A lesson at Villa Savoye


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.

From the train to Poissy

From the train to Poissy

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.

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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.

Categories: ArchitectureTags: , , , , ,

9 comments

  1. Love the colours and shapes of that bathroom. We are so afraid of colour these days.

  2. I seem to always struggle with Le Corbusier from the outside, but once inside I love the flow and excitement his buildings generate. This place looks like somewhere you could really have fun in – I bet they had some great parties!

    Although I like the look of the bathroom and kitchen, they do feel as if they would be very hard and un-userfriendly … What was your impression?

    And I was just wondering to myself, before I read it in your post, that does this building still look modern today … I think it does. How wonderful that it has informed the design for your home!

    Your writing really flew me around the building with its lyricism and enthusiasm. Thank you.

    • Oh yes, what a party house it would be! I agree with your comments about the tiled rooms but when you put them in context they’re so ahead of their time. I was struck especially by the kitchen and all that natural light – preparing food on those benches would be such a pleasure. And the bathroom had the feel of a Hamman – the idea of steam and beautiful French soap and thick white towels would make this a gorgeous place to be, especially if I’d been stuck in offices all week in the centre of Paris. It continues to astound me how contemporary his buildings of that time still look – many new houses in Sydney seem to follow the same design principles, nearly 100 years later – white surfaces, even ramps, and the mosaic bathroom is king at the moment…Glad you enjoyed the journey with me!

  3. I am wondering where you enter from, are there guards or is the house open-freely to view? How much was it to get in, thanks in advance.

    Also, I see it had a lot of green space, is there actual walls behind the trees that enclose it, or solely trees, I was looking at google map and it seems like there is a school near it, or some form of play area. I am wondering if it secluded to can people pass through from there to the house?

    • Hi Jenni
      You sound like me when I haven’t visited a famous building – how to get in, how’s it sited? Well, the house is a National Monument of France so check out http://villa-savoye.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/ to get the current entrance price, the times of opening and how to get there. The actual entrance to the house is at the back as it was designed so that the owners would drive up to it on the right-hand side (of my first photo) and stop outside the glazed entrance (which you can see in the last photo – in the dark green section on the ground floor). There is a garage further on within the ground floor so once the chauffeur had dropped off the Savoyes, the car could then be garaged. Leaving the house, the car would be backed out of the garage and then driven forward to leave from the other side of the house. Although the arcades created by those piloti look narrow you have to remember that cars of the 1920s were narrow also.
      As for the land, it originally sat in large grounds but these have since been sold off, hence the school next door. Poissy would have been quite a quiet little place in the 1920s and therefore a perfect weekend retreat for Parisians. Very different now, of course.
      Hope my trip to the house has spurred you on to visit it yourself – it really is a fascinating building and so important.

      • You really know your stuff! I will be going next summer and cannot wait!

        I was told that you can pass from the school to the house, is that true? I am wondering if kids sneak in!!

        Where do you pay to get in, is there security at the front?

      • You can wander around the outside of the building without paying, as far as I know. You pay just inside the front door and you really wouldn’t want to go to the house without seeing the inside. It’s such a great place to visit, I’m sure you’ll be more than happy to pay the entrance fee! Have a great time.

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