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Drama out of Inert Stone

What does it mean to be modern? Specifically, what does it mean to be modern in Le Corbusier’s sense? With the Villa Savoye as reference point, this paper will attempt to delineate the term “modernity” as they are concretized in architectural terms in the Villa Savoye, an early and classic exemplar of the “International Style,” a movement which has come to represent the mainstream of modern architecture from 1920 to the end of the 1950s (Nuttgens 259). The structure of Villa Savoye brings to mind Nelly Richard’s (1987-88, 6) description of modernity as a historical stage that sustains the three-fold ideal for unity, autonomy and identity.

Unity is linked to a universalist notion of progress based on the Enlightenment belief in rationality, which in turn is grounded in the belief in the modern self as unified, rational and autonomous. In this Utopian world, the individual has the capacity to know the external world and to perfect the language – in this case of architecture – that can best represent the world. Such understanding coheres with a continuous and pervasive reflexivity, or the process by which fully coherent individuals continually analyze and observe themselves through rational and scientific methods of monitoring, understanding, changing, and renewing our societies.

This faith in a fully rational, unified and autonomous self also rests on a totalizing assumption that there exists a legitimate center – a unique and superior position from which to establish control and to determine hierarchies. These ideals of modernity are concretized in the “Five Points,” basic tenets for the so-called “new architecture,” which represent Le Corbusier’s reinterpretation of stable classic ideals of clarity, proportion, and simplicity, but couched in machine age terms: the Parthenon made modern through a synthesis of Idealism and Rationalism.

As will be discussed, they are: (1) the pilotis elevating the mass off the ground, (2) the free plan, achieved through the separation of the load-bearing columns from the walls subdividing the space, (3) the free facade, the corollary of the free plan in the vertical plane, (4) the long horizontal sliding window and finally (5) the roof garden, restoring, supposedly, the area of ground covered by the house. ” (Frampton, 31)

On the everyday level, these five points translate in Villa Savoye as a place that epitomizes what Marshall Berman would describe as a “modernized version of a pastoral,” (78), a space where the dweller can luxuriate in a rural retreat that is built, not in the style of a rustic country house but of a modern and cutting edge “machine for living in (Corbusier, 202),” a phrase that connotes complete rationality in plan, and mastery of execution.

How does Villa Savoye communicate and express these productive tensions between idealism and rationalism, the traditional and modern, the old and the new, as well as the practical and mundane vis-a-vis the lofty and philosophical? Richard Hill suggests two possible ways through which the buildings may convey meanings to those who build, see and use them.

First, is through sculptural representation, which refers to the way a building may represent another object – say, a ship, in the case of Villa Savoye or convey abstract compositions, which in Villa Savoye is seen in the way the geometrical planes translate in architectural terms Le Corbusier’s Cubist paintings: the presentation of variable viewpoints and simultaneous perceptions of multiple layers and levels, the control of proportion and ratio and the “effects of illusion,” William Curtis aptly describes it, “whereby objects are glimpsed through layers of glass or through windows cut clean through the plainest of white surfaces. ” (280)

Sculptural representation, while part of the repertoire of architectural meaning, has its limitations, since buildings may communicate or even trigger “non-iconic” or “non-realistic” perceptions (Hill, 133). For instance, as one approaches Villa Savoye, one sees a white horizontal, square box that seems to be floating on a “sea” of green grass. We know that what we see is not a “box” and it does not actually “float,” only that its realistic elements have been suppressed, hidden or de-emphasized. Instead of a solid ground floor or mighty piers, this white cube is supported, at least visually, on thin, unobtrusive columns – the pilotis.

The whiteness of the box’s smooth unadorned surface is interrupted by the dark green at the base, which blends with the green grass “sea,” further heightening the illusion of floating, especially since the pilotis are almost invisible, or “wish” to be invisible. The buoyant lightness is also reinforced by the thin strip of windows, which line the second floor, running almost continuously, stopping only at the corners, but nonetheless succeeding in blurring or at least making ambiguous inside/outside and other dichotomies.

