A few years ago, I watched a film called ‘The Man Next Door’. It was about an industrial designer living in a modernist house in Argentina whose neighbour decides to knock through a window which looks directly into the designer’s home. It’s a story of obsession and boundaries but they manage to sort it out in the end. The star, though, is the house itself – the Casa Curutchet, the only building Le Corbusier ever built in South America.
And I’m on the way to see it.
La Plata is about an hour’s train ride from Buenos Aires’s grand station at Retiro, passing through the sprawl of the city and many rundown areas and then a welcome spell of orange orchards and horse paddocks before reaching La Plata’s own little neoclassical station. The journey there with my partner Anthony reminds me of being on Indian trains, given the constant procession of men, women and children selling everything from empanadas to household cleaning products. There are buskers, too, dancing to loud hip-hop music or singing soulful folk songs. The passengers seem to really enjoy it all, buying drinks and pressing coins and banknotes into the busker’s hands as they leave. In Britain, I think, everyone would avert their gaze.
La Plata was South America’s first planned city, with a grid pattern that is bisected by diagonal streets and dotted with leafy parks. Le Corbusier had visited it when he made a lengthy trip to the sub-continent in 1929. He was treated as a superstar in Argentina and, reading his letters to his mother and his wife, Yvonne, it’s obvious how much he enjoyed being fêted wherever he went. He thought Buenos Aires was tired and ugly, though, with its lack of modern buildings and the way its streets were filled only with men, the women being kept out of sight. He went on to propose a re-design of the city, which never came to anything, and worked for years on courses for its architectural school.
In the late 1940s, Dr Pedro Curutchet wrote to Le Corbusier asking if he would design a house for him in La Plata. I think no one was more surprised than Curutchet when the architect wrote back and said yes. In 1949, the plan was agreed, which included a medical suite, with the work overseen by the Argentinian architect Amancio Williams. Despite numerous cash flow problems, due to Argentina’s precarious financial state, and a fall-out between Curutchet and Williams, the house was finished in 1951. In 1987 it was recognised as a National Monument and in 2016 it was heritage-listed by UNESCO.
The house is not far from the railway station and it’s a pleasant walk, even on a baking-hot day, given the shade from the street trees. And there it is, the little house, attached to a larger and much older building that is as dense and substantial as the Casa Curutchet is open and light. I feel like I’m seeing an old friend. There are familiar elements, like the concrete gateway that is reminiscent of the concrete gateway at the entrance to the priory of La Tourette, and the slender piloti which rise up through the entire building, supporting the floors above while adding an elegant sculptural quality.
This house has always seemed so ephemeral to me, with its grid of sunshading and the way it’s squeezed into such a tight site. I struggled to understand how it works and now I see why. It’s a beast to photograph because it is so fragmented, so open.
The garage has been transformed into an office, where the guide, an architecture student, welcomes us and takes the few pesos for the entrance fee. The house then beckons. Further back on this ground floor is the entrance to the maid’s quarters and the laundry, its door hidden from view. What greets me now is the long ramp that rises to a landing where there’s a glazed hallway that leads to the doctor’s apartment upstairs. It’s a dramatic device, entering the site through that solitary portal and then rising up to the surgery along those ramps, leaving the street and the outside energy far behind. The courtyard is open to the sky with a tree shooting upwards but it feels enclosed, too, reminiscent of the courtyard houses that Le Corbusier had so admired in Algeria. The ramp turns back on itself and rises again to the doctor’s medical suite. There’s a small office tucked to one side but the main part is the bright waiting room and the surgery next door, both overlooking the street but given privacy thanks to frosted glass and the deep concrete brise-soleil, or sunshading. I imagine how special it must have felt to be a patient here, the modernity of the house suggesting the most up-to-date treatments.
I walk back down the ramp to the apartment entrance. This hallway has stairs leading up to the two-storey apartment. Again, it feels familiar – the width of the stairs and simple balustrades, the wooden-block floors, and the occasional pop of cobalt blue or red against the white walls. The sitting room is double height, with a single-height dining area to one side, its windows shaded again by the deep brise-soleil. A pivot door, like those in Le Corbusier’s own apartment in Paris, leads out to the terrace on the roof of the medical suite. Here there is shade from a concrete canopy raised high on piloti but there is also natural shade from the tree that pokes up from the central courtyard. The geometric brise-soleil screens the terrace from the street while giving a clear view to the trees in the park opposite. It’s a lovely space, surprisingly large. I relish the breeze that wafts over it, the way there’s a dynamic flow of air from the courtyard and all these openings within the structure. The shade from the tree is delicious.
There are two proper bedrooms upstairs, the master with vertical wooden slats that moderate the light from the sitting room below. A study/ guest bedroom with a shelf along its half-wall overlooks the sitting room, too, just as in the double-storey apartments in the various unité d’habitation buildings in Europe. Bathrooms are top lit, the light filtered through glass panels and giving a glow to the mosaic walls. There is copious storage in plywood cupboards and fitted desks. It’s utilitarian but, with the mix of curved and angular walls, wood and paint colour, and the manipulation of natural light, it feels homely. As usual, I dream of what it would be like to live there.
We wander from room to room, up and down those ramps, taking a last lingering look at the apartment. There’s no misstep in this place, although the kitchen is a little squeezy. It feels as if Le Corbusier has closely overseen its construction. He never saw it, of course.
As we leave, the student guide tells me about another film made in the house more recently. Called ‘La obra secreta’ (The Secret Play?) it’s about an architecture student who takes groups around the house. Le Corbusier appears in it, eager to see the house he never got to see when he was alive. I don’t know much more than that – I haven’t been able to find a copy of the film – but I’m intrigued and keen to source a copy.
Before we return to Buenos Aires we walk into the centre of La Plata. It’s a grand place, certainly, with a neo-Baroque city hall and a huge neo-Gothic cathedral. There’s also the clunking concrete Teatro Argentino de La Plata, which was only completed in 1999, and which shows how differently concrete can be used.
The building is overwhelming and breathless, like an office building in Seoul or Tokyo, whereas Le Corbusier’s concrete at Casa Curutchet displays a gorgeous balance of light and shade, curves and angles, both open and closed.
Corb, I think to myself, never lets me down.