Have you ever walked into a space and just felt so inspired that it made you almost rethink everything in your life? That’s how I felt walking into Villa Savoye (pronounced saavwa). I remember studying it in-depth whilst at architecture school in Brisvegas and although I fell in love with it then, now, being much older and having a career in architecture and interiors behind me it has inspired me EVEN more.
It is one of my favourite buildings! Not only because the ideas in it were so ahead of its time but also because it inspires me to take action and to dream big myself. After you have worked in an industry for a while (aka 20 years, super long hours, lots of verbal abuse and not great pay) doing it for the “love of the job” wears a bit thin. This building re-injected that passion I felt at university, wanting so bad to be an architect whilst not being stifled by the limitation of planning, building control, tight deadlines, budget and what job role was handed down to me.
Villa Savoye, to me, signifies imagination, creation, invention, exploration, fearlessness and creativity. Of course, Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret who designed the Villa Savoye came up against problems but their vision was much, much stronger and overcoming hurdles is a huge theme we deal with on a daily basis in business as designers.
There were a few key ideas in this building that made the experience of the spaces particularly special for me.
Selective & Framed Views
I remember having a disagreement with a colleague at work one day when I was designing a hotel villa which had the most amazing view of the Adriatic Sea.
He said to me “why don’t you put windows across here? (in the toilet) You should put a window at every opportunity you have, the view is so amazing!”
I disagreed and said “I am controlling the views”, (that was my idea – to have this central focused view that continuously drew you back).
I said “I’m choosing the view because it strengthens the experience and makes it so much more special, you don’t need to see it from the toilet.”
As a designer, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Always think back to your idea.
That’s what Le Corbusier did in Villa Savoye. He closed off views and then revealed views in a very deliberate way that made you focus on specific things as you moved throughout the building. He knew the site so well, he knew that if he showed you the best view and concealed the others you would have been numbed by the other views on the way up to the roof terrace. It wouldn’t give you that spectacular gasping wow that made you want to hang around there for hours. Instead, it would have created numerous sporadic, views of nonchalant wows along the way.
I always thought I’d like to create this in a ski chalet, somewhere high in the mountains, for someone who loved trees and snow as much as I do! It really was special experiencing this story in Villa Savoye. It was a total experience.
Blurred Boundaries Between Inside & Outside
This was a huge one for me. Not only because I don’t think I had seen one sheet of glass so large in a domestic building before, but also because there was a boundary to the terrace but the windows continued, so it really felt like it was the same space. It didn’t feel like a window or door between me and the terrace, because the “windows” continuing around felt like the windows were outside.
It heightened the feeling of the inside-outside, because there was another outside beyond the building too, almost like a third outside space. I had never really thought about it like that before, especially in the modern sense it feels a bit flippant these days to say “bringing the outside in”, but here it wasn’t just the outside, it was “this outside” the outside that is important to “this” space, which makes “this space” better because they are there together creating this unified indoor/outdoor living area.
Free-Flowing & Continuing Spaces
The way you walked from one room into another just flowed. All of a sudden you found yourself in another room but felt like you could keep going, exploring another space and another. Of course, there are doors, partitions, walls and windows, but the detail in for example how the en-suite bathrooms were interconnected into the rooms created this flow that I had never really experienced in real life before, not like that anyway!
By building-in furniture and giving walls two reasons to be there, the architects made every element work hard for the space, guiding you to use it in a very particular way. Imagine having that kind of influence in the spaces you create? (You can!)
A Story About Movement & Light
When you think about the dark, small-windowed buildings that were being built at this time in the domestic world, the experience of such light-flooded spaces in Villa Savoye just blew my mind!
The way the architects made you walk up the ramps from underneath the building into this bright space was so theatrical and the controlled movement by which you had to use this long, slow, path was really cool! (Yes you can use the stairs and you feel like you should on the way down but the ramp is right in front of you, it’s weird, you just feel like that’s the right way to go).
An Approach Governed By The Movement Of A Car
Today this is quite fun and a bit cheesy, but really thinking about what freedom the “automobile” brought back then and then designing this theatrical entrance into the building this way, forcing you to drive under and around, it’s not only poetic but practical. This theme of movement by travelling around, back and forth and the controlled views are constant themes that you experience at every moment.
You end up catching yourself and thinking “ah huh! They did it again!” and you feel slightly chuffed with yourself that you had the sense to notice and appreciate it.
So that is how it felt to be there. I wonder if I was able to motivate you to go visit this amazing building or at least feel inspired to push yourself as a designer to be a bit more creative and see if you can create spaces that inspire others.
Oops, I almost forgot, I can’t really write about Villa Savoye without giving you the actual facts about it so that you can take away some piece of factual information to feed your designer knowledge.
The Free Plan & Façade
In the early 1930’s steel, glass and concrete were new materials being used by architects, which allowed them to create floor plans and elevations that were free from load-bearing walls.
That meant that the architects had the freedom to design the plan and elevation of the building without the previous limitations of the structure. You can see this in the continuing horizontal windows and the open spaces that weren’t dictated by load-bearing walls.
No longer restricted to having vertical windows (thanks to the new building materials and techniques), the architects were able to light a room with consistent light which wasn’t governed by small lintel spans. So the horizontal bands of windows not only allowed light in but also ventilation.
Raising The Building
The “piloti” or posts allowed the mass of the building to be raised, therefore allowing the ground to be used as external or garden space, giving the building the freedom of special design. They saw it as “taking back” the space that was usually used by the building for holding it up.
Although these days it’s not uncommon, we’re talking 1931! In a world of pitched roofs, a flat roof with a garden that can be walked on and enjoyed for entertaining and play was a revolutionary idea.
Some of these ideas in Villa Savoye are criticised today, but I think it’s much easier to respect them when you put them in the context of the time.
I hope that even if you didn’t learn something from reading this blog post, you at least fell in love with one part of this building.