1987 January: 'A paradoxical avant-garde' by Richard Etlin
Richard Etlin discusses Le Corbusier’s villas of the 1920s, first published January 1987
Paradox, remarked John Summerson in 1947, is a hallmark of Le Corbusier’s avant-galde architecture. In that same year, Colin Rowe noted the striking analogy between the planning grid of Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein (1927) at Garches and Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta (c1550-60). Le Corbusier, creator of a radically new and modern architecture and vocal opponent of copying past styles, had paradoxically designed a villa as a commentary on a historic masterpiece. Other parallels with historic buildings, such as the comparison that Kurt Forster has more recently drawn between the plan of Le Corbusier’s La Roche-Jeanneret houses (Paris, 1923-24) and the Pompeian House of the Tragic Poet, suggest that Le Corbusier’s direct evocation of historical prototypes was not an isolated device. Alan Colquhoun has called this approach a ‘displacement of concepts,’ which indicates ‘a process of reinterpretation, rather than one of creation in a cultural void.’
This raises numerous questions. First, how extensively did Le Corbusier use, in an abstracted but still recognisable manner, significant examples from the past? Second, how focused was his use of history? Rowe has concluded that it was ‘dissipated and inferential’ and ‘only transiently provocative.’ Third, was Le Corbusier guided by particular ideas when designing in this way? Fourth, what was he attempting to achieve? This article proposes partial answers to these questions, which, in the end, will never admit of an exhaustive or perhaps even definitive response Rowe’s fondness for the qualification - ‘just possibly’ - when suggesting Le Corbusier’s evocation and transformation of precedent might well apply to all that follows. But when, as Summerson has observed, an architect has been as daring, witty, and paradoxical as to suggest that an ocean liner’s rear deck would make an ideal villa on land, we are encouraged to pursue analogies between Le Corbusier’s avant-garde architecture and prototypes drawn from past and contemporary cultures and also to search their meaning.
The Romantic legacy
One way to understand Le Corbusier’s paradoxical use of both history and icons of modern culture in the seemingly abstract 1920s’ villas is to remember the principal concepts and strategies to create a new architecture that came from what has been termed the Romantic Revolution. Toward the 18205, a cultural relativism emerged whose architectural consequence was to convey a sense that every major historic civilisation had forged a characteristic architecture expressing important aspects of its culture. In an age of cultural and political nationalism, it seemed that the contemporary architect should create an architecture both modern and national. This goal continued well into the twentieth century, with a new debate on nationalism and internationalism arising with the success, albeit temporary, of Art Nouveau, and continuing through the coming decades. Between the Romantic Revolution and Le Corbusier’s avant-garde Parisian villas, three fundamental ideas about the nature of architecture emerged that were to Inform Le Corbusier’s own attempts to solve these dilemmas-
1 The architectural system: The word ‘style’ was deemed insufficient for conveying the complex nature of architecture. Rather, there recurs the term, the ‘architectural system,’ to designate the integration of materials methods of construction, structure, programme, form, and aesthetics into an indissoluble whole. Since architecture can be understood as grounded in the art of building, the architectural system was thought to be centred on an original mode of construction. Studies of historical architecture - Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Chinese, and so forth-confirmed nineteenth- and twentieth-century observers in this idea.
2 Philosophical eclecticism: Although the revival of a particular style or the eclectic mixing of visual motifs from various styles have been the most obvious ways of appropriating the past, a third strategy was developed by opponents of stylistic revivals and stylistic eclecticism. This extracted principles from the past to guide the creation of a new architecture: principles that recurred throughout history in various guises in different times and cultures or those unique to a particular civilisation. Since the modern architect might combine several such principles In a . contemporary architecture, this approach might be designated as ‘philosophical eclecticism’. Philosophical eclecticism was the theme of many of the nineteenth- century histories of world architecture, especially Viollet-Ie-Duc’s Entretiens sur l’architecture (1863-72) and Auguste Choisy’s (1899).
