Savoye Space

Daniel Naegele

The Sensation of the Object

The house will sit in the middle of the meadow, like an object, without spoiling anything.
— Le Corbusier

The object is surely dead. The sensation of the object is of first importance. 
— Paul Klee

To transform space … it is first necessary to eliminate rigid objects, conventional receptacles: one must throw into question the view itself. 
— Carl Einstein

Le Corbusier’s early education encouraged him to think of architecture in idealistic and metaphoric terms: architecture not as building, but as representation. Schooled in the neomedieval beliefs of John Ruskin and Owen Jones, and in the organic similes of art nouveau, he was convinced that art and industry, like art and craft in former times, ought naturally to ally. For Le Corbusier, a building was always like something else. His La Chaux-de-Fonds houses were like the nature that surrounded them, with their roofs designed as curves and folded gables to echo the shape of local fir trees.1 The Salvation Army building was like a beached ocean liner, the Unités like filing cabinets or wine racks. Continuous ribbon buildings projected for Rio de Janeiro and Algiers were like bridges or aqueducts or even like the Great Wall of China, and the polychrome Nestlé Pavilion was like a collage painting into which the viewer could walk.

Most overtly, however, Le Corbusier’s Parisian houses were “machines à habiter.” Taut, precise, placed on the ground, never of the ground, in many ways they were a formal coalescence of the warehouse and the silo, types of American building extensively praised in Vers une architecture. The warehouse—a “shed” decorated by its extreme lack of decoration—and the silo—a building-sized machine of intriguing volumes and shapes—were creations of calculations, large-scale containers built by engineers along strictly utilitarian lines. Both types seemed to be delivered to rather than derived from their sites.2  That industrial manifestations of this sort might align with the efforts of avant-garde art had been established a decade earlier in various Cubist and Futurist works, and by artists like Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, the latter’s readymades being a most concise, if somewhat less than sincere, summation of the situation.3 By the 1920s, art and industry had allied, and to meld silo and warehouse forms to arrive at a five-point formula for modern architecture must have seemed both logical and progressive. Free facade, free plan, pilotis, ribbon windows, roof garden—all might be derived from a melange of building-sized industrial containers of this kind. Like the objets-types pictured in Le Corbusier’s Purist paintings, silos and warehouses were authentic and presumably embodied the spirit of the age. It was therefore not unreasonable to expect similarly composed machines à habiter to be almost as objective and almost as authentic as that which inspired them.

This, however, was not often the case. Le Corbusier’s subscription to “factory aesthetic lite” did not result in convincingly authentic object architecture, though persistently it was sold as such.4 What was provoked, however, was an architecture of space; but it was not until much later that Le Corbusier came to recognize this. “I see—looking back after all these years,” he wrote in 1955 just a decade before his death, “that my entire intellectual activity has been directed towards the manifestation of space. I am a man of space, not only mentally but physically…”5 Nine years earlier, in the short treatise “L’espace indicible,” Le Corbusier had proclaimed a new theory of architecture, one that held space to be a uniquely 20th-century venustas, the Vitruvian “delight” that had been absent from earlier modern movement theories. As he described it, this space was a peculiar, decidedly “ineffable” space; it was not a static, absolute, and objective entity, but rather a relative sensation, a “vibration” between the “action of the work (architecture, statue, or painting)” and the “reaction of the setting: the walls of the room, the public squares … the landscape.” He insisted on avant-garde painting as precedent for this phenomenon, indeed, on its having provoked the phenomenon, and he closed his treatise by noting: “The essential thing that will be said here is that the release of aesthetic emotion is a special function of space.”6

The release of aesthetic emotion is a special function of space. Surely this must be one of Le Corbusier’s most potent declarations, with implications not only for the architecture that followed it but also for all that came before—a statement that seems to insist on the critical reassessment of an oeuvre that had been assumed to be about something else entirely. For if space was to be the venustus of modern movement architecture, how to know and to qualify the presence of space? How to evoke the presence of absence; how to make space felt—and why, in the 1920s, would anyone want to conjure up such a situation anyway? For surely then, unlike now, at least in Paris, space did not exist. That is to say, the notion of space as related to architecture had not yet gained currency in France.7 Yet if in fact Le Corbusier’s “entire intellectual activity” had been directed toward the “manifestation of space,” the obvious questions arise as to the nature of such a space at such a time and where we might find evidence of it even in his early architecture.