The facade is continuous and symmetrical, with the house looking out on all four corners equally, echoing an older country house, the Villa Rotunda by Andrea Palladio. Like the Palladio, Villa Savoye dominates the landscape, so unlike another example of the Modern building, Wright’s Kaufmann House, which appears to be growing out, instead of sticking out, of its surroundings. However, Villa Savoye’s way of hovering on slender supports is an inverse of its traditional counterpart, which rests on massive walls designed to connote an idea of a grounded, self-contained universe solidly standing on its own, isolated space.

And far from being out-of-sync with its surroundings, the Villa Savoye is like a sculpture-in-the-round rather than a single-facade building, designed for a site that allows such possibility – a magnificent park formed from the meadows surrounded by forest and not hemmed in by other buildings. Conceived by Le Corbusier as a prototype rather than a site-specific, one-of-a-kind, unique model. “The house must not have a facade. Situated at the top of a dome-like hill, it must open onto all four directions. The living area with its hanging garden will be raised above the columns so as to give views right to the horizon.

” (Le Corbusier (b), 12) Having no facade, the approach does not define an entrance, and one must walk around and through the building to understand its layout. It is in the context of these echoing and modification of classical precedents that being modern becomes synonymous with modernism, the art historical and aesthetic movement broadly defined as one grounded on the avant-garde quest for artistic innovation and renewal. In Villa Savoye, the techniques and strategies of older arts are critiqued, not to reject them altogether but to innovate and build upon them.

To paraphrase the Latin American writer Nestor Garcia Canclini (1995), modernism and modernity as seen in Villa Savoye is characterized by a constant search for originality and innovation, a rite of constant exit from art history, in order to be firmly reentrenched within it. Villa Savoye’s symmetrical contour, like that of the Villa Rotunda is severe and forbidding, at first glance, but unlike that of the Rotunda, its surface is crisp and bereft of ornament, and its symmetrical severity is broken by a curvaceous and cylindrical structure at the rooftop – a deliberate reference to parts of a ship – its mast and funnel.

Without these shapes, the structure is flat at the top; it is as though the traditional A-shaped, shingled roof we traditionally associate with houses was lopped off and left a white square in its wake. Through the “non-realistic” sense of floating, coupled with the direct reference to a ship’s shape, Le Corbusier re-creates the ‘machined’ space of the ocean liner, which along with airplanes and automobiles captures the “new spirit” of a great epoch, one grounded on unity of principle, economy of means, standardization and systematization (Le Corbusier (a), 202-203).

In contrast to Villa Rotunda’s solidity, Villa Savoye is like a ship in state, currently perched and resting, but nonetheless poised and ready to move at any time. This nautical fantasy becomes vividly clear in the upper regions – the flat roof that contains the curvaceous solarium and the curious cylindrical stack – which we approach through the ramp and its delicate tubular ‘ship’s’ railings.

The ramp begins at ground level and wends its way to the deck, following an angular spiraling route, implying a rotational movement, which not only provides the transition from floor to floor, but also “links together inner vistas and events with outer ones. ” (Curtis 281). However, although it is a central organizing thread, the ramp is not equivalent to the fixed, central point of Baroque architecture or even that of the Mannerist Villa Rotunda.

Instead, in the words of Le Corbusier, as he evoked the dynamism of Arab architecture, the ramp offers a “true architectural promenade, offering ever-changing views, some of them unexpected, some of them astonishing. ” (qtd in Curtis 281) This promenade is like a ritual enacted in a machine-age space, and it is through such arrangement of space, time and movement that architecture such as Villa Savoye communicates its meaning beyond the sculptural, iconic and non-iconic representations outlined by Hill.

The promenade is made possible by the ramp, which Curtis surmises implies the kind of movement that is an “analogue to the flux and relativity of modern experience. ” And as I have earlier mentioned about Villa Savoye being an architectural translation of the principles of Cubism, this flux and relativity might also be “seen as an architectural equivalent to the transparencies, simultaneities and illusions of Cubist painting. ” (Curtis 281)

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