3 The architectural promenade: Throughout the nineteenth century, the picturesque was repeatedly invoked to guide the creation of a new architecture. Picturesque design, in contrast to what was considered the dry and rigid symmetry of academic architecture, could impart an exhilarating experiential quality Derived initially from landscape design, the nineteenth century applied the picturesque not only to the massing of buildings, but also to movement through their spaces. In 1842, the English architect Thomas Leverton Donaldson captured the vitalising quality of movement through a carefully orchestrated spatial sequence when he described the great Roman baths as leading ‘in willing chains the enchanted imagination of the beholder’. Charles Robert Cockerell also pursued this theme as did Viollet-Ie-Duc, who termed it the mise en scene. Its greatest nineteenth-century exponent was Auguste Choisy who, in 1865, discerned a ‘picturesque’ sequence of asymmetrically balanced views at the Periclean Acropolis and who, in his Histoire, presented what Le Corbusier would term the ‘architectural promenade’ as a universal phenomenon found in the building type that encapsulated what was most representative or distinctive about each historical culture. Choisy also explained how these representative building types realised all the components of the architectural system.
Le Corbusier’s avant-garde architecture was guided by these three concepts, the legacy of the Romantic Revolution. In his Almanach d’architecture moderne (1925). Le Corbusler discussed the notion of the ‘architectural system’, used synonymously with the term ‘une architecture’, both associated with the quest for a characteristic modern architecture. In Vers une Architecture (1923), whose title expresses this notion, the architectural promenade is the raison d’etre for the orchestration of forms and spaces.
With respect to these three concepts - the architectural system, the architectural promenade, and philosophical eclecticism - Le Corbusier was heavily indebted to Choisy’s Histoire, which he designated in 1925 as the ‘most worthy book ever written on architecture. ’ Le Corbusier’s concept of the architectural promenade was informed by Choisy’s analysis of the Acropolis and in Vers une Architecture was illustrated with two of Choisy’s drawings. As for philosophical eclecticism, Le Corbusier in Vers une Architecture reviewed the basic principles of various historical architectures, once again using Choisy’s ideas and illustrations.
This article explores how Le Corbusier applied these three ideas in several of his 1920s’ houses. Not only was their use systematic and continuous, it also guided Le Corbusier’s choice of both historical prototypes and of contemporary icons. The precedent abstracted and alluded to illumines the historical principles that guided modern architecture’s creation. Likewise, modern modes of transport were evoked to visually suggest the dynamism of modern culture. Unlike Van Doesburg and El Lissitzky, Le Corbusier did not indulge in pseudo-mathematical formulae to portray the essence of contemporary civilisation. Rather, as explained in L’Art decoratlf d’aujourd’hui (1925), he wished to create a modern folklore. Ocean liners, aeroplanes, and automobiles, then capturing the popular imagination as had railroad in the nineteenth century, seemed an ideal source of imagery.
La Roche-Jeanneret houses and the Sittesque tradition
The La Roche-Jeanneret houses are, amongst other things, an exercise in the architectural promenade that combines two turn-of-the-century attitudes toward space: Sittesque picturesque street design and the popular American and European use of the multi-storey hall in domestic architecture. The publication of Camillo Sitte’s book, Der Stadtebau nach seinen kunstlerischen Grundsatzen (City Planning According to Artistic Principles) (1889) , stimulated an interest in urban design in which winding and curved streets presented changing vistas, each with a focus, appreciated in terms comparable to Choisy’s analysis of the architectural promenade. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), who was very taken with this version of an urban architectural promenade, used drawings by one of its major proponents, Kar] Henrici, in his manuscript book, La Construction des Villes (The Building of Cities), begun, according to H. Alien Brooks, in 1910.
