Some 33 kilometres outside of Paris, in the town of Poissy, sits a true “design classic”, Villa Savoye. The work of seminal Swiss architect Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye is a constructed experiment, a manifesto to modernism.
Designed and built between 1929 and 1931, the house represents one of the first constructions of modern architecture, redefining classical elements to respond to technological advances and the changing needs of the 20th century. It was a complete departure from the traditional architecture of the time.
This house is more than simply a modern take on a French country house – it was an opportunity to apply a standardised design system which would ultimately produce what Le Corbusier defined as a “Machine for Living”. Like a car and its parts, where each component is necessary to its function, the house would work as efficiently as possible.
In 1926, Le Corbusier published a manifesto entitled Five Points Towards a New Architecture in which he defined a set of universal principles that could standardise an architectural approach, allowing for a model of architecture that could be reformulated to respond to different requirements such as location and climate.
Villa Savoye became the first test site for these principles.
Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture
The first principle, a grid of “pilotis”, French for a post or column, replaced the typical load-bearing wall which produced a “free plan”; the second principle, allowing for flexibility in wall placement. A “free façade,” the third principle, separated the structure (the pilotis) from the façade of the building, allowing for a continuous, uninterrupted horizontal “ribbon window,” principle four. The fifth principle, a “roof garden” enclosed by a screen, framed the landscape while allowing light to enter the house.
These five principles, which have since become part of a universal architectural language, were reinterpreted and defined by the context. In the case of Villa Savoye, this included a meadow enclosed by trees with views orientating north and west.
A white cubic volume, stripped of any unnecessary ornamentation, is elevated over the centre of the meadow as if an alien ship is about to land. The domestic activities are literally lifted off the ground, separated from the outside world.
The ground level is organised with machine precision, determined by the turning capability of a car, which carves out the ground’s interior volume. This space is arranged to control the sequence of movements through the house; a stair that creates direct vertical connections and a ramp generating a gradual unfolding procession into the house which synthesises the three levels of the villa and produces direct relationships between inside and outside.
Ribbon windows frame views, almost like a camera obscura, bringing the outside context of the house inside. A roof garden, which replaces the exterior space taken over by the mass of the building, allows light to penetrate all spaces of the house.
Distinctly ahead of its time, Villa Savoye has become great inspiration for architects and designers and many of the ideas and concepts have evolved and been imitated by others. Le Corbusier foresaw material innovation with the introduction of industrial materials. Previously, houses were perceived as solid and heavy structures where stone, timber and bricks were commonly used.
Conversely, Le Corbusier drew influence from the machine age, inspired by his fascination with steamships. He introduced steel, glass and reinforced concrete, a shift away from what he saw as impractical materials and methods of the time. Villa Savoye is constructed from reinforced concrete and masonry units. White plaster unifies the house and hides the fact that individual pre-fabricated parts were used to construct the villa.
The assembly of standard components saw a progressive rise for pre-fabrication in architecture, which still has major influence on the practice today. The move towards a more standardised process of forming and making has been further informed by current technological advances, including laser cutters, 3D printers and robots.
These technologies have facilitated the evolution of pre-fabrication, from furniture to building scale. Le Corbusier’s ideas have endured, still influencing efficiency and innovation in the 21st century.
Villa Savoye represents one of the most significant architectural projects constructed. The people at LEGO, one of the world’s most successful brands agree, adding it to their “architecture series”, in good company with the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and 14 other iconic buildings around the world.
Villa Savoye’s basic principles transcend time and scale. They have been incorporated into a single family home, as demonstrated by the villa, but have been just as easily applied to large-scale residential buildings such as the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France.
Even after 85 years, this timeless icon of architecture is a model that is still central to architectural and spatial thinking.
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Villa Savoye (French pronunciation: [sa.vwa]) is a modernistvilla in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, France. It was designed by SwissarchitectsLe Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and built between 1928 and 1931 using reinforced concrete.
A manifesto of Le Corbusier's "five points" of new architecture, the villa is representative of the bases of modern architecture, and is one of the most easily recognizable and renowned examples of the International style.
