Ordeal by Corb

So, that’s about half of our intrepid band of DSN 546 students on a shortened but still lengthy Corb Death March, stop number 3. Rainy week, and cold, but this bunch has been enthusiastic, and they’ve taken advantage of small crowds and five-day Metro passes to get way out.

There’s a pretty well-worn path of Corbusier sites that you can almost do chronologically–starting with Perret’s Rue Franklin Apartments to get the background, and then hitting the Maisons La Roche and Jeanneret before trekking out to Poissy to see the Villa Savoye, and then back south to see the later Pavilion Suisse and/or the Cite du Refuge. A five-zone metro pass gets you everywhere, and there are convenient pastry shops and public toilets at each stop…critical planning for a field trip day out.

I keep a light touch for these things–I think it’s important for students to see things that they’ve seen in history classes first hand and to make up their own minds, so I try to give a little background to start, turn them loose, and then collect them after each stop to hear what they think. Particularly interesting to have one brave interior design student who chose this over the greatest fabric archive on the planet. She was able to talk about the Maison LaRoche on a different level, in particular the color palette that Corbusier developed here and elsewhere that, in her words, makes no sense from a color theory point of view. (FWIW, we agreed that theory doesn’t always translate to practice…)

Villa Savoye is such an icon that to see it in person for the first time is always stunning–it has a Mona Lisa-level aura among architecture students, and after the half hour walk from the train station the whole group just stopped dead when we turned the corner and saw that first elevation. Everyone found something surprising (the level of detailing–or, really, its total absence–is always a shocker), and the famous bathroom made an impression. Lots of conversation about it as somewhere between architecture, interior design, and furniture design, and (I hope) a good point of comparison as we try to get to that level of integration in hotel designs.

To everyone’s credit, the whole group made it to Cite Universitaire, fueled by railway station sandwiches and sharing umbrellas. The contrast there to the early villas is fascinating–we talked a lot about how Villa Savoye is actually a brick and concrete building, with the brick completely hidden by stucco, as if Corbusier was embarrassed by such a 19th century material. But at the Pavilion Suisse, the materials are all expressed–stone, rough concrete, timber, and glass. One student noted that seems like the kind of confidence you gain after a good couple of decades building, and I think that’s probably right.

Lots of talk, too, about how everything we saw was designed for a pretty high level of wealth. The last time I saw Villa Savoye there was an exhibit on the history of it as an actual house–which was short-lived. The original clients spent very little time there, and it eventually proved unliveably cold and damp. The ability to make a beautiful, uninhabitable house is a privilege most of us don’t have as designers, and I’d pointed out earlier in the day that Maison Jeanneret was designed for a wealthy cousin. It helps to have those sorts of clients–there’s plenty to learn from these for the rest of us, but I think it’s important to point out that the buildings we think of as iconic come from such a different set of circumstances that most of us are used to that we ought to be taking them with a significant grain of salt.

Drenched and tired from seven hours on the road, my offer to walk two hours from the Pavilion Suisse to the Cite du Refuge was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, though I secretly suspect that one pair marched over to it after we broke up. That’s a pretty good endorsement of the strategy of keeping the troops continually well fed, something that’s not hard in Paris:

2 thoughts on “Ordeal by Corb

  1. Wonderful to have a knowledgeable group looking at Corbusier. I took a group of general Humanities students to the Villa Savoye and the comment was, “Is that all there is.” However, they responded with an emotional outpouring at Ronchamp and especially in response to a group of semi-paralyzed students entered and broke into song. The acoustics were/are astounding.


    • Ronchamp is otherworldly! Villa Savoye is, admittedly, something of an acquired taste. These folks were all into it, but I can imagine non-architects being less than impressed–it doesn’t have the immediacy of the Farnsworth, say, or the lovability of the Robie House. Would love to have heard that group singing in Ronchamp, must have been unforgettable!


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