The La Roche-Jeanneret houses close a short cul-de-sac in a way remarkably parallel to Le Corbusier’s two favourite street designs that he had illustrated and discussed in his unpublished book. In both streets, a major focal point slides, in a manner of speaking, across the field of vision from the right, to capture the attention of the approaching visitor as the space of the street slips away and beyond to the left. In the La Roche-Jeanneret houses, the elevated convex form of the painting gallery also serves to focus and arrest the view, while the open space below lets the eye continue beyond this facade.
At the La Roche-Jeanneret houses, exterior andinterior spaces are related in paradoxical and complementary ways. As Kun Forster has observed: ‘Entrance into the [cul-de-sac] is also conceptual entrance into the sphere of Le Corbusier’s architectural definition of space.’ In this and a later passage, Forster notes that the space outside was treated as if an interior, just as the entrance hall inside the La Roche promenade in turn began upon entering the cul-de-sac, ordered according to Sittesque principles. As Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) said of his favourite street design: ‘The beauty of this solution surpasses the need for commentary.’
The La Roche-Jeanneret promenade continues into the triple-height entrance hall. As Le Corbusier explained, here ‘the architectural spectacle offers itself consecutively to the view; one follows an itinerary and the views develop with great variety. In the hall itself, we follow the sequence through the entrance, under the passerelle or bridge, into the triple-height space, up the stairs, onto the projecting balcony, then behind the wall only to emerge again to turn the corner and pass over the bridge to proceed into the dining room. From here is a view across the exterior over the entrance and into the picture gallery.
From his earlier sojourn in Germany, from periodicals, and from Hermann Muthesius’ books, Le Corbusier would have known how popular and how dramatic the multi-level entrance stair hall could be. In many such examples, movement up and around the hall was punctuated by balconies or galleries. The La Roche-Jeanneret houses exploited this theme to the fullest , not only with a complex spatial arrangement in a three-storey hall , but also by its integration into a longer sequence of movement that began with a Sittesque approach to the house and continued inside beyond the hall through the building and out onto the roof garden.
The lessons of Egypt and Greece
The La Roche-Jeanneret houses were, according to Le Corbusier’s categorisation of the four villa types (1929). a ‘picturesque’ composition. In 1924, Le Corbusier was already moving away from this approach to design, with its volumetric articulation of interior functions on the exterior. This change was reflected in his commentary at the time on Robert Mallet-Stevens’ comparable picturesque aesthetic:
‘One can certainly say that [Mallet-Stevens] has a love of forms , and if one wanted to quibble a little, one could even say that he loves them so much that he uses too many. After this first flowering of multiple forms pressing against each other, of irregular and agitated silhouettes will come the recognition that light is more generous to a simple prism and that this complexity, this excessive wealth, this exuberance of forms will be disciplined under the aegis of the pure form. It will become evident that a whole is worth more than five or 10 parts. This tendency toward the pure envelope that covers a richness with a mask of simplicity can only follow. We have the time to wait.’
Le Corbusier repeated this critique of the ‘artificial and illusory picturesque’ in his letter of October 1925, that accompanied his first project for the Villa Meyer.
Le Corbusier would then realise three different versions of architecture as an exterior ‘mask of simplicity’ that hides a richly variegated spatial realm inside at Maison Cook (Boulogne-sur-Seine, 1926), Villa Stein (Garches, 1927). and Villa Savoye (Poissy, 1928-31). Here again the architectural promenade arranged a path with varied and asymmetrically balanced views, that constituted the perceptual as well as the conceptual ‘axis,’ to use Le Corbusier’s terminology from Vers une Architecture, of the house.
Simultaneously, Le Corbusier realised another goal of the Romantic Revolution: by creating a new architectural system, articulated in 1926 as ‘The Five Points for a New Architecture ‘. In these three Parisian houses, Le Corbusier exploited the aesthetic possibilities of his new architectural system by playing off the free-standing columns against the organic sculptural shapes of the non-load bearing interior partitions.