The house was originally built as a country retreat on behest of the Savoye family. After being purchased by the neighbouring school it passed on to be property of the French state in 1958, and after surviving several plans of demolition, it was designated as an official French historical monument in 1965 (a rare occurrence, as Le Corbusier was still living at the time). It was thoroughly renovated from 1985 to 1997, and under the care of the Centre des monuments nationaux, the refurbished house is now open to visitors year-round.
In July 2016, the house and several other works by Le Corbusier were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
By the end of the 1920s LeCorbusier was already the internationally known architect. His book Vers une Architecture had been translated into several languages, his work with the Centrosoyuz in Moscow involved him with the Russian avant-garde and his problems with the League of Nations competition had been widely publicised. Also he was one of the first members of Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and was becoming known as a champion of modern architecture.
The villas designed by Corbusier in the early part of the 1920s demonstrated what he termed the "precision" of architecture, where each feature of the design needed to be justified in design and urban terms. His work in the later part of the decade, including his urban designs for Algiers, began to be more free-form. .
History of the commission
Pierre and Eugénie Savoye approached Corbusier about building a country home in Poissy in the spring of 1928. The site was on a green field on an otherwise wooded plot of land with a magnificent landscape view to the north west that corresponded with the approach to the site along the road. Other than an initial brief prepared by Emile for a summer house, space for cars, an extra bedroom and a caretaker's lodge, Corbusier had such freedom with the job that he was only limited by his own architectural palette. He began work on the project in September 1928. His initial ideas were those that eventually manifested themselves in the final building but between Autumn 1928 and Spring 1929 he undertook a series of alternatives that were influenced primarily by the Savoye's concern about cost. The eventual solution to this problem was to reduce the volume of the building by moving the master bedroom down to the first floor and reducing the grid spacing down from 5 metres to 4.75 metres.
Estimates of the cost in February 1929 were approximately half a million Francs, although this excluded the cost of the lodge and the landscaping elements (almost twice the original budget). The project was tendered in February with contracts awarded in March 1929. Changes made to the design whilst the project was being built including an amendment to the storey height and the exclusion and then re-introduction of the chauffeur's accommodation led to the costs rising to approximately 900,000 Francs. At the time the project started on site no design work had been done on the lodge and the final design was only presented to the client in June 1929. The design was for a double lodge but this was reduced to a single lodge as the costs were too high. Although construction of the whole house was complete within a year, it was not habitable until 1931.
The Villa Savoye is probably Corbusier's best known building from the 1930s, and it had enormous influence on international modernism. It was designed addressing his emblematic "Five Points", the basic tenets in his new architectural aesthetic:
- Support of ground-level pilotis, elevating the building from the earth and allowed an extended continuity of the garden beneath.
- Functional roof, serving as a garden and terrace, reclaiming for nature the land occupied by the building.
- Free floor plan, relieved of load-bearing walls, allowing walls to be placed freely and only where aesthetically needed.
- Long horizontal windows, providing illumination and ventilation.
- Freely-designed facades, serving only as a skin of the wall and windows and unconstrained by load-bearing considerations.
Unlike his earlier town villas Corbusier was able to carefully design all four sides of the Villa Savoye in response to the view and the orientation of the sun. On the ground floor he placed the main entrance hall, ramp and stairs, garage, chauffeur and maid's rooms. At first floor the master bedroom, the son's bedroom, guest bedroom, kitchen, salon and external terraces. The salon was oriented to the south east whilst the terrace faced the east. The son's bedroom faced the north west and the kitchen and service terrace were on the south west. At second floor level were a series of sculpted spaces that formed a solarium.
The plan was set out using the principal ratios of the Golden section: in this case a square divided into sixteen equal parts, extended on two sides to incorporate the projecting façades and then further divided to give the position of the ramp and the entrance.
In his book Vers une Architecture Corbusier exclaimed "the motor car is an object with a simple function (to travel) and complicated aims (comfort, resistance, appearance)...". The house, designed as a second residence and sited as it was outside Paris was designed with the car in mind. The sense of mobility that the car gave translated into a feeling of movement that is integral to the understanding of the building. The approach to the house was by car, past the caretaker's lodge and eventually under the building itself. Even the curved arc of the industrial glazing to the ground floor entrance was determined by the turning circle of a car. Dropped off by the chauffeur, the car proceeded around the curve to park in the garage. Meanwhile, the occupants entered the house on axis into the main hall through a portico of flanking columns.
