a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Modern heritage with a capital ‘M’

Villa Savoye 1

This weekend is Les Journées du Patrimoine, French Heritage Open Days, and one of the buildings involved is Le Corbusier’s masterpiece the Villa Savoye in Poissy, northeast of Paris.

Villa Savoye 4

We were there last weekend. It is a splendid Modernist building, constructed around 1930 as a weekend home for a wealthy family. By all accounts, it is the last and finest “pure” modern building by Corbusier, exhibiting his five tenets of Modernism which were drummed into me when I studied landscape history at Harvard – the use of “pilotis” or stilts to lift the house into the air; roof gardens; an open plan design; a free-floating façade; and horizontal banded windows to create light airy interiors.

Villa Savoye 8

Lots of things surprised me about the house. First, it is set in a naturalistic landscape which apparently Corbusier was keen to preserve. He imagined the building placed gently on the high point of the plot, without disturbing its setting.

Villa Savoye 6

One of Corbusier’s sketches of the Villa, showing how he saw it set in its landscape. From a display at the site.

Villa Savoye 2

Sadly much of the large garden was taken over in the 1960s by the town of Poissy to construct a school (indeed at one point, it was planned to demolish the Villa to make way for the municipal building, but the state stepped in and acquired Corbusier’s masterpiece for the nation). The trees have been allowed to grow up to hide the school, so the original views over the Seine valley are much diminished.

Second, it was rather badly built and soon began to cause problems for the Savoye family. But Corbusier was more interested in spreading word of his innovative designs that in mundane repair work.

Villa Savoye 3Thirdly, it has two long flower beds full of shrub roses at the front. They seem a surprising, traditional choice for such an iconoclastic building, but are nevertheless original to the design. Something of their striking perpendicular layout and bold, single species planting does perhaps fit quite well with the Villa.

So there it stands, grand and uncompromising, like a great white ocean liner presiding over suburban Poissy. The friends who came with me on the visit mused about Modernism as a ‘dead end’ – the fact that the ideas behind the Villa Savoye never became mainstream. Perhaps the one exception is the stress on outdoor living – that wonderful blurring of the boundaries between inside and out, with the living room opening onto the terrace through vast glass screens, and the internal ramp that leads from the ground floor to the main living areas continuing on the outside up to the roof terrace.Villa Savoye 7

As you enter the site from the road, to your right is a Modernist one-bedroom house, built apparently for the family’s gardener. It is rarely mentioned in the literature about the Villa, and is sadly not yet restored.
Villa Savoye 5
This is the only built example of Corbusier’s design for a “maison minimum unifamiliale” (a minimum one-family house).

Tomorrow the Villa Savoye is hosting Les Enfants du Patrimoine, a series of workshops for children. Over the weekend, it will offer a number of themed tours as part of the Heritage Open Day scheme.

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