Here the third component of the romantic legacy came into play: philosophical eclecticism. In Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier, using Choisy’s ideas and drawing, had defined the essence of Egyptian architecture as ‘equalisation (symmetry, repetition).’ This referred to the regular repetition of columns that Choisy had discussed as the fundamental feature of Egyptian architecture, which, in turn, created a specific type of linear and axial architectural promenade. Greek architecture, once again in Choisy’s terms and with Choisy’s drawings, was characterized by ‘compensation (contrasts) (Acropolis of Athens).’ In subsequent editions, Le Corbusier rendered this thought more explicit by substituting ‘movement of contraries’ for ‘contrasts’.
The dialectical relationship that Le Corbusier developed in these houses between the regular columnar grid and the sculptural forms applied in a modern aesthetic the principles of Egyptian and Greek architecture. The lesson of Egyptian architecture was translated into the regular grid of columns that Le Corbusier described, in his account of the Villa Stein, as ‘spreading throughout the house a constant scale, a rhythm , a restful cadence’. The lesson of Greek architecture became the sequence of asymmetrically balanced views along the architectural promenade. As Forster has observed, the curvilinear forms in these buildings are associated with either movement or with bathroom fixtures, and so become extensions of the human body and hence persona. Here the architectural promenade offers the same type of spiritually uplifting experience that Le Corbusier had found in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, as related in Vers une Architecture. At the Villa Stein, the columns, straight walls, organic forms, and the moving spectator enter into a carefully choreographed architectural ballet.
It was a mark of Le Corbusier’s genius that he could translate the principles of Egyptian and Greek architecture into a thoroughly modern aesthetic based upon synthetic Cubism. Like Juan Gris’ Harlequin (1919), which is similar to Gris’ Pierrot with Guitar (1922) in L ‘Esprit Nouveau (no 19), Le Corbusier’s villas are organised as frontally layered compositions counterpointed by diagonal movements and spaces that interpenetrate in S-shaped curves. In transforming old into new and two into three dimensions, Le Corbusier also tackled other issues, such as the appropriate balance between national and international factors in a modern style and the relationship of man to the machine. These themes will be explored in the rest of this article.
Maison Cook, the French Hotêl and Synthetic Cubism
Various authors, such as Colin Rowe and Alan Colquhoun, have remarked that Le Corbusier’s 1920s’ villas have aspects reminiscent of the eighteenth century French hôtel. Rowe has commented on Le Corbusier’s use of ‘those ideals of convenance and commodite displayed in the ingenious planning of the Rococo hôtel, the background of a social life at once more amplified and intimate.’ In a similar vein, Colquhoun has noted Le Corbusier’s adaptation of the method of ‘planning by means of poché, which became codified in the teaching of the Beaux-Arts [and which] is noticeable in many eighteenth-century Parisian hôtels where the needs of comfort and privacy demanded a sometimes quite elaborate series of service corridors and stores tucked away behind the main rooms, which are arranged according to the Baroque tradition, en ééchelon.’ The analogy between Le Corbusier’s villas and the eighteenth-century Parisian hôtel is a rich one not yet exhausted by these perceptive observations.
Le Corbusier’s strategy of the ‘mask of simplicity’ covering a highly variegated interior is essentially that of the French eighteenth-century hôtel - an updating of a traditional Parisian type. Codified toward 1730, the hôtel became and remained a quintessentially French institution. Julien Guadet’s popular textbook from the first decade of the twentieth-century written for Beaux Arts students had dated the birth of the ‘modern dwelling’ with the development of the eighteenth century French hôtel. So powerful was its example that conservative French-speaking Swiss architects in the years immediately preceding World War I still used the model of the eighteenth-century French hôtel, slightly modified according to local building traditions, as a sign of cultural identity. Even Auguste Perret in his apartment building at 25 bis rue Franklin (Paris, 1903), with its revolutionary expressed concrete skeletal frame, modelled its plans on the hôtel type. By adapting the basic strategy of the Parisian hôtel, Le Corbusier solved the dilemma of how to reconcile national tradition with modernity.
