From the vault: Pilgrimage to a landmark

An occasional online Tuesday feature. Originally published in the Herald-Tribune newspaper on Aug. 14, 2004 

POISSY, France -- The most important modernist house of the 20th century has been, in its 73 years, a weekend retreat for wealthy Parisians, shelter for members of the German and American armies, a youth club, a hay barn and a ruin.

Now Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, its third restoration project complete, has become a magnet that draws architecture buffs from around the world to this suburb 18 miles northwest of Paris.


Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, was designed by the legendary architect Le Corbusier in the late 1920s. After a 35-year restoration process, it remains an icon of 20th-century modernism. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 2004.

Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, was designed by the legendary architect Le Corbusier in the late 1920s. After a 35-year restoration process, it remains an icon of 20th-century modernism. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 2004.

Architecture critics love it. "If one work has to stand for the whole of Modern architecture it would probably be the Villa Savoye," writes Alan Powers in the book "Architecture: The Critics Choice" (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2000), edited by Dan Cruickshank.

Architectural pilgrims love it. Anyone who would make the hour-long, subway-train- bus trip from the center of Paris would have to.

The folks at the Federal Emergency Management Agency would love the Villa Savoye, too. It stands on round white columns above ground-level parking, much like many waterfront mansions of American coastal communities at risk of storm surges, as mandated by FEMA.

If only the original owners loved the house as much as everyone else does now. Pierre Savoye, a wealthy insurance company director in Paris, and his wife had the house built as a vacation home and pretty much gave "Corbu," then 40, a free hand in the design. He used that freedom to create a house that exemplified his "five points" of a new architecture.

But the house needed restoration almost immediately after its completion in 1931 to seal the terraces against rainwater and repair damage to the paint. Within a few years, the Savoyes, finding the house uncomfortable, started using it less and less for getaways and entertaining, according to "Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye" (Editions du Patrimoine, Paris, 2000), by architect Guillemette Morel-Journel.

Then came some uninvited guests. It was occupied by German, and later American, military personnel during World War II. After the war it was used as a youth club and a barn, and, by 1956, just 25 years after its completion, the house was virtually a ruin.

The Poissy town council considered building a school on the site, a meadow surrounded by woods, but the concerns of the international architectural community and publicity in TIME magazine and Paris' Le Monde newspaper in 1959 helped convince the French Minister of Culture to save the house. By 1965, when it was listed as a historic public building, the first major restoration project was already under way.

That was also the year Le Corbusier died.

'Architect of the century'

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was a small-town Swiss architect who took the name Le Corbusier after he moved to Paris during World War I. He worked in association with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, who is also credited for the house.

Proclaimed by many as the "architect of the 20th century," Le Corbusier became a visionary who believed a new architecture was needed for modern times. His was a 'purist' expression with refined and straighforward designs, lacking ornamentation or historical mimicry.

He explained this new form in his 1923 book "Vers Une Architecture" (mistranslated in English as "Toward a New Architecture" in 1927), one of the best-selling architecture books ever.

Believing "we must start again from zero," "Corbu" spelled out his five points. And Villa Savoye demonstrates all of them. He raised the structure on "pilotis," or piers, partly because the site was somewhat damp, and partially because reinforced concrete allowed him to do just that, as a way to reveal the house to visitors in stages. It also has an open floor plan (the "free plan"), a flat roof with a garden, horizontal strips of windows and facades that are independent of the structure. Concrete was the key ingredient that made it possible because the form of the house was no longer dictated by its frame. Concrete posts, not walls, carried the loads.

In the architect's own words, it is "a box in the air," and "an architectural play of solids and voids."

The house is full of light, thus its nickname "Les Heures Claires," or "the daylight hours." But those hours last until 11 p.m. at this latitude in the summer; perhaps the Savoyes' discomfort came from a lack of sleep.

The house was intended to provide the final steps in an "architectural promenade" from the center of Paris to Madame Savoye's bed. Arriving by car, the Savoyes followed the curve of the ground floor, drawn to match the turning radius of a 1927 Citroen, to the parking spaces. A ramp leads from one level to the next. For the staff, whose quarters were on the ground floor, a spiral staircase provided access from the ground floor to the first.

The villa, hailed as an icon of the International Style, looks as if it would fit right in along the modernist houses of Lido Shores or Siesta Key. Its exterior is still avant-garde.
Inside, the intricate floor plan is revealed at every turn. The built-in shelves, furnishings and cabinetry combine to create an interior that is functional, spare, unforgiving -- almost Spartan. While it has an airy salon adjoining the rooftop terrace garden, the other spaces are tight by today's standards.

The ramp continues up to a third level, which has curved walls and a garden for sunbathing.

"The visitor moves about the house," wrote Le Corbusier in 1930, "wondering how it all works, finding it hard to understand the reasons for what he sees and feels; he finds nothing of what is generally known as a 'house.' He senses that he is in something else, something quite different. And I do not think he finds it uninteresting!"

That was precisely the reaction of this visitor. As I walked from space to space, I wondered, "Corbu, what is this? Why is this?" At the same time, it was a moving visit to a special place.

The villa is Le Corbusier's ultimate machine a habiter -- machine for living. But it became a broken machine that required extraordinary measures to fix. Yet, because he also met his goal of creating "a machine for producing emotion," it survives as one of the most celebrated examples of modern architecture. Its influence -- the piers, the floor plan, the windows -- can be seen in many houses being constructed today, whether by architects or production builders.

'The unfolding space'

The 1994 book "The Oral History of Modern Architecture," by John Peter (Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York), features interviews with leading architects recorded over several decades. When asked which buildings they considered the most important in modernism, many of them mentioned the Villa Savoye.

Architect Eliot Noyes did not have the privilege of seeing the villa at its best when he said in 1957, "The Savoye House, I was prepared to have a reaction because I had been so impressed with it all the way through school, just as a published thing. When I got there, walking through this crazy, ruined building, walking around it, seeing the hay stick out out of the second-floor porch, walking into the living room, the kitchen and so on, to see how, in 1930, here was where it started. Here he'd done this, which we've all been using ever since. ... Detail after detail, more than I had realized, are still there in a kind of ruined state. The incredible inventiveness of this guy, at that one moment, in this one building is just beyond belief. ...

"I met Madame Savoye there by chance. ... She suddenly told me how her husband and sons had no interest in it. How it had been so badly treated by the Germans during the war, and yet there it stands. A terrific experience to see."

Noyes died in 1977.

Paul Rudolph was more succinct in his praise of the house. Speaking in 1960, the greatest architect of the "Sarasota school" told Peter, "I feel that Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye demonstrated the sense of continuity of the unfolding space in an admirable way. It also stated eloquently Le Corbusier's feeling about man's relationship to nature, which has proved to be prophetic."

That helps explain Corbu's influence on Sarasota architecture, both in the works of Rudolph, Tim Seibert and others in the 1950s and '60s, and the elevated structures of contemporary architects such as Guy Peterson, who counts Le Corbusier's work among his greatest inspirations.

"That's where it all started," says Seibert.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: May 21, 2013
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