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Architects   LE CORBUSIER
Date   1928-1930
Address   82, rue de Villiers, 78300 Poissy, France
Floor Plan    

Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) had been living in Paris since 1916, collaborating with Amédée Ozenfant in the production of the review L ‘Esprit nouveau, constructing several private homes, including the La Roche-Jeanneret houses (which would later become the Fondation Le Corbusier), and proposing ambitious projects for mass housing. By 1925, he succeeded in securing official backing for the construction of an experimental housing enclave at Pessac, near Bordeaux—an enterprise that seemed to presage a revolution in the building industry by bringing to construction the benefits of mass production that had made the automobile industry. He now began to receive commissions for luxury villas from families with interests in industry or with American connections. Among these were the designs made for Mongermon, one of the directors of the Voisin car and airplane industries, and in 1926 a villa at Garches for Michael and Sarah Stein.

The process by which Le Corbusier obtained the collaboration of his clients was not an easy one, as his ideas were as much directed to using new materials and developing a new lifestyle as they were to securing satisfied clients. In the case of the commission for the Villa Savoye, which arrived in 1928, the clients rejected his first design but returned to it after he had explored alternatives and presumably after he had succeeded in gaining the confidence not only of Pierre Savoye but of his wife, Emilie, as well. The villa was completed in 1930, at a cost almost double that of the estimate. It was used by the family as a weekend retreat until it was abandoned at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, it was plagued by leaks from the windows, skylights, and flat-roof terraces, and in September 1936 Madame Savoye complained to the architect that “it is raining in my bedroom.” During the war years, the villa was commandeered by the Germans, then by the Americans, and came under threat when the Commune of Poissy planned to absorb the land for the construction of a school. Le Corbusier was forced to make representations in high places, including to his friend André Malraux, minister of cultural affairs, in order to prevent its demolition.

Despite Villa Savoye’s rather unsatisfactory history of cost overruns and architectural defects, it was acquired by the government as a national landmark. More than any other of the time, the Villa Savoye embodies the qualities that were to be ascribed to modern architecture produced under functionalism, and as such it has entered into history. In 1938, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson published their influential book The International Style and chose a picture of the Villa Savoye for the dustcover. It embodies the idea of a functional architecture pared down to essentials, and it has, in addition, something exceptional that makes all the difference: a sweet sense of form, and a flair for style. There is a marvelous balance between form and content, each increasing the effect of the other, and so it seems to crystallize the very idea of modernism in architecture. The villa occupied an extensive field surrounded by a belt of trees. Le Corbusier placed it on the slightly higher ground in the middle of this field, so that it commanded views in all directions, and gave it four similar sides, one for each direction. There is some weight in the critic Colin Rowe’s suggestion that it compares with Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, just as the villa at Garches can be compared with Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta, and there is much about the design that gives it a classical feel, but this aspect has been totally transformed by the idea of the machine aesthetic. To begin with, the frontality of the plan is full of paradox. For a weekend house some 30 kilometers from Paris, the car is obligatory. Instead of directly approaching a front porch, the visitor drives under the house on a gravel surface, sweeps around the back, and stops at the opposite side. The back becomes the front. The ground-floor accommodation is retracted to allow this, and it curves precisely to the sweep of the car.

The entrance door is classically placed on the central axis of the house, but the hall opens out asymmetrically. Directly opposite, instead of the traditional staircase there is a narrow ramp that dives deep into the house before bending back at the half landing. Although the front door, which parts in the center with two sliding leaves, is on the centerline of the house, this axis is also occupied by a row of columns, and on the half landing one crosses this line.

The space of the ramp is fully glazed above, so that it attracts the visitor upward toward the light. Once on the second level, it can be seen that it continues farther upward, on the outside, providing access to the solarium on the roof. The house now appears like an apartment, with all the family accommodations on the raised level, the ground level reserved for the servants’ quarters. However, a good slice of this upper level is given to an extensive roof terrace, onto which the living room looks, with large sliding windows facing southwest. There is a Mediterranean feeling about this terrace, with its fixed concrete table ready for the moment of the aperitif. All the family spaces around the house are lit by a continuous band of glazing, the glass omitted where the wall traverses the terrace, so that the appearance on the outside is constant on all sides. The regularity of the outer face is offset by the dynamic thrust of the ramp and the curved roof forms that shelter the solarium from the wind.

In this design, Le Corbusier synthesized elements from his art with elements from his idea of a machine architecture derived from industrial processes. To review the different stages by which he arrives at the final design is to review a tentative process, for it only crystallizes along the way. Yet the finished result is so imbued with his conviction, so certain in its balance, that it sums up not just an episode but an epoch as well.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.


Further Reading

Benton, Tim, The Villas of Le Corbusier, 1920–1930, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1987

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Willy Boesiger, The Complete Architectural Works, London: Thames and Hudson, 1964

Rowe, Colin, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, and Other Essays, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976

Sbriglio, Jacques, Le Corbusier: La Villa Savoye; The Villa Savoye (bilingual English- French edition), Basel: Birkhäuser, 1999

Von Moos, Stanislas, Le Corbusier: Elemente einer Synthese, Frauenfeld, Switzerland:Huber, 1968; as Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1979

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