The problem of equating national tradition with national style, as the Swiss architect Henri Martin had recognised, was that it usually froze into revivalism. By abstracting the basic features of the hotel - the disjunction between exterior and interior along with the typical approach to commodite and convenance - Le Corbusier redefined the question. Rather than dwell upon national style, Le Corbusier transferred the issue from style to building type. Nowhere was this clearer than in Maison Cook.
To understand the achievement of Maison Cook, one must recall Choisy’s explanation of the spatial organisation and architectural promenade of the eighteenth-century French hôtel. There are two ways of considering the hôtel. One is according to the major and minor axes that organise the en suite arrangement of what might be termed the public, as opposed to the private, rooms. The other is to consider the traditional grouping of rooms into suites called appartements. Choosing this latter approach, Choisy presented the hôtel as two suites of rooms arranged to either side of the central axis with the architectural promenade winding itself into a circle on either side of the hotel. In Maison Cook, it appears Le Corbusier adapted Choisy’s division of the French hôtel into two zones to the procedures of synthetic Cubism, which presented a face simultaneously in profile and frontal views.
Interpreting Maison Cook as the architectural equivalent of the Cubist portrait with its overlapping frontal and profile views rests upon four sets of visual devices. One relates to the positioning of the doors. The front facade paradoxically has no front door. Entrance, as is pointed out in two captioned photographs in the Oeuvre Complete, is through a door in the middle of a central cross-wall. On the next two floors, the major activity spaces, grouped to the left of this wall, are entered through doors directly above this entrance door. Separate stairs to the top level library vary this theme. Hence, although there is a front facade, the ‘facade’ through which one repeatedly enters and exits is the central cross-wall, which becomes the equivalent to the Cubist face rotated 90 degrees.
This reading is reinforced by the volumetric arrangement of the interior. Because the central cross-wall bounds the double-height living room that extends from front to rear, it also appears as an interior ‘facade’ facing onto an interior ‘outdoor’ space.
Like the La Roche hall, which had also been treated as an outdoor space, Maison Cook’s living room has a balcony projecting into this seemingly exterior volume. As with the former, this balcony is paired significantly with an actual outside balcony. At La Roche-Jeanneret, as Forster astutely observed, the balconies outside and over the hall are parallel, aligned, and even equidistant from the projecting volume at the front of the Jeanneret house. This geometrical relationship cements the thematic linking of the two ‘exterior’ spaces. At the Maison Cook, the paired balconies are no longer in the same plane, nor do they face the same direction. One projects out from the front facade as an exterior extension of the geometry of the living room. The other reaches out from the central wall to project into the living room toward the far side of the house. Thus, in the Cubist manner, the two balconies are rotated 90 degrees to each other, just like the facades from which they issue.
Finally, both exterior and interior ‘facades’ use Juan Gris’ characteristic Cubist four-part division of an image with tonal reversals to either side above and below. In the Harlequin, for example, each side of the face is a different value: dark left, light right. The four-part reversal occurs in the eyes above and the lips below with the small features given the tonal value of the opposite side. At Maison Cook, this quadripartite division is achieved through the degree of light or darkness or the degree of depth in each of the components of the ‘facades.’ This occurs on the front facade through the recesses on top and below: shallow and dark spaces on upper left and lower right; deep and light spaces on upper right and lower left. There are even secondary reversals, such as between the concave recess at the upper left and the convex entry hall to the lower right, as well as the projecting balcony on the upper left and the cutaway in the facade with recessed terrace to the upper right. On the interior, rotated ‘facade’ the pattern of reversals is created by means of depth and flatness: deep left and shallow right above; shallow left and deep right below. As might be expected, these relationships are the reverse of those on the exterior façade.
