Villa Savoye – Le Corbusier’s not quite habitable yet praised modernist masterpiece

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Petra Bjelica
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Villa Savoye, featured image

Besides being considered one of the jewels of modern architecture, Villa Savoye is a landmark development of the International Style that included Le Corbusier’s new five crucial points in modern architecture. But it is less known that this masterpiece did not achieve its goals regarding the comforts of life inside. Ever since the famous Le Corbusier started working on the project with Pierre Jeanneret, he had total freedom of theoretical work and ideas but failed to produce an ideal harmony of functionality and aesthetics. Nevertheless, today this is generally overlooked in most of the reviews of the house; it seems fame and acclaim for its beauty outshine the practical needs for living in it.

Villa Savoye, Author: m-louis .®, CC by-sa 2.0

Le Corbusier was commissioned to create a family retreat in the country for the Savoye’s sited in Poissy, around 20 miles from Paris. At that point, he was more famous for his intellectual and theoretical work than for his experience in development and building. The Savoye family didn’t have any special inquiries at the beginning and happily gave over the main initiative to the architect, which proved not to be the best decision for them in the end. Le Corbusier, having a powerful and vividly speculative mind, was driven by his ideals and strived to create a perfect combination of classical and universal principles through new modernistic forms – which he did.

Villa Savoye, Author: Yo Gomi Follow, CC by-sa 2.0

He presented his main aesthetic ideas in a 1926 piece ‘Five Points of Architecture’ where he wanted to define the forms that would be universally used in any architecture design. The first point referred to the use of pilotis to keep the building elevated and create the impression of a continual extension of the garden. Le Corbusier used the second point to create an open roof terrace that would function as a garden. In accordance with previous two principles, the third point included the free floor plan which suggested the aesthetic use of walls, since they would not be weight bearing in the construction.

The back of Villa Savoye, Author: m-louis .®, CC by-sa 2.0

Corbusier designed all sides of the villa in resonance with the position of the sun because his intention was to have a lot of sunshine and fresh air, thus the fourth point included having very long and horizontal windows during every side of the villa. For the end, the fifth principle was to provide completely free facades which wouldn’t have to play part in the load-bearing construction and could be there only as an impression of the skin for windows and walls. As one can see, the architect was firstly led by his principles and afterwards by the real requirements of the occupants.

Interior of the Villa Savoye, Author: Timothy Brown, CC by 2.0

The house was finished in 1928 but remained uninhabited because of some minor improvements that were completed by 1931. Looking almost like a sculpture itself, it became famous for its sublime precise and stark elegance of the outside, and a delicate feeling of floating in the inside. Its timeless design perfectly blended with nature. He had succeeded in creating a house that looked like a box in the air, to put it in his own words. Le Corbusier was one of the pioneers of using reinforced concrete, glass and steel for this occasion which highly influenced later architecture.

The view from the roof, Author: Rory Hyde, CC by-SA 2.0

On the other hand, the house was not particularly easy to live in from the beginning. The Savoye family complained about the problems of heat-loss, and leaking in the roof. Also the noise that the rain made on the skylight was unbearable for a pleasant night. The unfortunate thing was that the villa was too damp and cold for the owner’s son who was sickly and living there might have caused him to be even more ill. The family refused to live there and took the whole thing to court. The beginning of WWI stopped the whole process, and the villa deteriorated a lot during that time since it was used for storing hay.

Interior, Author: scarletgreen, CC by 2.0

After the war, a public petition saved it from demolition and the French state appropriated it in 1958. In 1965 it became the first building added to the French register of historical monuments. But it wasn’t until 1997 that it was fully restored and became available for public visits. Last year, it was put on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The ground floor, Author: scarletgreen, CC by 2.0

Whether the Villa Savoye aesthetically suits you and you admire its pivotal influence, or you would tend to criticise the praise it got over the problems it had as a residential place, it remains an interesting case in which the not so practical beauty and originality of the architect’s idea prevailed.