And here it is worthwhile to note that whereas space was not an issue in French architecture in the ’20s, it certainly was in art, so much so that at the time the renowned art critic Carl Einstein defined the history of art as the summation of “all optical experiments, of invented spaces and of figurations.” For him, the future of art lay in the manipulation of space. He believed that “in order to transform this space,” it was first necessary “to eliminate rigid objects, conventional receptacles” and thus “throw into question the view itself.”8 The Swiss artist and one-time Bauhaus master, Paul Klee, shared Einstein’s convictions. “The object is surely dead,” he wrote in his diary in the mid-’20s. “The sensation of the object is of first importance.”9 And something like these sentiments can be found in the theoretical writings of Le Corbusier and his partner in Purism, Amédée Ozenfant, as early as 1921. In “Purism,” for example, they define their largely self-referential Purist painting “not as surface but as space.”10 Purist space was not of a traditional, perspectival sort. On the contrary, Purism strove to undermine this “old regime” and did so largely, it seems, by “throwing into question the view itself.” Space in Purist painting was made manifest through carefully configured ambiguity. Certain tactics—a “mariage des contours,” a palette of advancing and receding colors, exaggerated frontality, paraline space construction, figure-ground reversals—conspired to create consciously contradictory readings, at once flat and spatially deep. Conventional perspectivewas employed—in prevalent diagonals, for instance, that seem to recede into space even as they relate directly to the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. However, it was used largely as a foil to underscore contradiction and thus to heighten the observer’s physical sensation of the work of art. Oscillation undermined absolute objectivity. It questioned the authority of “the view.” The observer felt space. Such ambiguity presents a both/and condition in which multiple images or readings—distinct and separate yet one and the same—reside in a single painting. Because only a single reading can prevail at any one time, in the instantaneous passage from one reading to the next, time is felt. Visual ambiguity induces what might be called, if only in hindsight, a “space-time” sensation. The aim of all this, according to Purist theory, was “the release of aesthetic emotion.” “L’oeuvre d’art,” Ozenfant wrote in the mid-teens, “est une machine à émouvoir.”11

Though “space” could hardly have been a conscious concern of the architect Le Corbusier in the ’20s, it seems to have had “presence” in Purist painting. Convinced that painting “should lead to the objectification of the entire ‘world,’”12 Le Corbusier sought to aggrandize this art into environment. The search for a trigger to release aesthetic emotion originated in Purist painting, became the aim of architecture in the 1920s, and ultimately was elevated to the special function of space—the new venustas of modern architecture—in the 1940s. Questions again present themselves. How might the peculiar “contradictory space” of a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional canvas be made manifest in the decidedly three-dimensional art of architecture? How to introduce as essence to the nonfictive medium of architecture the sensation, the resonance, found in the space of representation?

Perhaps in no other early Le Corbusier work is a sense of “new space” more palpable than in the Villa Savoye, the architect’s first masterpiece. Certainly, writings on architecture begin to note this only a decade after the villa’s completion. Sigfried Giedion, for instance, in his 1941 Space, Time and Architecture, proclaimed Savoye “quite literally” a “construction in space-time.”13 And by the mid-1950s it was common for critics and historians to place great emphasis on “the manner in which space has been enclosed and related” in the villa.14 Yet while it is assumed that Savoye was the summation of a decade of white villa building, none of these writings speculates as to the nature of Savoye’s space and none attempts to explain why such space might more readily appear in Poissy than in Paris. For Le Corbusier, of course, at least at the time of the house’s completion, space was decidedly not the essence of the Villa Savoye, and in introducing the Villa Savoye to his Oeuvre compète readers in 1929, he offered neither space nor any aesthetic rationale whatsoever for what at the time must certainly have seemed a curious, not to say absurd, residential proposition. For why construe a weekend house in the country (“in the middle of a meadow’’) as a cubic three-story contraption (“like an object”) so obviously at odds with its situation? Why offer a highly contrived, machinelike assemblage, one that goes up instead of out, as an appropriate solution to such exceedingly natural, excessively accommodating and expansive circumstances?