Why would Le Corbusier render the French hotel, as explained by Choisy, in a Cubist architecture? Cubism, Pierre Reverdy had written in 1917, was the most important development in painting since the introduction of perspective. In La Peinture maderne (1925), Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) and Ozenfant basically concurred. For them, Cubism had known three successive phases: analytical Cubism, which had begun with Cezanne; synthetic Cubism, which they called ‘crystalline’; and then Purism, represented by their paintings. ‘Purism’, they explained, ‘issues from Cubism, from which it accepts its general principles….’
Cubism, though, was not simply a movement in painting. It was, as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler has observed, ‘an aesthetic’. Artists in other fields could also be Cubist. Reverdy, for example, was considered a Cubist poet. Paul Dermee, poet and co-editor of L’Esprit Nouveau, readily embraced the term ‘Cubist poet’ for both himself and his colleagues. Cubism furnished a plastic means, explained Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) and Ozenfant, to satisfy ‘the new spirit that so strongly animates our age’. Cubist painting, affirmed Le Corbusier in 1924, had preceded the other arts in expressing the ‘geometric spirit’ of the times. Yet, ‘the ends that Cubism is pursuing promise further changes in this direction’. Architecture, concluded Le Corbusier, would soon follow.
In architecture, the first phase, analytical Cubism, had inspired from Raymond Duchamp-ViIlon a Maison Cubiste shown at the Salon d’Automne of 1912. The facade depicted a traditional French hotel modified according to several of the parameters of analytical Cubism. In Maison Cook, Le Corbusier once again offered a rendition of the French hotel, now conceived according to what he saw as a more advanced stage of Cubism.
Villa Stein, the pylon temple, and the ocean liner
Le Corbusier metaphorically introduced a fragment of a modern airplane, the nose of the Farman Goliath ‘Air Express’ from Vers une Architecture into the exterior of Maison Cook. In this way, he suggested a direct analogy between the form and structure of this modern machine and the new architectural aesthetic, which featured the juxtaposition of sculptural forms with gridded space. Maison Cook, then, became the architectural equivalent to the airplane as icon of modern culture. Since Le Corbusier created a comparable parallel between the rear deck of the Aquitania and the Villa Savoye one wonders whether the same approach might not have been taken with the Villa Stein which was designed in the interim? Colin Rowe observed that the ‘little pavilion on the roof at Garches is, at the same time, a temple of love and the bridge of a ship.’ This thought could be extended to apply to the entire facade, which appears remarkably like the front super-structure of the Aquitania, also in Vers une Architecture.
This front facade, though, not only evokes this icon of machine civilisation, it also seems to have been rendered as an abstraction of an Egyptian pylon temple. Egyptian architecture, as mentioned above, had provided Le Corbusier with the lesson of the regular grid of columns that he used to create a frontally layered composition. By alluding to the pylon, Le Corbusier could be evoking the historical principle that he was re-interpreting.
The Egyptian pylon, as is evident from Choisy’s cutaway axonometric of the Temple of Khans, shown in Vers une Architecture stands in relative isolation from the parallel planes of columns and walls behind it. Le Corbusier seems to have crystallised the image of the pylon at Villa Stein at the moment when he added a vertical strip of windows and glass doors to each side of the front façade. According to Tim Benton’s analysis of the design’s evolution these vertical strips of glazing, absent from the project of 13 November 1926, appeared a month later in drawings of 16-17 December 1926 As Rowe and Slutzky observed, these vertical strips of windows and doors have the effect of severing the seemingly taut surface of the front facade from the villa ‘s box-like volume. In this way, the front façade becomes the first of a succession of frontally layered planes that establish the conditions for the conceptual or ‘phenomenal’ transparency which Rowe and Slutzky have shown to be characteristic of Le Corbusier’s aesthetic. What better way, then, to signify the application of the principles of Egyptian architecture than by evoking the pylon?
