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Le Corbusier's Classicism: Villa Savoye and the Parthenon

Theory I Final Draft Ali Al Yousifi 209111052 Instructors: Dr. Mohammed Al Jassar Arch. Dalal Al Sayer

In the architectural world, the beginning of the 20 th century was a time of revolution, change was in the air. People dreamed of a better tomorrow, and Intellectuals tried to design it. This optimistic outlook to the future created an opposite disgust with the past. Some groups went to extremes trying to disassemble anything relating to their ancestors' work, claiming this to be the only way to build properly for the future. Yet Le Corbusier (1887-1965), an architect whose writings and designs greatly altered the architectural field, was heavily influenced by the architecture of the past. And although being a fierce champion of Modernism, there is no doubt that the forms and ideas of history's greats ran generously through his prolific pen. To Le Corbusier, it was not a matter of discarding the old to create the new, but that the new can only be created if the lessons of the past were learned from (Curtis). In 1911, Le Corbusier with one of his friends decided to explore Eastern Europe in a trip he called "Le Voyage d'Orient" (or Journey to the East). During the trip he kept a sketch book that he filled with drawings of ancient wonders: the daring monasteries of Mount Athos, the puncturing minarets of Istanbul, and the brutal Parthenon. In fact it was these experiences that led him to become an architect in the first place, as he explains: "the hours spent in those silent sanctuaries inspired in me a youthful courage and the true desire to become an honorable builder" (Journey to the East, p.xv). But the Parthenon in particular impressed him the most. He spent weeks visiting the Acropolis without stop, "days and weeks passed in this dream and nightmare, from a bright morning, through intoxicating noon, until evening, when the sudden whistle of the guards would tear us away from all this"

(Journey to the East, p.230). After spending all that time in the Parthenon's presence, sketching it incessantly over and over again, there remained no question in Le Corbusiers's mind: "there has been nothing like [the Parthenon] anywhere or at any period" (Towards a New Architecture, p.219), it "marked the apogee of [the] pure creation of the mind" (Towards a New Architecture,p.218). In 1928, a time when Le Corbusier was already a well established architectural thinker and practitioner, he received a commission to design a summer house at Poissy, France. It was completed in 1931, and is now most commonly known as Villa Savoye. It has become a frequently displayed example of the essence of the International Style. But more importantly, it is the distillation of Le Corbusier's ideas. When this modernist masterpiece is viewed with Le Corbusier's Classical roots in minds, it inspires a "reminiscence of the Parthenon" (Curtis, p.284). But that is not the full extent of the relationship between the two buildings; the links go deeper to the ideas that led to their appearance and function. The relationship between Villa Savoye and the Parthenon can be in fact considered a microcosm of the influence Classical Greek architecture had on Le Corbusier in general. To compare these two buildings, although there construction is separated by more than two thousand years, is to highlight the most important ideas that travelled through the ages and inspired a genius of Modernism. Although it is known as fact that Le Corbusier visited the Parthenon, and it is very clear that that experience moved him greatly, there is no way to trace a certain idea with undoubted certainty from Le Corbusier's work to any specific influence, for the formation and root of ideas used by the mind to create is mysterious even when

analyzing oneself, therefore no certainty can be acquired when discussing the mental processes of a historic figure. What can be made clear though, is a path in which Le Corbusier could have and was probably influenced by the Parthenon to attain specific architectural concepts. There are four of these concepts: standardization, experience through movement, the place of art in architecture, and the separation of the building's components. Both the Parthenon and Villa Savoye are products of standardization, which is a feature of many Greek building types. One of the most prominent features of Greek architecture is the orders of its columns. Designers of that time didnt deviate from the orders, but used them while respecting their standardized proportions and symbolic value. Even the form of the Greek temple is standardized with the same geometry of cylindrical columns, rectangular walls, and triangular pediment. But this didnt lead to all Greek temples becoming the same, designers had room to express their creative genius. And this is exactly what the creators of the Parthenon did: they applied as Le Corbusier describes: a "supreme mathematics" (Journey to the East, p.232). This adjustment of proportions resulted in the Parthenon being celebrated as a high achievement of the human race, while other temples that used the same orders and geometry are ignored. Le Corbusier also believed in standardization and the primary forms employed in Greek temples. When it comes to his geometric preferences, he explains " cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms" (Banham, p.225). These primary forms can be seen clearly in Villa Savoye: cylindrical columns and rectilinear

volumes. Le Corbusier didnt only follow a standard but created his own, known as the 'five points towards a new architecture'. These points were an instruction to use: pilotis, free planning, non-load-bearing facades, horizontal windows, and roof gardens. And although he had already used all these points in previous projects,

