A House Constructed on Principles

Villa Savoye, a monstrous structure in reinforced concrete, designed by Swiss architects Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, was built between 1928 and 1931. Its visual language is iconic of the ‘International Style’ and Corbusier’s five points of architecture (pilotis, roof gardens, free-plan, ribbon windows, free-fa├žade). The villa derives its reputation in the world of architectural and design history, primarily due to its radically innovative, breaking-away-from-the-past aesthetic. The analogy of houses as machines for living, boosted the ideas of humanism and the belief that man is, in fact, the centre of everything that exists and the tapping of human potential can result in substantial progress. The appearance of the Villa Savoye was unconventional and its indifference seemed appealing initially.   

In an attempt to rid architecture of Classicism and any references to it, Corbusier created a set of principles that would set his buildings apart from earlier buildings. He contrasted the massive solidity of earlier buildings, with slender pilotis that created the illusion of spacious, airy, uncluttered living. Highly ornate window frames were replaced by horizontal strips of openings, devoid of any attention-seeking borders or frames. In other words, he rejected the generic, stylised Classical boxes and created a module to clone buildings in a manner befitting the modern age- the generic, stripped-of-embellishment box. To break away from one style, one had to create another one. 

In ‘The Ten Books on Architecture’, Vitruvius says that the three most desirable and vital properties of any built structure are firmitas, utilitas and venustas (solid, useful and beautiful). People interpreted and developed these ‘principles’ into rigid, tangible elements, the repetition of which conditioned a general, public expectation of buildings to appear a certain way. It didn’t matter what the purpose of the building was- a bank, a post office, a governmental institution, a residence or a hotel- every space was marked by columns, domes, a raised entrance, lavish decorative elements and a pediment squeezed in, somehow. Earlier, the ‘problem’ was one of marking civilisation, ancestry and tradition, for which, the sciences and geometry were looked upon. Symmetry, balance, unity and proportion were the answers to doubt, disbelief and a lack of confidence. 

Architecture of the Classical age was a result of politics and the need for approval seeking from the masses. The eye determined what pleased it and since there was no precedent to compare, it trained itself to seek harmony, unity and balance in repetition. The power of kings was symbolised by the solidity and sturdiness of built forms, apart from their towering scale. Even today, architecture of the Classical era, creates awe and appreciation for precisely the same reasons. However, one must take note that the buildings we often discuss when talking about the Classical age, were largely for public use. We talk about temples, palaces and market places. We seldom talk about houses in which subjects lived. Architecture, like any other science, has a typology that dictates its relevance. It would be absurd to re-create a building of the past today, as well as to recreate a building for a purpose not originally intended for it.

The aesthetics of the Villa Savoye are subjective. However, its purpose as a dwelling for people to grow, nourish and nurture is highly questionable and a step back in the evolution of architecture. Man has addressed his need for accommodation in a variety of ways in the past, the earliest being caves. The cave was a perfect habitat to protect one from unfavourable weather, wild animals and any other disturbances. When the most basic needs of our shelter are addressed, then, we seek sensual stimulation through tangible and intangible experiences.    

It is rather difficult to conceive of man in the centre of the universe, controlling nature and advancing towards the future with science and its developments when the roof of your house is leaking and your rooms are flooded with water.