Photo Essays

Moving Through Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

by Joseph Nechvatal on July 17, 2014

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Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1930) outside of Paris (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PARIS — I tend to prefer my European gesamtkunstwerk interior spaces lush, flamboyantly mannerist, funny, obscurantist, or noisy. For the most part, I am attracted to ossuaria, Rococo and Neo-Rococo spaces, and the Art Nouveau interior spaces of Antoni Gaudí, Victor Horta, and Henry Van de Velde. What I like about these kinds of whimsical spaces is their concern with effluvium-feminine forms, and the swirling, tendril-derived patterns that are applied throughout the space in frivolous spirit. For example, High Art Nouveau’s foremost feature is an emphasis upon ornamental value distributed throughout an entire space. As a result the entire space might be experienced as swaying, bending, floating, arching, smoking, curling, throbbing, dripping, melting, aching, writhing.

A case in point was Horta’s idea to construct lyrically enchanting space out of whimsical arabesques (noodles, whiplashes, and eels) that is particularly evident in his 1900 Maison Personnelle (personal home) that I visited at 23-25 rue Américaine, in Brussels. It is one of the most exquisite Art Nouveau buildings in the world, and open to the public. Here an immersive fin-de-siècle milieu is achieved through a warped suppleness of space created through thin, windblown, and whip-lashed lines that disposed me to the feelings of sprite underwater hair and, of course, writhing seaweed.

This kind of lyrical sweep is an experience we tend not to attribute to Modernism, but we can, if we swap the ornamental for the non-ornamentally homogeneousness. In that case, there is the same over-all consistency of shaped gesamtkunstwerk style shared with Horta-like excessiveness that I am so keen on.

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Recently, I experienced just such a gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic pleasure (white, Euclidean, minimal) with a visit to Poissy-sur-Seine (a suburb near Paris) to see Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, Villa Savoye (1930). It is one of the most famous houses of the modern movement in architecture, created with associate Pierre Jeanneret, a Swiss architect, designer and cousin of Le Corbusier. To prepare for building it, they published a manifesto entitled “Five Points to a New Architecture” (1926) that served as the architectural guidelines for the aesthetic of the villa and so became a representation of their aesthetic ideology: to create a house which would be a machine-à-habiter, a machine for living (in).

This building (a white box on stilts) emerged from the Art Deco principles that originated in France in 1908 and reached a zenith in 1925. In the mid-1920s, Art Deco dominated the stylistic gesamtkunstwerk ideals of architecture and domestic interior design. However a change was soon heralded by Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de I’Esprit Nouveau, which he presented at the 1925 Exposition Internationales des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris — specifically the lean artist’s studio interior he exhibited in conjunction with the artist/theoretician Amédée Ozenfant, and through his theoretical writings “Vers une Architecture” (1923) which maintained gesamtkunstwerk ideals by defining architecture as total concept.

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The heightening of perceptual sensitivity experienced through total concept at Villa Savoye encourages a sense of unified delectation, as the churned blocky forms define the space and are picked up in the shapes of the stairs and furniture. Consequently, it collides high-art complexity with simplicity.

The tonal and syntactic surfaces are of course white and spare, with their logical trajectories seemingly resolved. And yet there are visual arguments-within-arguments to be discerned behind the axiomatic, as Villa Savoye embodies and deepens the multiple ramifications of a phrase easily (and aptly) applied to describe it: deceptively easy. In referring to something as deceptively easy, it is implied that to be merely easy would be deficient, and that difficulty has inherent value.

Villa Savoye is both complex and intimate; it plays on an undercurrent of smooth transformations, both tonal and imagistic, that works itself out over the course of viewing the entire building. I did not stand still here and look, but pass in and out of the white unified shapes. It was I that was moved.

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Villa Savoye (82 rue de Villiers, Poissy-sur-Seine, France) is open year-round every day except Tuesdays.

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  • Daniel

    wow. you should write one of these for mies’ barcelona pavillion

  • Joseph Nechvatal

    I should like to do so someday, Daniel. I have been to Barcelona, but to see and write about Antoni Gaud’s Casa Batlló. Check it out in my free e-book Immersion Into Noise http://openhumanitiespress.org/immersion-into-noise.html

  • steppxxxxz

    wonderful. I always felt Corbusier was mis read a bit. Even Mark Wigley’s book white walls designer dresses is a bit reductive. When you see this building you realize the depth of meaning it contained./

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