To anyone who has ever entertained an interest in, or a taste for, Modern Architecture--especially what came to be known as the International Style--the work of the French architect Le Corbusier holds a preeminent place. Born a Swiss in 1887, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret took the name Le Corbusier (roughly signifying the "crow-like one"), and French citizenship in 1930, by which date he had unquestionably established himself as one among the leading proponents of the new construction style which employed forms and principles which are today clichés of the building industry.
Throughout history--at least as far back as the Greeks--architects have been diverted by the concept of a detached villa, or private residence, isolated amidst the purity of the natural (or semi-, or faux natural) landscape. Affording the opportunity to demonstrate the ideal condition of the man or family of means, it offers great latitude in the expression of concepts of living, and the chance to explore a pure realization of a given vision of perfected living. No architect worth his salt hasn't fantasized about such a dream commission. Palladio, the great Italian Renaissance architect [1508-1580], designed over thirty such projects, becoming in the process the most influential designer in Western architectural history.
For most important architects, like Palladio, and countless figures who came after, practicing architecture has meant cultivating patronage among the gentry or nobility--or those in position of authority over the construction of civic, public or royal buildings. This was certainly true of Palladio, and it continues to be so today, though to a lesser extent.
Because of the political and artistic convulsions of society and culture which took place over the span of Le Corbusier's life, the role of the architect--his function and place in the world--changed radically. The vision of life based on the privilege of class and means--of a society organized around the concentration of power in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, due either to divine right, or the perpetuation of property--underwent a steadily accelerating process of de-stabilization throughout the latter 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries, such that by the period of Corbusier's early practice in the years leading up to WWI, architects were no longer thinking primarily of satisfying staid, aristocratic ideals of grandeur and pompous ostentation, but envisioning monuments to the age of machinery, industrialization, healthful living, a spirit of openness, liberation and austere simplicity. The architecture they dreamed of--like the society and environment they were embracing--would be a validation of these principles.
The design principles which characterize the Modernist architectural innovations during the first half of the 20th Century are due in no small part to Corbusier's formulations. He called his basic guide The Five Points:
1. Pilotis, or ground-level supporting columns, elevate the building from the ground, allowing the garden to flow beneath.
2. A flat roof terrace for domestic purposes, including a garden area.
2. A free plan, facilitated by the elimination of load-bearing walls, consisting of partitions placed where they are needed without regard for those on adjoining levels.
4. Horizontal windows allowing for illumination and ventilation.
5. A freely-designed facade, unconstrained by load-bearing considerations, consisting of a thin skin of wall and windows.
These stylistic forms are by now completely familiar, and have even to a significant degree been repudiated by later generations of designers and theorists. Nevertheless, they were very novel and ingenious in 1929, when Corbusier's Villa Savoye was completed. The building, as can be seen easily in these random color photos, has obvious affinities with nautical forms, industrial designs (which were much less common then, again, than they are to our historically jaded eyes), the hermetically "pure" white spaces uncluttered with any applied decoration or structurally "expressed" articulations, the discrete separation of the building from the ground (in effect, making it seem as if the building is "floating"), an overall lightness and translucency, a kind of geometric simplicity of the massing (the dialectic between interior and exterior voids), and a free interactive flow of light and air inviting the eye and the mind outward. Originally constructed to occupy a pristine position among forested acres, it's now surrounded by other impinging structures.
The life-style of the probable inhabitants imagined by Le Corbusier--one of ascetic, athletic, energetic vigor, of cleanliness, simplicity and optimistic self-improvement--may seem naive and utopian to our jaded sensibilities today (there's really no place to hide in a building like this, with its cross-views and curtain-less glazed interior and exterior walls and panels)--but at the time, such emancipations of life-style and clear, white space felt inspiring and new. Too, looking at the rooms in this house, one has an unwholesome sense of loneliness and alienation, the way one feels occasionally in a clinic or a sports facility. And indeed, Corbusier's adoption of the dry language of cool, sleek surfaces and "empty" living spaces suggest an icy reactionary extreme to the over-elaborated workmanship of Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts-manship, or the Beaux Arts traditions.
Nevertheless, this building exerts a powerful influence upon architectural trends to this day. The so-called Five White Architects of the 1960's--Graves, Meier, Gwathmey, Hejduk and Eisenman--each owed their primary impetus to Corbusier's mastery of simple while planes, translucent purity and liberated (floating) structures.
I can recall my own personal honeymoon with Corb's futuristic villas, back when I was studying design for a degree in the 1970's. I thought I'd like to live in a house like this, all light and air and immaculate poise. But the phase passed. Imagining a different life through the construction of different spaces is a favorite pastime for some. Most of us live in houses whose design and location is a compromise between cost, necessity, and preference. The "freedom" to have the kind of space each of us desires is one of the illusions of the modern age--a fantasy which few are able to carry out. So we may live through another person's vision of an idealized space, and even privately aspire to the life we imagine that structure implies. But seldom do people live the kind of life they think they should, even when they can afford to match their dream down to the minutest detail.