photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
featuring ANNA CLEVELAND
text by ALAIN DE BOTTON
1. Behind a wall on the summit of a hill in Poissy, a gravel path curves through dense trees before opening out into a clearing, in the middle of which stands a thin, white, rectangular box, with ribbon windows running along its sides, supported off the ground on a series of implausibly slender pillars. A structure on the roof of the Villa Savoye resembles a water tower or gas cylinder, but turns out on closer inspection to be a terrace with a semicircular protecting wall. The house looks like a piece of finely tooled precision machinery, some industrial object of unknown purpose, with flawless white surfaces that on a bright day reflect back the sun with the luminescent intensity of fishermen’s cottages on the islands of the Aegean. It seems that the house may be no more than a temporary visitor and that its rooftop equipment could at any point receive a signal that would lead it to fire its concealed engines and rise slowly over the surrounding trees and historically styled villas on the beginning of its long journey home to a remote galaxy.
The influence of science and aeronautics continues inside. A front door made of steel opens onto a hallway as clean, bright, and bare as an operating theater. There are tiles on the floor, naked bulbs on the ceiling, and, in the middle of the hall, a basin which invites guests to cleanse themselves of the impurities of the outside world. Dominating the room is a large ramp with a simple tubular rail which leads up to the main living quarters. Here a large kitchen is equipped with all the conveniences of its era. Steel-framed strip windows feed natural light into the principal rooms. The bathrooms are shrines to hygiene and athleticism; the exposed pipe work would do justice to a submarine.
Even in these intimate spaces, the mood remains technical and astringent. There is nothing extraneous or decorative here, no rosettes or moldings, no flourishes or ornaments. Walls meet ceilings at perfect right angles, without the softening influence of borders. The visual language is drawn exclusively from industry, the artificial light provided by factory lamps. There are few pieces of furniture, for Le Corbusier had recommended to his clients that they keep their belongings to a minimum, reacting with injured alarm when Madame Savoye expressed a desire to fit an armchair and two sofas in the living room. “Home life today is being paralyzed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture,” her architect protested. “This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.”
“What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,” Le Corbusier had written. As the builders finished their work, the Savoye family had reason to feel confident that in the house he had designed for them, these aspirations, at least, would be consummately met.
2. Governed by an ethos conceived by engineers, Modernism claimed to have supplied a definitive answer to the question of beauty in architecture: the point of a house was not to be beautiful, but to function well.
Yet this neat separation between the vexed matter of appearance and the more straightforward one of performance has always hung on an illusory distinction. Although we may at first glance associate the word function with the efficient provision of physical sanctuary, we are in the end unlikely to respect a structure which does no more than keep us dry and warm.
Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing, but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity. We may require it to generate a feeling of reassurance or of excitement, of harmony or of containment. We may hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less than we would about a malfunctioning bathroom, if this second aesthetic, expressive level of function were left unattended.
In a more encompassing suggestion, John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us — to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.
3. In reality, the architects of the Modernist movement, no less than all their predecessors, wanted their houses to speak. Just not of the nineteenth century. Or of privilege and aristocratic life. Or of the Middle Ages or Ancient Rome. They wanted their houses to speak of the future, with its promise of speed and technology, democracy and science. They wanted their armchairs to evoke racing cars and planes; they wanted their lamps to evoke the power of industry, and their coffeepots the dynamism of high-speed trains.
It wasn’t that they ever lost sight of the importance of arousing feelings; their argument was, instead, with the family of feelings that previous architectural styles had generated.
With his central staircase in the Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier — just like Ange-Jacques Gabriel at the Classical pavilion of Le Petit Trianon in Versailles, a few miles to the south — was trying to do something other than simply carry people to an upper floor. He was trying to prompt a state of the soul.
Despite their claims to a purely scientific and reasoned approach, the relationship of Modernist architects to their work remained at base a romantic one: they looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them. Their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence.
4. So strong was the aesthetic interest of the Modernists that it routinely took precedence over considerations of efficiency. The Villa Savoye might have looked like a practically minded machine, but it was in reality an artistically motivated folly. The bare walls were hand-made by artisans using costly imported Swiss mortar; they were as delicate as pieces of lace and as devoted to generating feelings as the jewel-incrusted naves of a Counter Reformation Church.
By Modernism’s own standards, the roof of the villa was equally, and yet more ruinously, dishonest. In spite of initial protests from the Savoyes, Le Corbusier insisted — supposedly on technical and economic grounds alone — that a flat roof would be preferable to a pitched one. It would, he assured his clients, be cheaper to construct, easier to maintain, and cooler in summer, and Madame Savoye would be able to do her gymnastic exercises on it without being bothered by damp vapours emanating from the ground floor. But only a week after the family moved in, the roof sprang a leak over Roger’s bedroom, letting in so much water that the boy contracted a chest infection, which turned into pneumonia, which eventually required him to spend a year recuperating in a sanatorium in Chamonix. In September 1936, six years after the villa’s official completion, Madame Savoye compressed her feelings about the performance of the flat roof into a [rain-splattered] letter: “It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp, and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight.” Le Corbusier promised that the problem would be fixed straightaway, then took the opportunity to remind his client of how enthusiastically his flat roofed design had been received by architectural critics worldwide: “You should place a book on the table in the downstairs hall and ask all your visitors to inscribe their names and addresses in it. You’ll see how many fine autographs you will collect.” But this invitation to philography was of little comfort to the rheumatic Savoye family. “After innumerable demands on my part, you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 is uninhabitable,” admonished Madame Savoye in the autumn of 1937. “Your responsibility is at stake and I have no need to foot the bill. Please render it habitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action.” Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the Savoye family’s consequent flight from Paris saved Le Corbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely uninhabitable, if extraordinarily beautiful, machine-for-living.
Alain de Botton, “In What Style Shall We Build?”
The Architecture of Happiness, New York, Penguin, 2007
Sheila Single, style — Tomohiro Ohashi @ MANAGEMENT + ARTISTS, hair — Christine Corbel @MANAGEMENT + ARTISTS, make-up — Fred Valezy, lighting — Laura De Lucia, digital technician — Christina Ahlberg, stylist’s assistant — Kiki, hair assistant — Sarah Houcke, lighting assistant
Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, copyright FLC / ADAGP, Paris, 2014
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