This may not be Le Corbusier’s first direct reference to Egyptian architecture in his Parisian villas. A most curious feature of the columnar grid at Maison Cook and then at Villa Stein is how the circular columns alter in shape. In each instance, the deformation corresponds to the logic of the column’s relationship to contiguous or neighbouring walls, to the architectural promenade, and possibly, at times, to structural considerations. As highly inventive as this articulation of supports might seem, it must be kept in mind that Chipiez and Perrot, authors of a history of world architecture that Le Corbusier owned and to which he repeatedly referred in his 1915 sketchbook (A2), had devoted a section of their study of Egyptian architecture to the variety in form, spacing, and placement of supports in Egyptian temples. Hence, within the overall system of the regularly repetitive Egyptian columnar grid, there was a secondary system of differentiation that imparted vitality to the architecture. It appears that Le Corbusier, beginning with his avant-garde architecture of the 1920s’ profited from this discussion, which Chipiez and Perrot had introduced under the heading - ‘boredom [is] born from uniformity.’
Looking back to the La Roche-Jeanneret houses, still another and earlier use of Egyptian architecture might be discerned. Although the general configuration of these houses as seen on approach shows a similarity to Le Corbusier’s favourite street designs, the specific way the entrance is pulled back from view so as to isolate and give prominence to the elevated and projecting curved volume of the picture gallery presents a degree of sophistication not present in young Jeanneret’s more schematic drawings of street designs. There is, however, a direct visual parallel with Choisy’s cutaway axonometric view of the Temple of Khans, read paradoxically in reverse. It may never be known whether this similarity is significant or fortuitous and, if there was an influence, whether Le Corbusier’s recourse to this image was unconscious or purposeful. What matters more than settling this particular issue is the repeated use in Le Corbusier’s avant-garde houses of Egyptian architecture, appreciated for its principles and its iconic value. Hence, the possible multiple significance of Egyptian architecture for Le Corbusier is worth pursuing.
Egyptian architecture, as French theorists such as Leonce Reynaud and Anatole de Baudot had pointed out, was one of the earliest trabeated systems. De Baudot had even stressed the prototypical aspect of the Egyptian pylon temple: ‘Nothing could be simpler than such a system of construction and yet, nothing could be more characteristic or more monumental than such an arrangement whose effect derives primarily from the straightforward use of its elements and the repetition of the supports.’ Le Corbusier may have been evoking the pylon temple in the Villa Stein as an icon for this tradition, which embraced Greek architecture as well, and for which he was providing the modern equivalent in concrete construction with its cantilevered floor slabs supported by free-standing columns.
The pylon temple, as De Baudot had pointed out. Had a monumental aspect that made it into a complete, self-contained, memorable image. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Parthenon especially had been invested with this significance. Le Corbusier wrote one of the last chapters of this tradition with his essay; ‘Architecture, pure creation de l’esprit’ (Architecture, pure creation of the mind/spirit), published in L‘Esprit Nouveau (no 16) and then included in Vers une Architecture. With Villa Stein and then Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier sought to attain an analogous harmonious ordering of forms that elevated the building to the status of an aesthetic icon.
Finally, the Egyptian pylon temple, as an icon for the past, for the history of both architecture and civilisation, required a worthy modern counterpart. Le Corbusier found this in the contemporary machine civilisation, evoked here through the image of the ocean liner. With Villa Stein at Garches, Le Corbusier sought to create an architectural imagery that reflected the most characteristic achievements of contemporary civilisation, which symbolised as well as fostered a new way of life.
Even this technique of investing the same object with two different but thematically related meanings can be understood as part of the Cubist aesthetic. Cubism proceeded by juxtaposing images. As Reverdy explained: ‘The image is a pure creation of the mind/spirit (l’esprit). It cannot issue from a comparison but rather by bringing together two more or less distant realities. The greater the distance and the greater the aptness of the relationship between the two realities , the stronger the image will be. Kahnweiler explained how this Cubist technique operated in Reverdy’s poetry and in Juan Gris’ painting: ‘One of [Reverdy’s] favourite devices in poetry was the image, the metaphor. His friend Juan Gris used it in painting. Now, in plastic art, the image can only be born from the juxtaposition of two similar forms signifying, however, different objects. Otherwise their repetition would have no meaning.’ Le Corbusier’s avant-garde villas of the 1920s achieved the same result through the multiple images that the buildings suggest. With the Villa at Garches, Le Corbusier reached a higher level of synthesis with the Cubist image defined thus than in his earlier villas. Here the same image became ‘two realities’ so ‘distant’ but at the same time so aptly related.
Villa Savoye , the Acropolis, and the Second Machine Age
Le Corbusier’s most complete statement of all of these themes was Villa Savoye (1928-31) at Poissy. Set in a gently domed field, the villa is both a rendition of the rear deck of the ocean liner Aquitania, and a reformulation of the architectural promenade across the Acropolis through the medium of the car, as icon for the new machine civilisation. In Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier presented a ritual as well as aesthetic equivalent to the picturesque architectural promenade at the Acropolis by creating a parallel between the journey from Paris to the suburban villa and back and the culminating ceremonial procession of the most important civic and religious festival in ancient Athens, the Panathenaea.
As an architectural analogue of the automobile, the Villa Savoye was designed as a function of the tightest possible turning radius for the car that passes under its elevated body. The drive from Paris and back, signalled by Le Corbusier in a pair of captioned photographs in the Oeuvre Complete, substitutes for the Panathenaic procession that ascended from the main entrance of the city to the Acropolis on foot and in chariots. As a modern equivalent of the Parthenon, the strip windows that ring Villa Savoye and capture the form of the moving automobile window, are an equivalent to the Parthenon’s frieze depicting the Panathenaic procession. The framed view of the landscape seen from the moving automobile establishes the principal theme of the architectural promenade: the relationship between man, nature, and the machine.
Upon entering Villa Savoye, the visitor encounters a ponderated scene reminiscent of the view in front of the Propylaea. As at the Acropolis, where one proceeds through the columnar hall of the Propylaea via a stepped ramp, at the Villa Savoye a ramp leads the visitor up through the centre of the house to the roof garden on top. It facilitates a smooth, gliding motion that continues the sense of movement of the automobile, but now at the slower pace of the pedestrian. At the top of the ramp, the promenade ends with a framed view of the landscape situated between the organic shapes of the solarium. This scene ritualistically re-enacts the initial, framed view through the car window that began the sequence. With the Villa Savoye the machine fully enters the garden. Through the architectural promenade, man and machine have become one, with the machine fully humanised.
This desire for harmony between man and the machine would be the subject of reflection for Le Corbusier and an incitement for the remainder of his life to explore new architectural forms to realise further this goal. In an international symposium on the arts in contemporary life held in Venice in 1934, Le Corbusier would warn against the dangers posed by a machine civilisation that, with the advent of the railroad 100 years earlier, had destroyed the traditional equilibrium between man and both his physical environment and social milieu. With the experience of the Villa Savoye behind him, Le Corbusier could announce at the meeting that 1930 had marked the opening of ‘the second period of machine civilisation, this one consecrated to harmony-to harmonising the new and revolutionary factors placed in the presence of the eternal and permanent desires and needs of the human mind and spirit.
In a building such as the Pavillon Suisse (1930-32) at the Cité Universitaire, Paris, presented as a dialectic between the curved, rusticated wall of the common room to one side and the modern glass and steel façade of the dormitory rooms to the other, Le Corbusier gave metaphorical expression to the balance between ‘the hand’ and ‘the machine’ that preoccupied his thoughts at this time. By the end of his life, with architecture such as Harvard’s Carpenter Center (1960-63), the integration between the two was complete. Yet, even here, where the ‘mask’ of the 1920’s prisms has been replaced by sculpturally articulated volumes and where the icon of modern transportation has been supplanted by biological imagery, the concept of the architectural system organized according to the picturesque architectural promenade guides the entire design.