Needless to say, when Le Corbusier describes his initial scheme for the not-yet-built Villa Savoye in the premier volume of the Oeuvre compète, he does not address these issues.15 He tells us instead that the site is very open, has wonderful views, and “is magnificent, comprised of a great meadow with a hill surrounded by trees.” He then directs our attention to aspects of his design related to these conditions. “The house has no front,” he claims, but as it is “situated at the crest of the hill, it should open to the four horizons.” And “to permit distant views of the horizon,” he reasons, “the main living level, with its suspended garden, is raised on pilotis.” He imagines the house as a retreat from the congestion and urbanity of Parisian life. Arriving from the city, he says, the automobile will glide among the pilotis beneath this elevated domain. Garage, domestics’ rooms, and entry are all at ground level. The entry is “on axis” as is the “very gentle ramp [that] ushers one effortlessly to the main living level.” Though free to orient the frontless villa to his liking, Le Corbusier situates the “cube” to assure each room a view, but notes that “orientation of the sun is opposite that of the view.” Only the suspended garden, and the interiors that open onto it, are permitted an abundance of direct sunlight. On the level above the garden, accessed again by ramp, one finds a seemingly redundant solarium, a kind of toit jardin. Defined by “curved forms that resist the strong winds and that offer a very rich architectural element” to the design, the solarium is necessary, Le Corbusier insists, “in order to crown the ensemble.” It serves as forecourt to the elaborate boudoir and bedroom suite for Madame Savoye, a cubic appendage that in elevation detracts from the clarity of the scheme. In ending this short tour, Le Corbusier notes what seems obvious in his perspective drawing but what must have been a peculiarity at the time: the “main body of the house is defined by four similar walls, with overtly voided centers all around, and with a unique window system designed by L-C and P.J.”16 The accompanying two-point perspective of the southwest exterior corner of the villa emphasizes volume over plane. Ribbon windows render vertical walls as rectangular hoops hovering in space, skewered together by toothpick pilotis, affecting a look remotely similar to that of a box kite, or given the villa’s cockpit “crown,” like the Air Express that so excited Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture.

In none of this description does Le Corbusier mention space. Of the nine drawings provided, only a large perspective of the suspended terrace suggests spatial novelty. It coalesces the interior and exterior, allowing us to look from the terrace through the living room and through again to the ribbon window, the head of which coincides with the horizon line in the landscape to the left. This landscape, too, forms part of the interior terrace, appearing almost as a framed picture, only minimally separated by the mullions of the sliding glass window. But the true catalyst to novel space comes from the construed “frame” on the right—a direct result of the manner in which Le Corbusier portrays architecture. Here he shows the wall and ceiling of a roofed exterior cove with the diagonal junction of these planes ambiguously configured. Like many similar frames found in Le Corbusier’s Purist paintings—frames that would later be translated to three-dimensional sculpture—it can be read simultaneously as both receding into and folded out of the picture plane. Thus depiction permits space to modify itself at will. In this way, framing seems to encourage the sensation of space.

