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Villa Savoye

Constructed by Le Corbusier in 1929-31, the Villa Savoye, one of the greatest masterpieces of modern architecture, has been widely contested on the part of its originality and its accordance to the practical significance requirements every building should meet.

Following the tradition of International style (a major architectural style in the 1920s and 1930s, also known as a Modern movement, the modernistic style of maximum minimalism), the Swiss architect Le Corbusier dreamed of breaking all architectural rules and principles (such as scope, tectonics, prossemic etc) and building simple, geometrically designed, unornamented, spacious houses: as he called them, “machines to be lived in” (`machines à habiter’).

Of course, this outburst of the twentieth century architecture towards the total mechanization and simplicity was numerously criticized for the lack of humanism (box-shaped building dehumanize and deprive people of their individuality, they say), yet Le Corbusier’s (and other modern architects’, such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Mart Stam, Hans Scharoun, as well) intention was absolutely humanistic – to provide every man with a place to live in this constantly growing world.

Le Corbusier sought efficient ways to house large numbers of people in response to the urban housing crisis. He was a leader of the modernist movemnet to create better living condition and better society through housing concepts.

But apart from the problem of efficency, many art historians prefer to look on his works, and particularly on the Villa Savoye, as on the works of art which provide many artistic effects and influence human perception with unexpected geometry. As a matter of fact, Le Corbusier disproves Umberto Eko’s functionalistic theory of architecture by costructing buildings to exceed all levels of expectation (as it is required from works of art).

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Many critics refer to his buildings as to the true masterpieces.

William J. R. Curtis, for example, analyzing the elaborate shape of the Le Corbusier’s building, compares the Villa with a Cubistic painting. While Mark Wigley pays much attention to the colour of the Villa Savoye – his admiration of its glairing whiteness is unconcealed. So, let’s take these two critics’ analyses into pieces in order to find out who sounds more convincing and whose point of view looks more original and advanced.

William J. R. Curtis takes the most evident uniqueness of the Villa Savoye for analysis – the shape. What he actually notes is Le Corbusier’s excellent ability to combine severe and inanimate square horizontal forms with intricate curvatures and asymmetrical forms. This is the top formalistic skill, he claims.

It is a well-known fact that Villa Savoye in Poissy is Le Corbusier’s major work, associated to his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. In this construction he pioneered to concretize the revolutionary “five points for a new architecture”:

1.      constructing buildings that stand on pilotis: thus they should elevate the mass from the ground. The loads are carried punctually and release the peripheral walls, allowing points 2), 3) and 4). Pilotti was one of the most favorite Le Corbusier’s devices to free the lower levels for pedestrians.

2.      a free plan

3.      a free façade

4.      long horizontal windows running from one wall to another and outcropping the frontage. They allow generous opening on light and sun.

5.      a roof garden : the terrace, build on the roof, totally resembles the garden.

   Curtis is free to operate almost all the principles, although he pays more attention to deconstructing the overall shape of the Villa Savoye. That’s why any principle he includes into the analysis serves to show this unordinary combination of forms and lines, which make the whole building opened toward the “conversation” with the outdoor atmosphere and the horizon behind it.

“It is sculpted and hollowed to allow the surroundings to enter it, and its formal energies radiate to the borders of the site and to the distant horizon”, – keenly observes William J.R. Curtis in his essay about the Villa. In fact, he uses many arguments to sound more convincing. For example, he speaks of the façade to be somewhat blank and forbidding in the whole picture of the first-level box that at first sight makes an impression of only horizontal lines predominance. While the façade is a simple key to open an elaborate asymmetry of the Villa, hidden in the other three sides one can “rediscover” the building from.

The façade with its long horizontally placed ribbon of windows  seems to be a difficult riddle that at first glance requires a simple answer (“the Villa is incorrigibly symmetrical”) but can be solved only after taking a glance from the rear (“its symmetry is upset by the curved volumes behind”).

Another argument the author refers to is the use of pilotis, which Le Corbusier favored so much. The cylindrical pilotis are actually the only vertical lines of the building helpfully holding the massive first-level box so that create an impression of hovering.

Thus, Le Corbusier not only frees the low-level space for pedestrians but also breaks the architectural archetype of tectonics (in a common view such a thin pilotti cannot hold such a massive ‘box’). But it is the architect’s great achievement to be able to supply this huge “machine to be lived in” with an airy sense of lightness.

Mark Wigley chooses another path to the Villa Savoye. Unlike William J.R. Curtis, who takes a drive to the Villa and a walk around it so that grasp the overall expression, Wigley assesses the close picture of it, i.e. analyzing the colour of the building Le Corbusier preferred, having been influenced by the vernacular whitewash technique.

For the design of the buildings themselves, Le Corbusier said that all buildings should be white by law and criticized any effort at ornamentation. What Wigley states in his essay is that the nature of white colour in LeCorbusier’s houses is not as simple as only an echo of Mediterranean vernacular whitewash the Swiss archtect admired so much during his travel to the East at the end of 1910. His new found love of white is of a complex origin, Wigley claims. For example, he cites Le Corbusier’s letter to his friend William Ritter, in which the architect share his newly made discovery of  white, as a proof for his guess.

This subtle critic cannot accept the view that the reason for such a faithful love to the white colour is only a result of submission to “the irresistable attraction of the Mediterranean”. In fact, “the architect’s appeal to the universal status of white seems to be founded on a highly specific and idiosyncratic set of personal experiences and fantasies”. Le Corbusier’s choice of the white wall is motivated by synthesis rather than by a simple influence.

That’s why the phenomenon of white in modern architecture surely exceeds all the discourses (a collective idea of the white colour) and rests on the intimate emotional experiences of every architect that rediscovers the colour for him/herself.

To some extent I really feel this personal modernistic view on white. I can feel the author’s attitude towards the colour that obviously contradicts the common idea of white as a symbol of purity (yes, Le Corbusier was a purist architect, but only in terms of the usage of simple geometrical forms) and sanctity. His white is deprived of the collectivistic views and is rather a symbol of vanguard blank page. Le Corbusier rubbed off the messages scripted by the previous cultures.