Villa Savoye is about a 20 minute walk from Poissy Station. The stroll takes you past a fine mediaeval church, through what looks like an old priory and up a fairly steep hill. On its own it wouldn’t be a bad walk but the giant wedding cake of modernist glory at the end of it makes it something very special. Don’t be fooled, and disappointed, as I was by the very small building just inside the gate. I’d eat barbed wire to live in it but this is only the lodge, probably for a chauffeur. Once again, a modernist masterpiece, generated by the tolerance and wads of cash of a well off family who sadly did not get to enjoy it for long with the onset of World War II.
You approach the house through some tree-lined grounds until in a large space clear of foliage you stop and gibber at a mainly white flat, square structure apparently supported by columns and with one wall picked out in dark green. It’s huge, for a house, and the windows are very wide but quite shallow, vertically. Some allow a glimpse into the interior through grids and slats that make me think of the snazzier radios being built in the 1930s. The only thing that’s not angular is a curved structure on the top floor, the top tier of the cake, as it were.
Walking around the exterior there’s a pleasing sense of symmetry, order and plain good taste in the way the building sits on its columns. From some angles one can almost see through the structure, as though the architect wants to remind us that any building is an intrusion on the surroundings, but that he’s doing his best to let the outside in. There’s probably a lot of theory around this but we aren’t overly exercised by that – our primary interest is in how the building makes us feel and think. Corbusier believed that the home was as much a machine as a car or a ship and should work in many environments. He wanted buildings to look like they had just landed from their futuristic space place. Lift this up and put it in another location and it would work equally well if you have a car no larger than 1927 Citroen that is. The ground floor is based on the turning radius of this particular car of the time with parking for three cars as well as allowance for movement. Based on a grid of concrete pillars separated 4.75 meters from each other, the Villa sits on top with a fabulous view over the large grassy plot beyond.
Built with the plaster and metal most commonly associated with low-rent social housing at the time throughout, inside angles mutate into curves, especially the staircase which wraps round itself like a very restrained, arty helter-skelter, drilling its way up to the main living floor. Another feature, often overlooked when people talk of modernist buildings is the railings. The black metal handrails that sit along the top of balcony walls and above the stairs add a pinstripe of black to the white walls and have the same pleasing quality of the rails on the side of a boat. Like good underwear, they make us feel good and safe. Floors are a mix of tile and wood parquet and windows look like a more modern version of our own metal casements (even though they must be older).
Much of Villa Savoye is unfurnished, apart from some very simple built in cupboards made of what looks like brushed steel that tell us another important thing about so-called modern things. Like the paintings of Mondrian, and encouraged by latter day exponents of minimalism like Pawson, one tends to get a received view that “modernism” equals sterile perfection. Well, these cupboards (and the fitted bathroom) give the lie to that idea – as does any close inspection of a Mondrian canvas. The important thing seems to be the simplicity of the form, not the detail of the finish. Things are, irrespective of their age, quite rough round the edges.
The bathroom is, for its time, incredibly daring in its open plan feel, with a flowing tiled bench that would, presumably, allow one resident to sit and chat to another during the process of ablution. For some of us, that’s pretty daring in 2013 never mind the 1930s. The main living room does have some furniture, a few classic pieces in a vast light-drenched space that looks out over a terrace, where a sinuous pathway snakes back and forth allowing you contemplation as you walk slowing up its ramp carried up to a small sun-garden on the roof. It’s not hard to imagine semi-naked and naked modernists up here (Le Corb himself was famous for sunbathing naked), all flip-flops, sunglasses and knitted bathing togs, sipping cocktails and indulging in the novelty of tanning themselves far from the disapproving glance of the rest of the bourgeoisie. Sitting in one of the living room seats I feel a powerful sense of well-being, of the sort more associated with favourite armchairs, roaring fires and oak beams. Proof, to us at least, that there’s nothing cold at all about Le Corbusier’s work.
MORE PARIS MODERNISM and Le Corbusier’s other works – COMING SOON TO DESTINATION MODERNISM. We’ll be covering the places where Paris and modernity meet head on in an upcoming special.
Matthew Loukes, well-travelled lover of Modernism, is the author of the Slim Gunter detective novels, published by Soul Bay Press www.soulbaypress.com He travelled to Poissy via direct train from Paris and to Paris via British Airways. To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com. Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism