The first starchitect, The examination of the efficiency of Le Corbusier’s buildings

The place Le Corbusier holds in architectural history is indisputable. The artistic hero, genius, provocative, revolutionary and not concerned about historical responsibility. However, let’s remember that every legend has its other side and there are some everyday, dull issues, from which every ‘starchitect’ has to be examined.

Let’s take under a magnifying glass the architect’s most famous realization villa Savoye. Have the building which actually employed all Le Corbsusier’s “5 Points of Modern Architecture” provided its inhabitants with healthy living conditions?

The Issues

Let our references be the letters from Mme Savoye to the architect and Sbriglio’s book “Le Corbusier: La Villa Savoye, The Villa Savoye”. Going through these two it becomes clear that the villa faced a number of technical issues. The flat roof was leaking, the daylights atop were causing lots of noise during heavy weather (especially the one over the bathroom), and even the horizontal windows were in fact losing big amounts of heat making the villa feel very cold and damp.

Who is arbitrary after all?

One might ask oneself why such problems came up, especially at the time Le Corbusier already had a number of realizations on his account. Was it because the architect was too concerned with his reputation and putting too little focus on the real dimension of his buildings?

At this point, it also should be said that Le Corbusier was not the only one who started to use industrial elements in architecture at that time. For example, simultaneously to him, in Europe functioned the organization called Bauhaus in Dessau that worked as a coherent school gathering creative and ambitious students from around the world.

After all, two heads are better than one, and the fact of working within an environment that constantly examaines and critiques the work turns up much more efficient than a one person working alone. Nonetheless, the matter of popularity is sneaky. None of Bauhaus students have been remembered as vividly in the archtiectural history and history in general as Le Corbusier, after all.

References:

Misfits’s Architecture blog, <http://misfitsarchitecture.com/2011/09/03/the-darker-side-of-villa-savoye/>

Sbriglio, Jacques. Le Corbusier: La Villa Savoye, The Villa Savoye. Paris: Fondation Le Corbusier; Basel: Birkhäuser, 1999

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Houses UP!

There is a fetish in presenting “5 Points of Modern Architecture”. Interestingly, piloti are normally put on the first place – it may be because the original list was prepared this way, or maybe that’s beacause its catching name.

However, there may be also another reason, especially given how important role the point plays in Le Corbusier’s revolution.

                                       volume lifted totally from the ground

Parisian aristocracy versus the progress

It starts with the fact that before publishing  L’Eprit Nouveau houses were seen as heavy solids made from stones or bricks, with very thick walls, rooted deeply into the ground. Facing the idea of houses’ roots with the ground they were standing on was Le Corbusier’s biggest challenge. The city where Le Corbusier and his friend Ozenfant have been publishing their texts, Paris, was the city of great families traditions. Generations after generations have been inhabiting big palaces creating traditions and long bloodlines.

On the other side was villa Savoye with its volume lifted totally from the ground. Although, Le Corbusier claimed this solution was to prevent the influance of soil on the building, the other probable reason was its symbolic meaning.

The architect opposition towards the whole tradition of archtiecture was of epic scale and the act of lifting the house can be as well interpreted as liberating archtiecture from the weight of its past.

References:

Richard Weston, Key buildings of the 20th century

Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture

Prefabrication

By the time Le Corbusier introduced “Toward an Architecture” houses and architecture in general was perceived as something heavy and solid. The materials, which were most commonly used were known for ages: stone, timber, bricks.

However, Le Corbusier foreseen that just as engineers at that time started to erect magnificent constructions, steamships and cars with industrial materials, the same future awaits architecture.

He pointed steel, glass and reinforced concrete for the shift from the previous thick and impractical materials. He said that the quality of architecture doesn’t rely merely on materials. At the very beginning of his famous book “Toward an Archtiecture” he presents ‘Three reminders to Architects‘, which are respectively:

  • Volume
  • Surface
  • Plan

The reminders are in fact the very essence of architecture. He said that, although industraial materials have extremely different character, given they are put in order and undergo architect’s coherent idea, they may become as magnificent as the previous historic architecture.

References:

Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture

Toward an Architecture

We live within a world of chaos, arbitrarness and enthropy.

Our natural state is, what Rousseau used to call a ‘state of nature’. A state far from logic and order.

We don’t feel good in this state. That’s the way animals live.

When our predecessor animals, became aware they, or we started longing for light, and for order. We lose ourselves when we are being left within a darkness. Our mental health goes lost, we become unsafe, scared, alone.

We need plan, volume. We need walls that may create boundaries from the world of chaos and make us feel human. Except the awareness of unsafety outside we may create places, which provide us with light and air.

We may stop being afraid, anxious, uncertain. We may build architecture.

This way of thinking is presented in “Toward an Archtiecture” – the book Le Corbusier written in 1924, which consisted of the text he published previously with his friend Ozenfant in L’Esprit Nouveau.

Opposing the regime of the Academy

Their reacted on the changes that took place at that time. The effects of Industrialisation were flying, riding and swimming already across the globe. Cities were growing rapidly, as well as the number of people on the Earth and the thempo of their living. However, the architecture stayed unchanged in terms of its ideas. Historicism, the movement officially acclaimed by the Academies of that tiem, cost investors lots of money, because of the impractical solutions, and materials which could have been already changed with industrial ones.

Le Corbusier proposed instead of using problematic stones and bricks, standarised, prefabricated materials, which have been already commonly used by engineers.

Volume, Surface, Plan

He claimed that quality of architecture doesn’t lie merely in materials, but spatial qualities they create. He pointed out Three Reminders to Architects –Volume, Surface and Plan. He tried to persuade people about the value of pure, geometric forms, which should be watched in the bright light, making people feel good, due to their logic and simplicity.

Standarization

However, his book faced ambivalent opinions. Many poeple have felt offended by the juxtaposition he made with the great Greek temple, Parthenon with new at his time Voisin car. However, the point Le Corbusier tried to make doing so, was the process of seeking standards which can address a certain problem in a best possible way.

Toward logic

Le Corbusier was a nervous, and even mean man. But he followed rules of logic in order to keep control over himself and that’s the reason why he wanted so much to build archtiecture clear, simple and in order.

References:
Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Le Corbusier: A Life’
Le Corbusier, ‘Toward An Architecture’

5 Points of Modern Architecture

The famous concept of Le Corbusier the “5 Points of Modern Architecture” are tought in architecture schools throughout the world. It is the list of the essentials that the architect regarded modern houses must have to provide their inhabitants with healthy conditions.

Critical look at the points, compared to the historicism in architecture at that time will inevitably bring us to the conclusion, that Le Corbusier made it. The access to vast amounts of light and air, as well as sterility and ergonomy of his designs were the cornerstone of modernism.

The points are:

  1. pilotis
  2. roof garden
  3. free facade
  4. free plan
  5. horizontal windows

1. Pilotis are the constructial method of erecting buildings. The invention of reinforced concrete frame enabled building in a simple method of supports and slabs.

Le Corbusier had penchant for organizing pilotis in a grid, what added order to the buildings. The architect was under a deep impression of classic architecture, especially Parthenon and villa Rotonda. The grid was a mean to bring this classic qualities to his modern designs.

The impression Pathenon made on the young Le Corbusier was profound and life-lasting what especially accentuates Nicholas Fox Weber during his lecture on the archtiect’s life.

towards

2. Roof Gardens were a mean of bringing nature to houses. Le Corbusier was inspired by steamliners, which superstructure lifted high above the ground level provided clear views over the site. In the same way Le Corbusier opened roof of his building on these views, simultaneously arranging an arcadian atmosphere on them.

3. Free facade was a consequence of concrete frame construction. Because walls were then deprived of their constructional role, their design became free as well.

4. Free plan was the consequence of the construction as well. The plan is no longer limited by construction and its design becomes free also.

In effect, many important figures of modernism movement came up with idea of ‘open plan‘ (Frank Lloyd Wright) or continuity of space (Mies van der Rohe), which assumed that archtiecture at its best doesn’t devide space utterly, but rather allows space to flow among different abstract compositions of volumes and planes.

Le Corbusier called this idea ‘promenade architecturale‘ and an important feature of this concept was building alongside staircase, a ramp. After all, he claimed that the ramp is something that links the floors, while staircase divides it.

5. Horizontal windows or ribbon windows are the effect of free facade. It’s an imporant element of Le Corbusier crusade toward liberating people from the evil historism.

First of all, they give access to a big amounts of light, which can evenly lit the interior.

Secondly it also effectively frames the view outside, bringing outside inside.

Coming up to the points was something Le Corbusier worked on throughout all 1920s. He built next and next villas for rich clients from artistic circles eager to invest their money in the sake of progress and to possess a house they could show off before their firends. Ozenfant Atelier in 1922, villa La Roche-Jeanneret in 1923, villa Le Lac in 1924 were all experiments of putting Le Corbusier ideas into practice.

The culmination and the realization closest to perfection turned out to be villa Savoye, which today is regarded as the architect masterpiece. It is the first villa which lifted the whole volume to the air. Moreover, although the atmosphere inside may seem cold, it is a type of ‘mathematical lyricism’ that Le Corbusier sought, which he could only acheive through total use of the Five Points of Modern Architecture.

References:
Richard Weston,’Key Buildings of the 20th Century’
Le Corbusier, ‘Toward an Architecture’
Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Le Corbusier: A Life’ [lecture at UCD School of Architecture on the book’s substance]