The four columns in the entrance hall seemingly direct the visitor up the ramp. This ramp, that can be seen from almost everywhere in the house continues up to the first floor living area and salon before continuing externally from the first floor roof terrace up to the second floor solarium. Throughout his career Corbusier was interested in bringing a feeling of sacredness into the act of dwelling and acts such as washing and eating were given significance by their positioning. At the Villa Savoye the act of cleansing is represented both by the sink in the entrance hall and the celebration of the health-giving properties of the sun in the solarium on the roof which is given significance by being the culmination of ascending the ramp.
Corbusier's piloti perform a number of functions around the house, both inside and out. On the two longer elevations they are flush with the face of the façade and imply heaviness and support, but on the shorter sides they are set back giving a floating effect that emphasises the horizontal feeling of the house. The wide strip window to the first floor terrace has two baby piloti to support and stiffen the wall above. Although these piloti are in a similar plane to the larger columns below a false perspective when viewed from outside the house gives the impression that they are further into the house than they actually are.
The Villa Savoye uses the horizontal ribbon windows found in his earlier villas. Unlike his contemporaries, Corbusier often chose to use timber windows rather than metal ones. It has been suggested that this is because he was interested in glass for its planar properties and that the set-back position of the glass in the timber frame allowed the façade to be seen as a series of parallel planes.
Problems with the Savoyes caused by all the requests for additional payment from the contractors for all the changes were compounded by the requirement for early repairs to the new house. Each autumn the Savoyes suffered problems with rainwater leaks through the roof. By refusing downpipes and sills which would interrupt their aesthetic, the white surfaces were more susceptible to staining and erosion due to the water pour-down. Additionally, these building was also scarred with cracks because the material was not designed for structural durability. The Savoyes continued to live in the house until 1940, leaving during World War II. It was occupied twice during the war: first by the Germans – when it was used as a hay store – and then by the Americans, with both occupations damaging the building severely. The Savoyes returned to their estate after the war, but, no longer in position to live as they had done before the war, they abandoned the house again shortly after. The villa was expropriated by the town of Poissy in 1958, which first used it as a public youth center and later considered demolishing it to make way for a schoolhouse complex. Protest from architects who felt the house should be saved, and the intervention of Corbusier himself, spared the house from demolition. A first attempt of restoration was begun in 1963 by architect Jean Debuisson, despite opposition from Corbusier. The villa was added to the French register of historical monuments in 1965, becoming the first modernist building designated as historical monument in France, and also the first to be the object of restoration while its architect was still living. In 1985, a thorough state-funded restoration process, led by architect Jean-Louis Véret, was undertaken, being completed in 1997. The restoration included structural and surface repairs to the facades and terraces because of deterioration of the concrete, the installation of lighting and security cameras, and the reinstatement of some of the original fixtures and fittings.
The Villa Savoye was a very influential building of the 1930s and imitations of it can be found all over the world. The building featured in two hugely influential books of the time: Hitchcock and Johnson'sThe International Style published in 1932 and F. R. S. Yorke's The Modern House published in 1934, as well as the second volume of Corbusier's own series The Complete Works. In his 1947 essay The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, Colin Rowe compared the Villa Savoye to Palladio'sVilla Rotunda.
The freedom given to Corbusier by the Savoyes resulted in a house that was governed more by his five principles than any requirements of the occupants. Despite this, it was the last time this happened in such a complete way and the house marked the end of a phase in his design thinking as well as being the last of a series of buildings dominated by the colour white.
Criticism has been levelled at Corbusier's five points of architecture from a general point of view and these apply specifically to the Villa Savoye in terms of:
- Support of ground-level pilotis – the piloti tended to be symbolic rather than representative of actual structure.
- Functional roof – poor detailing in this case led to the roof leaking.
After the Villa Savoye Corbusier's experimentation with Surrealism informed his design for the Beistegui apartments, but his next villa design, for Mademoiselle Mandrot near Toulon had a regionalist agenda and relied on local stone for its finish.
The west wing of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra designed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall, is a near exact replica of the Villa Savoye, except its black colour. This antipodean architectural quotation is according to Howard Raggat "a kind of inversion, a reflection, but also a kind of shadow".
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