their application in Villa Savoye is the most intensive and obvious: the house almost becomes a manifestation of these points. The circumscribing ribbon windows, free standing columns, and the roof garden are not only features of the house, they define it (Curtis). Unlike a painting viewed from a static position a few meters away from it, architecture can only be fully experienced through motion. A complete understanding of a building can only be attained by walking through its spaces and viewing its components from different angles. This idea of an 'architectural promenade', as Le Corbuseir put it, is present both in the Parthenon and Villa Savoye. Being strategically placed on an elevated cliff in the middle of Athens allows the promenade leading to the Parthenon to begin even before entering the city itself. In Le Corbusier's book Journey to the East, in which he chronicled his travels in Eastern Europe, he described his approach to Athens by boat. While looking in Athens's direction he saw "the Acropolis this rock ris[ing] alone in the heart of an enclosed frame" (Journey to the East, p.209) [figure 1]. And even after reaching land, the Acropolis looms over the city of Athens, appearing from behind buildings when least expected, taking the breath away in its uncompromising confidence. Then the climb to the Acropolis itself: "there was something about the processional route over rising strata of rock which [Le Corbusier] never forgot" (Curtis, p.165). And

while rising to the Acropolis, one loses sight of the Parthenon, but then through the columns of the greeting Propylaea, glimpses of the Parthenon are caught. Then finally, in all its magnificence the Parthenon appears. Le Corbusier must have been astounded by the power of a building that captures the attention of its visitors from that far away a distance, and keeps it throughout the many stages by which they approach it.

This idea of a promenade can be sensed in the design intentions of Villa Savoye. The house cannot be seen from the street, the view is blocked by trees. As one (let's assume) drives through the trees, he starts to see the first views of the white walls. Then, exiting the trees, the house comes fully into view with a misleadingly symmetrical faade. But instead of parking in front of it, one is forced to drive in a semi circular path in the undercroft of the building, finally reaching the entrance in the opposite faade to front one. After entering through the front door, the visitor uses a long ramp dominating the center of the house to get to the upper two floors [figure 2]. Here the visitor is surprised by each consecutive level because of the different character that each one of them possesses: the ground floor is a field of slender white columns with a circular glazed wall, the first floor is rigid with its straight walls creating rectilinear rooms, and the second level terrace has curving sculptural elements that contrast the rigidity of the first floor. Le Corbusier describes it himself as a "true architectural promenade, offering ever-changing views, some of them unexpected, some of them astonishing" (Curtis, p.281). Among the many subjects that were debated at the start of the 20 th century was the place of art in architecture. Some continued the tradition of the past in

cladding the structural and enclosing elements of a building with decoration, this was done by styles such as art nouveau, who used things like wallpaper to enhance the esthetic value of their creations. On the other hand, people of the same mind as Adolf Loos proclaimed that ornamentation had no place in modern architecture (Curtis). Le Corbusier didnt agree with either, he had his own ideas for the place of art in architecture. For him, art doesnt only have its place in architecture but is what elevates construction to architecture. In other words, its the most fundamental aspect that allows a certain structure to be called an architectural piece. Yet, for him art in architecture is not applied to its elements but is an intrinsic part of them. He explains that art can simply be "walls [that] rise toward heaven in such a way that I am moved" (Towards a New Architecture, p.203). To Le Corbusier art in architecture is subtle, it "reveals itself without word or sound, but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relationship to one another" (Towards a New Architecture, p.203). When art is created in this way, when it is clean and simple, then its effects on Le Corbusier he describes: "you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: 'This is beautiful'" (Towards a New Architecture, p.203) Le Corbusier found his ideal architectural beauty in the Parthenon. There isnt a single element that makes it artistic, but all its elements put together in absolute harmony and proportions create its effect. Le Corbusier praises the Parthenon's "unity of aim" (Towards a New Architecture, p.204) so that "everything is stated exactly" (Towards a New Architecture, p.213), all the relationships are set to perfection. But we can't speak of the Parthenon without mentioning the sculptures that were chiseled specifically to adorn it. A sculpted frieze ran across the whole

perimeter of the Parthenon. The pediments were also carrying sculpted scenes from the world of the gods. Le Corbusier was impressed with some of these more sculpted elements such as the friezes and the mouldings. He says of the friezes: "the depth of their reliefs is so well proportioned to the wall that supports them" ( Journey to the
East, p.226). Although Le Corbusier didnt praise these sculptures clearly, referencing

