dancing with architecture: Corbu's Villa Savoye, Poissy, France

Disturbingly, when we arrived at Corbusier's Villa Savoye, the gates were locked. After wandering around in search of an alternative entrance and making a couple of phone calls to the non-English speaking office, the caretakers appeared, and the gates opened. We ambled down the pea-gravel path, anxiously peering through the foliage for an anticipatory glimpse of Modernism's most iconic building.

It almost wasn't to be. Although built at the time on the far outskirts of Paris among the apple orchards of Poissy, the area became a company town for auto manufacturing, first by Ford in 1937 and then by Simca after the war (and presently by Citroen). The quick-growing company town needed a high school, so it began the process of seizing the grounds of Villa Savoye by eminent domain. Amazingly, it was only through the efforts of Corbusier and the resulting international uproar that the house and a sizable part of the grounds were saved. The town built the high school around the villa instead of on top of it. Today, ironically enough, the school is named High School State Le Corbusier. 

The Savoyes were from Lille and made a fortune selling insurance to industry in northern France. Pierre Savoye wasn't keen on owning property (they lived in a rental in Paris), but his wife, Eugenie, desired a weekend house out in the country. Eugenie contacted Le Corbusier in 1928 about designing and building a house on property the couple purchased in Poissy. Inspired by Corbusier's five points of architecture (pilotis, roof gardens, open plan, horizontal windows, free facade) and the Parthenon (Corbu always kept a photo of the P-non tacked above his desk), Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanerret, came up with several different concepts before settling on the house we see today (one plan envisioned a third story of living space with an additional [awkward] stairway extending off the second floor). 

Finished in 1931, the project was something of a financial disaster, costing twice as much to build as estimated. And like any good Modern house, the roof leaked ("It is raining in my house," Eugenie lamented to the architects). As architecture, however, it was a resounding triumph, the perfect torchbearer for Modernism. Perhaps it was too perfect: It was also the last of Corbusier's white villas. 

Villa Savoye is a worthy visit. Once you get past the gate (ha!), you get to amble at your leisure about the house and the grounds, photography allowed. Corbusier attempted to save more of the grounds since the orchards were an essential part of the design, but the present grounds with the meadow, the well-timbered perimeter, and the unobstructed view of the Seine from the third-floor solarium amply convey the intent of the project.

Although the visual architecture is still radical by today's standards, it's hard to fully appreciate how forwarding thinking the design was because Modernism essentially won the archi-cultural wars. So much of what we take for granted todayopen living spaces, large windows with ample light, clean lines, good ventilationwas considered Avant-Garde, and even unhealthy, 90 years ago.
Most surprising to me seeing the house in person was the use of color and curves, the view from the third story (where you can glimpse the Seine, thus explaining, in part, the design of the house), and the Modern details hiding the infrastructure of living. 

The gates are open!

Approaching from the street, peeking through the trees... The true front of the house is on the opposite side. People would arrive in their car and drive under the house on the right to be dropped off at the front door. The first floor contains a receiving area, a three-car garage, and living space for the help.

Here's the "front" of the house (which is also the iconic view of the building where the curving, asymmetrical rooftop solarium balances the angularity and the forced symmetry of the rest of the structure). Sadly, the sun was right in my face for this view of the house. 

Although it allowed me to capture sunbeams!!!

A close up of where vehicles dropped off their passengers drop, a curving glass wall with a large door. Legend has the curvature defined by the steering radius of a Citroen.

Plan for the ground floor.

Coming in the front door, you are greeted by a gorgeous, curving staircase (and a caretaker shaking you down for money...). Corbu loved curving staircases. And yes, just like The Alamo, Villa Savoye has a basement.

Different angle looking back towards the front door.

Corbu conveniently located a sink near the entrance as well, a place to wash your hands before entering the formal living space upstairs.

Laundry room.

Custom concrete sink in the laundry.

Also greeting you in the entry area is a ramp, so you have a choice of ascent: stairs or a ramp. Let's take the ramp, shall we!!!

Plan for the second floor.

The sculptural, functional beauty of the curving staircase (a machine for ascending) continues through the second floor. You can also see how he selectively used color to receded certain parts of the house. 

Behind us is the huge living room which includes dining space and living space. The farthest glass wall slides towards us creating a seamless transition to the outside for outside dining/socializing.

The view looking out onto the patio. There's a permanent, concrete dining table on the patio.

The "chandelier" that runs the full length of the living space. The fixture directs light upward such that it reflects downward off the ceiling and into the room.

Mrs. Savoye wanted a grand fireplace. She didn't quite get what she was wanted (but overall it's quite grand).

Back in the corner is the kitchen. Here, as on the first floor, the space is light-filled and airyunusual at the time for the help's space to be so livable (something Corbu recommends in his book Toward an Architecture). 

Who wouldn't want to whip up some duck confit in this kitchen? Also unusual for the time, this kitchen is YUGE.

And there's even a small patio dedicated to the kitchen.

Just off the stairwell is a small bedroom. The volume shown above includes a closet and, behind the closet, a small sink and bidet to freshen up before hitting the hay. Also note the tiny skylight above the open-topped washroom.

Down the hallway is the full bathroom and another bedroom. Note the skylight at the end of the hall, luring you toward it.

Detail of the skylight.

Corbu curved the wall around the standard-issue claw-footed tub.

And here's how all that curving expresses itself in the bedroom next door.

Here's the office in this bedroom.

...and a detail of the hidden curtain equipment.

Let's head back to the stairwell to enter the master suite (but first, let's look over our shoulder to enjoy the view!).

Back down the hallway and into the master suite is the bathroom with a custom tub and recliner. 

From the other side (standing in the bedroom). See the dark slot in the ceiling in the upper right?

More indirect lighting!

Off the bedroom is an office/retreat.

The master suite also has a covered patio connected with the larger roof-top patio.

Back to the stairwell where we can also access the patio through that open door!

The planter before us also holds a skylight.

Looking back from the opposite side of the patio, living room to our left. You can also see the ramp to the solarium.

Looking outside from the inside.

A slightly different view of the ramp and the third-floor expression of the stairwell.

Hang on: We're heading up the ramp!

Plan for the rooftop solarium.

Outside desk with the Seine in the distance.

Looking back across the solarium is a private area for (ahem) nude sunbathing.

Looking down across the patio and the master suite.

Chimney and various sunlights.

Looking down into the living area.

Stairs up to the solarium.

Ground floor gorgeousness.

Finally, on the way out, we were able to gawk at the warden's lodge (we of course peeked on the way in as well). This mini-me Villa Savoye is cute as a button (and recently refurbished).

So there you have it: Villa Savoye! I wish the house was furnished (there's debate among the architectural historians: do you furnish as the Savoye's originally furnished the house, with traditional furniture, or the way that perhaps Corbusier would have furnished it? Thus far they've decided to leave the house unfurnished). Furnishings help to humanize houses (for the same reason real estate agents recommend staging an empty house). Corbu (and Perriand) up the joint, I say! I regret we showed up on the wrong day for the English-language tour (Wednesdays, not Tuesdays...). Nonetheless, it was amazing to see this important house in person. 

If you go: official site

It's not impossible to get (close to) there with public transportation, but expect a bit of a hike. There's always Uber!


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