Le Corbusier may have been one of the most influential and prolific modern architects of the 20th century, but I’d never had a chance to step inside one of the Swiss-born visionary’s structures until I found myself walking down a long alleyway in Paris’ 16th arrondissement to his Villa La Roche. Like Le Corbusier himself, the home, a collaboration with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret completed in 1925, is in a disconnect with the older, French architecture around it, moving away from the elegant, decorated Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts. It was in fact one of the first of Le Corbusier’s designs to really be what is immediately recognized as his signature of block-colored walls, right-angled architecture, and, most importantly, his personal manifesto: the “Five Points of Architecture.”
The home was designed for the Swiss banker Raoul La Roche as a home and gallery for his art collection, but is now open to the public as a sort of house museum with the Fondation Le Corbusier. It is also an experiential tribute to these principles of the architect. While walking through the compact home, wearing shower caps over my shoes as all guests must to preserve the immaculate white walls and flat floors from the city dirt, I thought about how these principles came through in my time temporarily inhabiting the space. As laid out in his 1923 book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture), published just around when he started designing Villa La Roche, the principles are basically as follows:
- Supports or “Pilotis” (meaning piers) — the use of blocks of concrete as columns rather than walls.
- Roof Gardens — to both preserve the top of the structure and offer a bit of sun to the residents.
- Free designing of a “ground-plan” — meaning that without traditional walls, each floor can be independent of the one above and below.
- Horizontal windows — breaking windows out of the square or rectangle and instead opening up a whole slice of light through the façade.
- Free design of the façade — working off the same point as the windows, the exterior of the building can be designed in ways that don’t necessarily have to correspond to each interior room.
This all seems pretty straightforward, but it was, and still is, a contrast to what was happening in architecture before, and to what most of us experience now (unless we work or live in a modernist building, of course). In Villa La Roche, I quickly found myself disoriented, stepping into a main atrium from which different rooms branched off, each with its own layout that didn’t indicate what might come next (the gallery pictured at the top is an especially beautiful, sweeping experience with the sudden curve of the ramp juxtaposed against the cubist shapes of the rest of the home). Windows break open in wide rectangles sliced out of the accumulation of stacked rooms, and the walls painted with sharp red, soft blue, and beige colors emphasize the lines in the forms and give it a Mediterranean tone like the Acropolis in Greece from which Le Corbusier drew inspiration.
It’s not immediately inviting, like we usually think homes should be, but after spending time in it you feel as if you’ve had a guided experience somehow through the principles of Le Corbusier’s brand of modernism, even if you didn’t know what those principles were or didn’t notice the roof garden locked behind a door or the heavy concrete right angles. After my visit to the Villa La Roche, those principles definitely went from an abstract rebuttal of architectural traditions to something that felt more like a new and personal way of experiencing a living space.
Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche is open to the public by the Fondation Le Corbusier at 10 Square du Docteur Blanche in Paris, France.
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