In contrast, Le Corbusier’s verbal description of the villa is mundane, presenting his highly questionable parti as matter-of-fact resolution to—not provocateur of—issues of function, hygiene, and site apprehension. Yet each of his claims hints at qualities that serve to distinguish this design from those of his earlier villas, and it is these distinguishing characteristics that ultimately earn it entrance into the realm of the truly remarkable. “The house should have no front,” he insists, thus emphasizing the nonwall quality of the four walls. Yet certainly frontality, if not facadism, was a mainstay of Corbusian design both before and after the design for the Villa Savoye. To eliminate a front is also to dissolve Le Corbusier’s most persuasive but least noted formal device: the (almost) blank sidewall. For throughout the ’20s, from the conceptual Citrohan to the representational Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, from the Villa Meyer to the Maisons Cook and Guiette and to the Villa Stein and Maison Plainex, Le Corbusier conceived of a kind of bookend architecture: buildings with blinders, houses that opened mainly to the front and back. With the exception of Maison Citrohan (a rather faceless theoretical villa designed with no specific site in mind and bearing some resemblance to certain grill-faced automobiles of the day), each had a carefully composed front facade and, ideally, each contained its own “outdoor room,” ancestor to the suspended garden. The Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau was paradigmatic in this respect. Built as a full-scale model of sorts, it quite intentionally represented a Le Corbusier ideal. It could serve either as suburban house, or, like a modular container, as a single cube in an “Immeubles-Villas” urban structure built of many such cubes arranged side-by-side and one atop another.17 The latter possibility insists that the cube be opened only to front and back. Circulation through the pavilion is of little consequence. But in 1926, with the Villa Cook, this stackable container gave way to the independent townhouse. Responding to its tight urban setting, Le Corbusier opened both the underside and top of the cube and thus, by necessity, pilotis and roof garden enter the formula. Circulation is now vertical. One ascends from ground to sky. The toit jardin, no longer mere nicety, has become a transcendent experience. “The reception is at the top of the house,” Le Corbusier writes of Cook. “One exits directly onto the toit jardin where one prevails over the vast forest of the Bois de Boulogne; you are no longer in Paris; you are in the country.”18 This movement from the city to the country, from the mundane to the metaphysical, from earth to heaven, from body to mind, is quite clearly a metaphor for life as Le Corbusier knew it.19 The orchestrated experience, with its beginning, middle, and climactic end, signifies something larger than just promenade architecturale. But still, at the Villa Cook, the mundane obscures the metaphor. Ascension is through a tight and discontinuous vertical shaft. The movement seems simply logical, the result of confined urban conditions.

At Poissy, the opposite is true. Logic is undermined by the apparent inappropriateness of a three-story structure on an expansive, natural site, and by Le Corbusier’s emphasis on the importance of the on-axis ramp. Unlike in the original design, in which the ramp culminated at Madame Savoye’s elaborate penthouse suite, in the budget-wise final design it leads nowhere but to the sky. Its uselessness is its greatest strength. Promenade becomes not a means to an end, but an end in itself, a “poetic fact.” Accordingly, Le Corbusier’s description of the completed villa in volume 2 of the Oeuvre compète—a description written after he himself had walked the design many times—underscores the importance of the ethereal and somatic apprehension of architecture. It begins with our (anesthetized?) approach by car to the lower-level door of the house, and by our entry, as it were, from beneath the skirt of Villa Savoye. On arrival, Le Corbusier assures us that the sweeping circle of the glazed entry hall wall was determined not frivolously but functionally, its diameter corresponding to the turning radius of the family car. Le Corbusier then moves us directly to the main living level—thus ignoring the ramp’s principal flaw, its discontinuity. He cites dryness and health as good reasons for his having “suspended” the “garden” above the ground. “But one continues the promenade,” he says. “From the elevated garden one climbs by ramp to the roof of the house where the solarium is located.” Then, in a more reflective mode, he tells us that “Arabian architecture gives us a valuable lesson. It apprehends ‘on the move,’ by foot; it is in walking, in displacing oneself, that one sees the order of architecture unfolding.” And this, he claims, “is the opposite of baroque architecture, conceived on paper from a fixed theoretical point. I prefer the lesson of Arabian architecture.” Architecture is to be apprehended, it seems, by both the body and the eye in motion. In concluding, Le Corbusier declares his creation to be a “true architectural promenade,” one that offers constantly varying views and achieves tremendous diversity despite the “absolute rigor” of its post-and-beam system, a system comprised, he says, of “equidistant pilotis which form an independent frame and result in a free plan.”20

