as the style stands rooted within modernism. Le Corbusier is said to have wanted to expand design past historicism; within this desire, he appeals to a wide array of theorists, as the rationalism of his structures don’t forget to acknowledge the beauty of building construction in their ambition to create simplistic forms. Criticism surrounding the international style is motivated primarily by those historians who appreciate the Art Deco or Gothic styles, as buildings within the international style lack the softness for ornamental décor; structural supports are emphasized in the international style as opposed to hidden and ornamented with pilasters or facades in the Gothic, thus the international style stands as a threat to architecture as it proves the superfluous embellishments of festoons to be useless.

With the creative vision of being able to reinvent oneself at any point, Le Corbusier, born in 1887 as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, renamed himself in 1920 with the pseudonym of ‘Le Corbusier’ (Watkin, 610). Some theorists argue that the name translates from the French verb “courber”, meaning “to bend”, thus, pointing to Le Corbusier’s modernist ideals as being deeply rooted within his identification (Dalrymple). Le Corbusier was highly influenced by the creativity of artists and thinkers such as Garnier, Ruskin, Nietzsche, Sitte, Perret, L’Eplattenier, and other social idealists of the Arts and Crafts movement; such influences can be seen in many of his urban designs, as he takes special arrangement and structural rationalism into consideration when composing modern spaces. For example, in Le Corbusier’s design of the Domino housing project (the word Domino being a hybrid of ‘Domus’, or house, plus ‘innovation’, he drew upon the minimalist style of Adolf Loos as well as Garnier’s Cite Industrielle to create a minimalist site for simple low-cost houses of reinforced concrete (Watkin, 611).  Much thought of the architectural realm of the 1920’s surrounded the avant-garde belief that architecture was meant to serve as a device to achieve social and moral reform; Le Corbusier’s book Vers une architecture includes an “influential collection of slogans proclaiming the virtues of a machine aesthetic, some of them echoing the oft-repeated tenets of the rationalist tradition in French architectural thinking, others justifying his chosen architectural language in moral and hygienic terms” (Watkin, 611).

Le Corbusier’s acknowledgement to the five points of architectural form results in a construction of absolute structural rationalism, taking into account both the maximum benefits of the inorganic material of reinforced concrete, as well as the necessity of the organic materials of nature, such as air and light. In the effective combination of both the organic and inorganic, La Villa Savoye is an absolute representation of modernism through the international style, as the freestanding building blends into its natural environment while concurrently expressing the stark and unornamented construction of rational design that stood defiant to the Art Deco style that was dominating Parisian architecture during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Villa’s architectural language is a play on contrast, “It is a celebration of the ‘machine a habiter’ (machine for living in), conveyed via its uniform white-painted concrete volumes and clear-cut edges, yet it is also a ‘machine a emouvoir’ (machine for feeling)—an ode to lyricism, expressed through the syntax of its form and spatial language” (Sbriglio, 8).

REFERENCES:

Dalrymple, Theodore. “The Architect as Totalitarian: Le Corbusier’s Baleful Influence”, City Journal, Autumn, 2009, vol. 19, no. 4

Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture:A Critical History. 4th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2007. Print.

Sbriglio, Jacques, (translated to English by Sarah Parsons). Le Corbusier: la villa Savoye. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, 1999. Print.

Watkin, David. A History of Western Architecture. 4th ed. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005. Print.

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