them only rarely (this is in the books Voyage to the East and Towards a New Architecture), they do have a translation into Villa Savoy. And so the aesthetic value of the Parthenon can be divided into two kinds: the subtle excellence with which its elements have been proportioned and the blatantly artistic sculptures that used to hang on it. Le Corbusier tried to apply these same principles to Villa Savoye, and although artistic success is a highly subjective issue, there can be little doubt that he in fact he did succeed to a large extent; the great acclaim that the building has won can stand as proof of that. Elements such as the uniform columns, surrounding ribbon windows, central ramp, and straight white rectilinear walls attempt to unify the building and give it a common language [Figure 3]. These elements might not be seen as artistic at first, but the more the proportions with which they relate to one another are viewed, the more they are appreciated as the result of great care and precision. But there are also other elements in Villa Savoye that arent subtle in their artistic aims. The most obvious of these is the curving wall on the second level terrace [Figure 4]. Function alone cannot explain this wall's contours. There is no doubt it stands there as an artistic proclamation, contrasting the rigidity of the building below it. In fact all the curving elements of Villa Savoye, in all their different

scales and functions, seem more to be the work of an artist trying to justify his creations with a function rather than an a factionalist trying to beatify his designs. The final similarity to be drawn between the Parthenon and Villa Savoye is the separation of the building's components that both of them apply. A building can be dissected into three main components: structural, enclosing, and artistic. These three component types are comparable with the Vitruvian tripartite. When examining the Parthenon, these three elements can be easily seen as separate from each other. The columns, whether the outer Doric or the interior's Ionic, are clearly meant to be understood as the structure of the temple. These columns are all free standing as individual elements linked with nothing else [Figure 5]. The enclosing elements, being the walls and roof, are, at least visually, free from structural duties. The artistic sculptures are also holding their own identity. Originally, the larger chamber of the Parthenon housed a large free standing sculpture of the warrior goddess Athena (Roth, p.236). The sculptures of the pediment are also unattached to the wall behind them: one of the figures depicted actually holds a spear that punctures past the triangular frame that the pediment assumes, clearly detaching himself from the jurisdiction of the enclosing elements [Figure 6]. Even the sculptures of the friezes can be seen as separate from the wall, although with them the separating line is a bit more blurred. These three components of the Parthenon are woven together with relating harmony to create a coherent whole, but physically and visually each one remains individually intact. The three components of Villa Savoye are also separate from one another. Curving artistic elements such as the free standing wall on the second level terrace

and the staircase's spiraling railing appear almost alien in their rigid surroundings [Figure 7]. Other artistic elements, such as the curving wall segments, although physically connected with the encompassing elements, clearly contrast with the latter's rectilinear geometry and appear different. Just like the Parthenon, the columns represent the structure and are in most cases protruding or detached from the walls. Even in places where it would have been easy to allow the walls to swallow the structural columns, allowing the room to become more functional, the walls "have apparently been deliberately joggled out of line to leave the structure in clear distinction from the partitioning" (Banham, p.262) [Figure 8]. This concept of separation was important to Le Corbusier to the extent that "it was clearly more important for him to make his ideas manifest than it is to make them logical" (Banham, p.262). The Parthenon that stands today is actually not the first temple to be built on the sacred rock of the Acropolis. The original was burned down by the Persians in 480 B.C.E., in their long war with the Greeks. When the Greeks defeated the Persians, they decided to rebuild the Parthenon, not just as a temple, but as an everlasting symbol of their victory over the 'barbaric' Persians. This is why they put tremendous effort in the design and execution of every detail in the Parthenon (Roth). Villa Savoye is also not just a house designed to serve as a functioning summer house. Its a manifestation of Le Corbusier's ideas and architectural experience. The house is his legacy that speaks of its brilliant designer and his utopian vision of modern architecture. The main function of these two buildings is to communicate ideas. Only when the arbitrary function of 'temple' and 'house' are


ignored, and the buildings are viewed as a proclamation of their creators' greatness and distilled ideas can they be fully appreciated. From his early twenties, and until he became a well respected architect, Le Corbusier had the Parthenon, in its representation of Greek architecture in general, in mind. As much as he designed the future of architecture and revolutionized the way people thought about building, he referenced the past with its age old architectural concepts. Le Corbusier stands as proof that with all the improvements in materials and techniques the architectural field has gone through, the Classical tradition still runs strong.


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Figure 5 - thenon.JPG

Figure 6 - Parthenon.JPG


Figure 7 - savoye4.jpg

Figure 8 - 15

Works Cited:
Banham, Reyner. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. 2nd ed. London: Butterworth and Co., Print. Curtis, William. Modern Architecture Since 1900. 3rd ed. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. Print. Roth, Leland. Understanding Architecture. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2007. Print. Le Corbusier, First. Journey to the East. 1st ed. Cambrige, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007. Print. Le Corbusier, First. Towards a New Architecture. 1st ed. Lexington: BN Publishing, 2010. Print.