But of course, a glance at that plan, particularly at the lower level, reveals anything but equidistant pilotis, for the “on-axis” ramp has required that the order be interrupted. And throughout the villa, interior wall placement seems not free but precisely determined by column and exterior “mullion” locations. In addition, construction photographs suggest that frame, floors, and walls were hardly independent but were more or less cemented together to make of the building a single, solid unit.21 So with “absolute rigor,” “independent frame,” and “free plan,” Le Corbusier describes not the real but the ideal. And this tendency extends to earlier assertions as well. The steeply inclined ramp, for instance, hardly “ushers one effortlessly.” In addition, the T-shaped north elevation—not hovering on pilotis like the other three elevations but extending to the ground—is clearly the “front” that Le Corbusier says the house does not have. Still, Le Corbusier makes evident what he wants this architecture to be: a kind of exhibition—understood by both foot and eye—of l’ordannance des formes, forms at the very center ofVers une architecture theory, forms that “intensely affect our senses, provoking plastic emotions.”22

The carefully selected photographs that accompany Le Corbusier’s verbal description offer testimony to his convictions. And it is the verbal and visual “texts” together that elevate to canonical status the otherwise imperfect-when-seen-as-real Villa Savoye. And here the notion of Savoye space—and its relationship to promenade architecturale—returns. For of the sixteen photographs of the villa featured in the second volume of the Oeuvre compète, the two most beguiling are certainly the one that portrays the beginning and the one that anticipates the end of the promenade experience. Captioned “Arrivée des voitures sous les pilotis,” the first records our initial encounter with the villa as we arrive via automobile. The image portrays not an object, but space. Its focal point is a rectilinear “void,” luminous and centered in the composition. Grass, gravel, and ceiling surfaces appear as flattened shapes. Pilotis are soft cylinders that frame the glowing rectangle even as they emanate from it. Photography transforms awkward beams to washes of gray—more the absence of light than the presence of out-of-place mass. The horizon bisects the picture. Dominant diagonals, implicit and explicit, radiate from its center void and engage the edges of the image. All conspire to support the illusion of apparently deep space, to depicting a kind of truncated pyramid receding into the picture plane. Yet abstraction and careful composition, together with the tendency of bright planes to advance, encourage an easy reversal of this view, and the truncated pyramid can be read alternatively as projecting out of the picture plane. Ultimately, oscillation between receding into and projecting out of brings about the collapse of the image to a two-dimensional “X” running from corner to corner, and a third reading, one of absolute flatness, becomes apparent. Such ambiguity conveys a sense of contradictory space. It affects the reader empathetically. One feels space. “The object is dead.” The “sensation of the object” is now of primary importance. An off-strike of reality that when carefully construed records visual contradiction, photography corralled and transmitted this sensation of the object—what Le Corbusier had termed in Vers une architecture the “résonance profonde”—and of this sensation, new space was born.

The other image, “Promenade architecturale,” confirms this. Depicting the final moment of one’s ascent through the villa, it is remarkably similar in composition to “sous les pilotis.” Dominant diagonals radiate from a central white rectangle. Cylindrical shapes seem to levitate. A decidedly horizontal line bisects the composition. Complex surfaces are rendered as simple overlapping planes in space. And here too, the image strives to reverse itself, for despite the presumed use of a wide-angle lens, its space is highly compressed.23 Its background, poised as it is on the bisecting horizontal roof plane, leans into the foreground. The whites advance, and neither the ramp-wall nor the rail possess adequate gradation in gray scale to appear sufficiently “deep” to keep it at bay. Rather the ramp-wall is shown as a flat triangle that seems to run across the image instead of into it. The rail is abstracted to a series of radial lines comparable to the highlights and shadows found on the ramp surface. But if the background appears to be nosing its way forward, it is the ramp itself that encourages this. The ramp is inherently a visually ambiguous architectural entity. Its floor is both a vertical and horizontal plane. As an indicator of depth, it is highly deceptive, for one intuitively knows “floor” as horizontal plane, but to read it in representation as only horizontal upsets a delicate balance, confounding all visual clues of the composition. A false perspective ensues. The view itself is thrown into question. “Content” is abstracted, and if only momentarily, the image is about space. That it should also depict the climax of our ascent is not coincidental.

