A beautiful August day was the chance for a visit to the Villa Savoye, to which I hadn’t been in years. A few weeks after my visit of the Le Corbusier show at MOMA, it was a real pleasure to connect with Corbu’s work in flesh and blood, as it were.
The Villa Savoye is fascinating to me because it seems to have entered into another dimension of iconic-ness. It is not just a example of Modern Movement, of interest to those with a passion for architecture and its history, like the Villa Laroche or the Weißenhof Siedlung. Its image is so pervasive nowadays that it seems to me to have reached Mona Lisa-like status; its renown has spread to millions who know it without knowing why they know it.
I find that fitting, coming from a man whose main driving force was the need to recognition and from a building that was never built to be truly lived in. In fact I had not fully appreciated how much that is true: the Savoye family stopped using Villa Savoye even as a weekend house fairly quickly and it has spent far more of its life unused than used. It’s current use as a sort of museum dedicated to itself is perfectly appropriate. We are in the domain of the demonstration, and in this realm few buildings in the history of architecture have been more successful.
This is not to say that it is an exercise without content. I remain sensitive to the stark shapes, the elegant composition, the extraordinarily thoughtful progression of the “promenade architecturale” up the entrance ramp, past the sculptural staircase into the pure volume of the living room filled with light and surrounded by horizontal strips of windows opening onto the nature on all side, into the courtyard of the “hanging garden,” and up another ramp to the solarium.
The relationship of the building with the landscape is, on the other hand, a core characteristic that we can no longer appreciate. Initially, the villa overlooked the huge property of the Savoyes, with orchards and vegetable gardens, and the sweeping landscape of the Seine valley below. This topographical and visual position determined Le Corbusier’s thinking. As he wrote, “This house must not have a façade; situated as it is at the top of a hill, it must be open to the four horizons.”
This relationship with the landscape has disappeared with the selling off and building up of the former property, and the planting of trees all around the villa to protect it from its neighbors.The vegetation unfortunately also shields the villa from the landscape that gave the architecture much of its meaning. It takes a real effort of imagination to conceive what the Villa Savoye might have been like when the windows, and especially the opening at the top of the ramp on the solarium level, gave way to such a panorama, instead of foliage just a few meters away.
The Villa Savoye is nicely protected by its distance from Paris. As a result, one finds only a smattering of architecture students, architects, and a few other people who were interested and curious enough to make the trip. This makes the Villa Savoye site a wonderful retreat dedicated to a certain idea of perfection, a place to reflect on simple things that do, in the end, matter.