Ever since the early days of his career, Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the renowned Le Corbusier, has invited controversy, be it with his radical new vision for architecture and urban planning or his mutating and questionable political positioning. But despite the criticisms and detractors, his influence throughout the times and even today is undeniable, with new exhibits, films, writings and books coming up almost yearly.
One of his earliest breakout projects, the Villa Savoye, built between 1928-1931, is located just outside Paris, in the Poissy commune. It was here that Le Corbusier, who at the time had already developed renown as theorist, was able to bring together many of the iconoclastic ideas he had elaborated on his seminal book “Towards an Architecture.”
Having seen another project by Le Corbusier (the now demolished Villa Church in Ville-d’Avray), wealthy French businessman Pierre Savoye and his wife Eugénie, wrote the architect asking him to design a country house for them, stipulating a few technical requirements, but basically giving carte blanche regarding the design, a unique opportunity for the ambitious Le Corbusier to see his concepts and modern aesthetics manifest in built form.
Developed with his cousin and (then) partner Pierre Jeanneret, the design would encapsulate Le Corbusier’s dogmatic “Five Points of Architecture:” The use of concrete columns (“pilotis”) to suspend the building above ground (”The house will rest on the grass like an object without disturbing anything“, he wrote); open, flexible floor plan; free non-structural facades; habitable roof gardens; and horizontal ribbon windows allowing plenty of natural light.
Breaking away from conventions of what a house should look and feel like, the layout is organized in two levels, with most of the basic service functions on the ground floor, and bedrooms and living areas on the first floor, and a roof garden above.
The connection between the different levels is made mainly by ramps with open views, making for the cinematic walk through that became the quintessential Corbusian element, – the “promenade architecturale.”
That “promenade” concept, as a matter of fact dominates all parts of the design, from the car arrival under the house, to the very basic walk from one room to another or even the simple approach to a window view – all is movement! And all is light, as sunlight filters in the house throughout the day, from all sides through the generous fenestrations framing the views (The Savoyes actually nicknamed the house “The Sunny Hours”).
Resting on a sprawling lawn and surrounded by trees, the Villa Savoye takes us beyond Le Corbusier’s infamous (and maybe misunderstood) quote about the “house as a machine for living.” Yes, the house did push the boundaries of construction and material technology, and had the functional, efficiency ambitions usually associated with basic machinery, but those aspects are easily forgotten once there, for what is most striking when experiencing it is how the design connects to the surrounding greenery and the natural elements. In every direction one looks there is Nature! Framed views of the trees from every facade, the open sky at the terrace and rooftop garden, the sunlight chiaroscuros in every room, … everywhere, a blurring of the lines between in and out. As the modern master himself put it when describing the house: “The plan is pure, exactly made for the needs of the house. It has its correct place in the rustic landscape of Poissy. It is Poetry and lyricism, supported by technique.”
Actual use and occupation of the house would prove, sadly, rather problematic. Impermeabilization methods available were not on par with the sleek design, causing regular leaks, and proper heating was a challenge. Then during World War II, the Savoyes fled the house and the house was taken over by the Germans first and then by the Americans. Years later, after being used as youth center, the house barely escaped demolition to make way for a new school. Finally, in 1965 it became the first modern piece of architecture designated as a French historical monument, and in 2016 was included in the grouping of Le Corbusier’s listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Having gone through its latest restoration in 2022, the house today is open to the public and operates as a museum and cultural center, with exhibits and events that closely relate to the house’s concept and history.
By Paul Clemence