Recording contradiction, “promenade” and “sous les pilotis” are the first “sensations” of the special space of Savoye. Yet such ambiguously construed space was common to Le Corbusier. He had employed truncated pyramid configurations often and consistently to catalyze his Purist paintings, and the illustrative texts of his ’20s publications feature many images similar in composition to “sous les pilotis” and “promenade.”24 Indeed, so persistent is the motif in Le Corbusier’s representations—and in the work of renowned contemporaries, artists such as El Lissitzky, Paul Klee, and Jacques Villon—that one might consider it not just an important strategy but, in its objective manifestations, a kind of “type” that appears in many guises in both two- and three-dimensional form in the oeuvre of the architect.25 The special significance of this type both to Le Corbusier’s built works and to his theory is made evident on the original 1923 cover of Vers une architecture. Dominating that cover is a photograph of the promenade of the ocean liner Aquitania, a compelling one-point perspective cropped to create an oscillating truncated pyramid composition. Like “sous les pilotis,” it features an “X” parti of abstract surfaces, a luminous rectangle as focal point, and prominent diagonals formed by rails and the junction of wall planes with ceiling and floor. The “shadowed-grass triangle” on the far right side of “sous les pilotis” closely parallels the rail of the ocean liner, with the highlighted triangle above it providing a “ribbon window” similar to that of the ship. So uncanny is the resemblance that here one is tempted to an Olympian leap to conclusion, albeit only in the interrogative. Could the image of the Aquitania promenade—not an object per se, but a sensation of an object—have inspired nearly identical architectural configurations in the work of Le Corbusier? Could it have initiated a kind of “truncated pyramid space,” a peculiar but very consciously construed configuration adopted as a standard type and destined to appear again and again in Le Corbusier’s buildings?

Certainly as an object, the Aquitania as promenade might have inspired such an architecture. “With plan in pocket,” Le Corbusier confessed in reference to the tiny house that he designed for his parents in 1925 beside Lac Léman, “one goes in search of a site that will prove agreeable to it.”26 The living room of this 560-square-foot maison miniscule, Le Corbusier tells us, offered a forty-five-foot-long “perspective” that included a thirty-six-foot-long continuous ribbon window onto the lake. The perspective is the principal space of the house; it is a place. The ribbon window, opening out onto Lac Léman, parallels the continuous opening of the Aquitaniapromenade.

Destined to appear repeatedly in the work of Le Corbusier, this truncated pyramid composition and the space that it evoked achieved iconic status in a perspective montage that represented an interior design for the 1929 Salon d’Automne. In this montage, black-and-white photographs of the then-new furniture of Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand are placed in a drawn and colored perspective. The conjoining of “real” (photographic) with fictive (drawn) space brings an ethereal air and expansiveness to the depiction. Like the curious pods in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the cutout photographs of furniture resist the regime of the overall drawn perspective. They are not quite the right size, and each comes with its own perspectival space, space that contradicts that of the fabricated perspective. By challenging the regime of the perspective that contains them, by failing to conform to its dictates, they sensationalize—in the most tactile meaning of that word—space itself. They make evident and palpable that which would otherwise go unnoticed. It is through contrast, with the creation of a dialectic, that the reality of photography catalyzes the imaginary, in-your-head nature of the drawn-up space. The presence of a grand confort outside the confines of the construed perspective heightens this effect.

