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 International Style.

It is widely recognised as the best example Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of a New Architecture”, a manifesto that strongly influenced Modernist architectural design.

But it is less known that this masterpiece did not achieve its goals regarding the comforts of life inside. Le Corbusier worked on the project with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret.

The pair collaborated on numerous successful works over the years, but in this case it seems they 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 artistic importance and acclaim for its beauty outshine the practical needs for living in the villa.

Villa Savoye, France. m-louis .®, CC BY-SA 2.0

Le Corbusier was commissioned by a French couple, Pierre and Eugénie Savoye, to create a family retreat in the country, on a plot of land in Poissy, around 20 miles from Paris.

The Savoye family didn’t have any specific requirements 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 strove to create a perfect combination of classical and universal principles through new Modernistic forms – which he did.

The building was to become the architect’s most famous design of the era.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France. Yo Gomi Follow, CC BY-SA 2.0

The summer house was the final building in his “White Villas” series, most of which were situated in urban areas and were designed in Cubist style.

Le Corbusier saw the Villa Savoye as an opportunity to express his ideas of a new architecture, first posited in his 1923 essay titled “Vers Une Architecture” (Toward an Architecture).

In 1926 he published a set of principles that would define his technique: The “cinq points de l’architecture moderne“.

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.

Looking onto the second floor terrace garden. Netphantm – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In accordance with previous principle, the second point suggested the aesthetic use of internal walls, since they would not be load-bearing in the construction. The third concept was to have completely free facades which would be like a skin, separate from the internal function of the building.

Le Corbusier designed all sides of the villa in harmony with the position of the sun because his intention was to have a lot of sunshine and fresh air. This met with his fourth principle of having very long and horizontal windows on every side of the villa.

The fifth principle was to create an open roof terrace that would function as a garden.

As one can see, the architect was firstly led by his principles, and the real requirements of the occupants came perhaps as an afterthought.

Internal staircase. scarletgreen, CC BY 2.0

The house was finished in 1930 but remained uninhabited until the following year because of the need for some minor improvements.

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. Le Corbusier had succeeded in creating a house that looked like “a box in the air,” to put it in his own words, which highly influenced later architecture.

The upper terrace and living room. Rory Hyde, CC BY-SA 2.0

However, the house was not particularly easy to live in.

From the beginning, the Savoye’s complained about the problems of heat-loss, and leaks in the roof. Also the noise that the rain made on the skylight was unbearable.

They found the villa was too damp and cold for their 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 outbreak of WWI stopped the whole process, and the villa deteriorated a lot during that time since it was used for storing hay.

Interior of the Villa Savoye, France. Timothy Brown, CC BY 2.0

 

Villa Savoye, rear aspect. jeanbaptisteparis – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

After the war, a public petition saved it from demolition and the French state appropriated it in 1958. In 1965 the villa 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.

The ground floor, Villa Savoye. scarletgreen, CC BY 2.0

Villa Savoye was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.

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Whether or not the villa aesthetically suits you and you admire its pivotal influence, it remains an interesting case in which the not so practical beauty and originality of the architect’s idea prevailed.