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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. During WWII the Jewish Savoye family was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis who took over the house and used it for storage. 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.
By the end of the 1920s Corbusier was already an 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 designs urban for Algiers began to be more free-form.
History of the commission
Pierre and Emilie 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 800,000 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 1920s, 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.
- 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.
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 maids rooms. At first floor the master bedroom, the son's bedroom, guest bedroom, kitchen, salon and external terraces. The salon was orientated 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 principle 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. 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 of 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 renovation 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 renovation 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 southern hemisphere "shadow" of the Villa Savoye, in Canberra, Australia
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's The 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's Villa 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 leveled at Corbusier's five points of architecture from a general point of view and these apply specifically to the Villa Savoye in terms of:
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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Le Corbusier: Analysis of Form / Edition 3
The Ideas of Le Corbusier on Architecture and Urban Plannin
Le Corbusier in Detail
Towards a New Architecture