As polychromed for publication in L’Architecture Vivante, this blue and rose one-point perspective presents autonomous, “universal” space, distinctly modern and once again echoing in both form and content the space conveyed in the photograph of the Aquitania promenade.27 Yet this image differs from the Salon installation itself. There, the superimposition of a Cartesian grid over the floor, the lowered ceiling, and the modular cabinetry gave measured order and definition to the space and integrally tied the advertised “equipment” to its environment. In contrast, in the colored image, the architectonics of measure and modulation have apparently evaporated in favor of a more nebulous, effervescent, and decidedly unreal “space.” Objects are not anchored to but seem to levitate in a more or less perspectival order established by the convergence of diagonal lines. Le Corbusier’s bluish-white coloring of both ceiling and rear wall assists in conveying an ethereal (not-the-object-but-the-sensation-of-the-object) atmosphere. Color, and a reluctance on the part of the photographed furniture to cooperate with the implied perspective, dissolve resolute structure. Still, the Aquitania promenade is present, and its continuous opening-to-the-sea aperture is here echoed on the left by the long metal cabinets that hover above the floor—a substitute fenêtres en longuer that Le Corbusier will rely on often (and evidenced, most elegantly, in the library of the Villa Church). On the right, in blue, Le Corbusier has painted pan de verre on the otherwise blank wall of this presumably windowless room. Abstraction is heightened and a sense of the scenographic evoked. The space of representation has all but usurped that of reality.

It is with this icon in mind—one as salient, I would suggest, as that of the Maison Dom-Ino—that one returns to Poissy, to the promenade architecturale, and to the illusory space of truncated pyramid configuration recorded in the photographs of its beginning and its end. And now one notices that not only does the promenade start and stop with such space, but also that it is comprised almost entirely of back-to-back pyramids construed at each level of the ramp. Even the ramp’s discontinuity—interior until it arrives at the piano nobile, exterior and accessed only from the suspended garden thereafter—contributes to the elated sense of ascent that the configured space instills. For at exactly this interruption, Le Corbusier has situated the villa’s principal public area, “un vaste séjour,” the dining-living room. The six-by-fourteen-meter room serves as a protracted landing of sorts, connecting the end of the interior ramp with the suspended garden that leads to the beginning of the exterior ramp. Le Corbusier’s extraordinary crafting of ambiguity allows this area to be, at once, both a room and an essential part of the promenade. And here too, the image of the Aquitania is recalled. The room’s proportions approach that of a long corridor, and its ribbon windows mimic those of a ship at sea, permitting the horizon to be ever present.

From the suspended garden, one continues the promenade, ultimately to arrive at yet another curious convergence of the real and the representational. For when the budget removed to the piano nobile Madame Savoye’s boudoir, nothing remained at the end of the ramp to arrest one’s view but the idea of the view itself. And from the solarium wall that terminates the promenade even as it creates the villa’s “crown,” Le Corbusier removes a rectangle. A picture appears. The “view itself” is made manifest. Yet as one approaches the aperture, this enigmatic image vanishes. The picture of the world beyond is gone, replaced by the reality of all that lies outside the Villa Savoye. Only the idea of the view remains. The view belongs not to the perceptual but to the conceptual realm, though momentarily—as in all the best Le Corbusier moments—the two are one.

Time and again, Le Corbusier would construe back-to-back “truncated pyramids” as spatial sequence. For what is the Mundaneum’s Musée Mondiale if not a highly ordered mounding of head-to-tail Savoye ramps? And what is the La Tourette labyrinth if not the same end-to-end schemata—this time terminating in a kidney-walled crypt, an enigmatic false perspective that translates into architecture the resonance found in the space of representation as it pushes to ultimate conclusion the psychological “effect” of pyramid corridor construction?28

