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Come to terms with the Pavillon Suisse, and you have come a long way to getting to grips with modern architecture, for it contains much of the basic modern craft that has survived through every change of superficial style; its influence has gone round the world and altered modern, architecture for good; and it combines all that is least superficial of both the new and the old in style.
From the past, it inherits one of the great ideas of the academic tradition, even though it was never made obvious there: this was the conception of a building as.an assembly of volumes, each serving a specified function. The idea is as old as architecture, but Le Corbusier here made it eloquent and comprehensible by thinking not of a building, but of separate functional volumes, and designing the building by pushing these volumes together in such a way that their separateness and the fact of their assembly were unmistakable. The main function is to provide living accommodation for Swiss students, and this function is therefore served by the main functional volume, the dormitory. Its identity as a volume is underlined by lifting it off the ground on pilotis, so that one sex at once its actual size and content - the content being expressed by the forty-five room-size windows on the main facade - every square a room, every room a student. Where the pattern varied at the topmost storey, this is because the content is varied: these are no longer standardised students’ rooms but the sick-rooms and the warden’s flat.
The other functions are auxiliary and are therefore served by volumes that are obviously accessory to the dormitory: by a stair-tower that, as near as dammit, doesn't actually touch the dormitory block. and by a sprawl of single-storey accommodation at ground level which, because it does not house the same standardised accommodation as the dormitory, breaks away also from the standardised geometry of that part. These two auxiliary structures are related to one another by the common feature of a curved wall on the stair-tower and a curved wall on the back of the students’ common room, but their difference is at once emphasised by the fact that the staircase wall is of smooth stone slabs, whereas the common room wall is of highly picturesque random rubble. This systematic alienation of the parts can be seen in one more symptomatic usage, where the porter’s lodge, a forward extension of the single-storey structure, edges forward under the chassis of the raised dormitories - it looks suspiciously as if Le Corbusier has only done this in order to leave gratuitously thin air-gap between the two at a point where a leaser man might have decided there was some structural gain in joining them up. Let no god, says Corb apparently, join what man hath decided to set asunder.
It is difficult to say which is the more compelling here: the brilliant demonstration of a hierarchy of functional parts with their functions carefully discriminated, or the emotive mixture of straight and curved, rough and smooth, romantic and classic - the ‘two geometries’, it has been called, or ‘Corb's surrealism’. The ultimate surrealism of the design becomes most apparent when one realises that he has put his ‘rustication’ on a wall that does not support any Lipper storeys, (Le, the common-room wall) while the smooth upper storeys, that would traditionally require a rusticated base, stand upon apparent nothingness: the chassis under the dormitories is cut back and rests on a narrow double file of columns under the centre of the block. Yet, even while traditional forms are being surrealistically flouted, the traditional and very French discipline of rational discrimination of functions has been fully honoured in the un-traditional composition of the whole.
The Pavillon Suisse has been described as one of the seminal buildings of the century, and it true; its progeny are scattered all over the world, and number such distinguished buildings as Lever House in New York, the UN building Lucio Costa's famous Ministry of Health and Education in Rio de Janeiro, and many other office blocks or public buildings that have kicked out a flurry of subsidiary structures from the foot of the pure prism of multi-storey slab. Corb’s triumph, and the reason for his influence in this one work, was to have evolved a basic architectural solution that was patently rational, yet left room for a great deal of personal freedom: a slab of logic raised on a base of free invention a phrase which I freely admit to being a deliberate but (I hope) appropriate inversion of Corbu’s famous dictum that technique is the base on which lyricism rests.
Banham R. Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row., 1975. P. 118-121.
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