What makes a house great? I’ve been wondering about this a lot recently because I’m renovating my own house. I’ve been thinking about room sizes and how they interact, materials, window sizes and so on. And while mine is only an ordinary project, I can’t help thinking of the houses that have changed the course of design history. Houses like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye which I visited earlier this year.
Built in late 1920s for the wealthy Savoye couple who called it Les Heures Claires – literally the bright hours but meaning in effect happy times – this building was intended as their weekend retreat. It is one of the most important buildings of the 20th century due to its revolutionary use of light and space and structure.
The Villa is situated in Poissy, a dormitory town on the outskirts of Paris. I travelled there by the RER train, passing through the modern tower-block suburbs of Paris that few tourists ever see. They recall Le Corbusier’s vision for a City of 3 million inhabitants of 1922. What would he make of them, I wonder, especially as many have a reputation for high crime and social injustice?
Poissy itself is an ordinary place with a traditional market and a large prison. The Villa is on its outskirts, in an area that used to be rolling fields and orchards and which I had read was now enclosed by schools and housing developments. I expected to be disappointed by its siting but was pleasantly surprised. The entrance to the site is a gateway in an old stone wall with tall trees behind. The only hint of what lies beyond is the small, two-storey gardener’s house, a kind of mini-Villa Savoye which has yet to be properly restored. It has many elements of the main house, such as the strip windows, the piloti and of course the reinforced concrete structure.
You walk along a leafy and informal driveway and then turn to see the house for the first time. It is more planted on the ground than I had expected, because the ground floor windows of the laundry and maid’s room are in line with the upper levels. It’s only when you look at the other elevations that you see the familiar floating quality, the upper floor lifted on a row of fine pillars – the structural piloti so beloved by LC. The ground floor, which includes a garage (LC adored cars and made every allowance for them) is painted dark green, so that the white painted upper parts and the piloti stand out even more. The sense of order is striking and intentional – LC spent two weeks at the Parthenon in Athens in 1911, a structure that he later described as striking an inner chord within us. This emotional response to architecture is clear in all his buildings, each of which is designed to be experienced rather than gazed upon.
A shop selling LEGO models and architecture books clutters the entrance hall, which was busy with a student excursion. But the space is dominated by the exhilarating and dynamic spiral staircase, tightly wound next to the generous ramp structure. I loved the way you could choose how you will proceed to the next level. A white pedestal basin sits further along the hall, reminiscent of a fountain in a walled garden or even a font in a church. More practically, it meant that hands dirty from gardening could be washed before walking upstairs.
Upstairs is a swirl of space and light. A corridor leads to the main bedroom but I walked into the kitchen, a room flooded with light from its long windows. The built-in style might look a little clumsy compared to today’s sharp styles but it’s impossible not to think how modern the white, glazed tile surfaces would have looked over 80 years ago. Large metal sliding doors conceal cupboard space. From the windows, the lush greenness outside felt almost edible.
The sitting room is huge and I marvelled at those vast sliding doors to the roof terrace. A student snoozed in Charlotte Perriand’s LC4 recliner, obviously a welcome refuge from the toil of his daytrip. The room felt relaxed, helped I think by the carefully modulated sense of enclosure – the largest windows giving on to the private terrace while long, low windows give views to the surrounding garden.
The terrace outside is not only large, it is treated like another room, with walls and windows, unglazed though they are. It means that views are framed and that the area is sheltered from the wind and shaded from the sun. A ramp thrusts up to a further terrace, sheltered by a curved wall and the structure that caps the spiral staircase and encases the water tanks. It put me in mind of the great ventilation funnels on the roof of LC’s Unite d’Habitation building in Marseille of 30 years later.
The master bedroom can be accessed either from the internal corridor or from a door from a covered part of the main terrace. When I visited it was filled with an ugly sound installation, as were the other rooms, and the irritating feedback-sound pulsed through the air which I found intrusive and pointless. The bedroom’s windows look out towards the entrance drive, which struck me as odd but I suppose it would alert the weekending owners to any visitors.
The bathroom is one of the most photographed rooms of the 20th century. Open to the bedroom, it shows the importance LC placed on physical health. It is a space to loll, either in the blue mosaic’d bath or alongside it on the shaped lounging platform that recalls the shape of that LC4 recliner. This area is accessed first when you walk from the rest of the house, encouraging you to shed not only your clothes but all remnants of ‘beyond’ – the city grime of weekday Paris, entering the inner sanctum of relaxation. In LC’s home, the bathroom area dominates his own bedroom, too, the bidet being the first thing one sees upon entering it (which annoyed his wife Yvonne, especially when the door was left open and guests at their dining table could stare right at it). He takes an architect’s pleasure in taps and shower heads although lavatories are always tucked out of sight.
I wandered for hours and left feeling very calm. Despite that grating sound installation (why did they allow it?) I reflected on what I had learned from actually experiencing the house:
the fun of dynamic movement in the stairs and ramps within the pivoting space of the upper and lower hallways
the private nature of bedrooms
the luxury of bathroom space
that beguiling and fine shadow line that runs around the top of the building (and the gardener’s house), subtly ‘finishing off’ the structure
the use of colour to intensify the structural shape
the generosity of light throughout.
I walked back to Poissy, past the ordinary houses of the area. The villa seemed absurdly luxurious in contrast – it is most definitely a rich person’s home. What struck me was how modern it still feels, despite the handmade elements of rough-glazed tiles and single glazed windows. On a warm summery day it still felt cool inside. I wondered what it would feel like in winter, hovering above a landscape of snow.
The town market was closing. I bought an almond croissant and sat to eat it, watching the stall holders pack up. And I thought how normal so many of the elements of the Villa Savoye were to us today and yet how often thoughtful design still remains the provenance of the rich and what had really changed in the homes of ordinary people.
But now, when I look up as my renovation takes shape, I see the little shadow line around the top of the new parapet – a piece of framing, nothing more – and the large windows letting in generous light. And in them I glimpse a tiny memory of the Villa Savoye.