It was not space, of course, but an image of absoluteness that made the Villa Savoye a canonical work of architecture. Self-contained, cubic, relentlessly ribbon-windowed, with a foyer wall dictated by a turning radius and levitating planes tied to the ground by pure white cylinders, “Les Heures Claires” was a scantily clad Maison Dom-Ino that illustrated in diagrammatic fashion Le Corbusier’s famous five points. It was a memorable summation of a decade of villas blanches, an icon that rivaled in economy Mies’s concrete office project, an eminently repeatable module stamped across cul-de-sacs to make up an Argentine suburb.29 But all of this neglects its categorically “relative” interior comprised largely of contingencies that allow the boîte en l’air parti to persist free and clear of the encumbrances of accommodation. Awkward cubic rooms, each with its often tedious and anonymous ribbon window complemented by the requisite concrete ledge, are connected by long, tight corridors, and everywhere the diagonal of the ramp imposes itself. Yet it was Le Corbusier’s genius to integrate all with a palette of pastels, the occasional skylight, or, in the otherwise black hole of its interiority, the famed S-shaped “lit de repos,” that brings to the Madame’s boudoir the splendors of a Pompeian atrium. Walls comprised of heavy masonry and concrete were smoothed and cloaked in a whiteness that defies gravity. The ground-level garage was camouflaged in a dark green that allows it to recede into “landscape” and permits the boîte its illusion of levitation, while oddly out-of-place windows and doors that service the rez-de-chaussée rooms of maid and chauffeur are edited out of images. All of this is to say that, when handled masterfully, certain contingencies make of the Villa Savoye an amiable, even charming habitat, yet are of a decidedly different nature than the apparent order that pervades Le Corbusier’s visual and verbal presentation. The exterior is absolute, the interior relative and contingent. Both, no doubt, delight the observer; though if, in theory, Le Corbusier believed that “Le plan est le générateur” and took care to “procure la satisfaction de l’esprit” through an “obligation de l’ordre” and an “assurance contre l’arbitraire,” in practice, at least with the Villa Savoye, any obligation to order seems to have been satisfied more from the outside in than from the inside out.

If what has been described here conforms comfortably with Le Corbusier’s well-known definition of architecture as “le jeu savant, correct et magnifique des volumes assemblés sous la lumi‘re,”30 and if photography—“the manipulation of light” in Moholy-Nagy’s words—so clearly captured this condition and offered it back to its author as a “spatial palette,” it should not go unnoted that architecture of a purely phenomenal sort, so effortlessly promoted by photography and the printed page, once it was achieved at Poissy, seemed insufficient to persist as such in the “patient search” of Le Corbusier. For as soon as the essence of this architecture became evident, Le Corbusier began to explore its opposite. Thus with the tiny Maison de Weekend in La-Celle-St. Cloud, Le Corbusier set aside elevated and ethereal absolutism, the anonymous and the universal, the Cartesian and the phenomenal in favor of the natural, the authentic, the earthen, the rough, the rotund. Ascension was countered by a sense of shelter and burrowing in, and the five-point formula fulfilled at Poissy was imposed neither on this primitive retreat nor on similar manifestations that followed. Marseilles, for instance, is absurdly squat and unshaven on all sides. Its pilotis are not white cylinders, but muscular organ-like issuances. And with the Maisons Jaoul, the cabanon at Cap-Martin, perhaps even Ronchamp, an absorbent, barbaric, heavy architecture is construed as eminently present and inescapable—an artifact not a phenomenon, an object not an image. It was by contrast that texture and weight of this sort made apparent the essence of space while simultaneously addressing the human need to dwell in the objective and unmovable. Even as it employed “sensation,” this inherently heavy materiality attempted to keep an architecture of space in the realm of the authentic, the real, the palpable, the tactile.

For Le Corbusier, the Villa Savoye, canonical and without doubt a masterpiece, was but a point in the progress toward a more inherently “conservative” architecture, one that valued space as its essence but that sought its manifestation in dialogue with immutable reality. Yet in an age obsessed with image, the “sensation of the object” prevails. It should therefore come as no surprise that at Poissy today, as elsewhere, the phenomenal in the form of re-presentation persists in embalmed or resurrected bodies, though hardly in a manner agreeable to modern movement theory.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1