The Dark Side of the Villa Savoye

A nice piece of land doesn’t automatically generate great architecture but it helps. Apart from the pleasures of bathing in a blue bathtub, lounging in the sun, and owning a meadow surrounded by orchards less than an hour’s drive from Paris, the Villa Savoye continues to evoke certain other values that have proved equally resistant to change over time. Although it gives them form with both elaboration and inventiveness, the result isn’t as pure as we like to think.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also happened to separate the classes within it. During the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses in the cities but still anchored themselves in the countryside. The new middle class built their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington to separate themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the source of it – and where the workers lived. The logical extrapolation of this mindset led to convicts – the lowest ranking in society – being separated as far as Australia.

Inside the larger townhouses there was a similar separation of function and class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters. Even within the servants’ quarters, the location of quantity of space of individual rooms established a similar heirarchy. Servants also enabled functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the kitchen fire, servants performed the roles that pipes and conduits have today, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste. Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by going to the markets and dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city.

Over the course of the 19th century, the plans of large country mansions began to fragment according to function and the first set of functions to be separated was the servants’ wing. The reception rooms of the house were still planned along some imitation of Palladian bays, but the plan of the servants’ wing was determined by rationalising the work flow, facilitating deliveries, separating the men and women, and preventing them from stealing the silverware. Sometimes, the servants’ wing was set at an angle to the main house so that it would not be seen from the approach or appear in paintings. Separation by function really meant separation by social class. Meanwhile, the status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms. Towards the end of the 19th century, applied decoration was to be criticised as bourgeois and in the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament altogether and attempt to generate form from the separation of functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced.

The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking communal property but in 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the elite in his Ville Contemporaine. Workers were given their own bits of property (‘garden cities’) sited along with industry outside the “security zone” of the green belt surrounding where the elite lived. While Le Corbusier correctly identified city-centre apartments with views as the desirable property of the future, he nevertheless designed 19th century notions of social segregation into not only his urban plans, but also his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

Poissy_Villa_Savoye_1929-30_long view

These two villas represent Le Corbusier’s interpretation of the building element of functional structure juxtaposed with the human element of a functional plan providing light and space. In both of these villas, the plans separate functions and as a consequence the people performing those functions. Light and space being the new indicators of status, the servants’ quarters are on the ground floor where they have less of both. The Villa Stein has a separate servants’ entrance on the front façade. We thoughtlessly approve of how Corbusier prevents us confusing it with the main entrance by making it smaller, lower, exposed and outside the formal organization of the facade itself. Size, height, protection and symmetry indicate and maintain class division in ways the Victorians could have related to.

At first glance, the Villa Savoye appears the more informal of the two. The servants’ domain is again the ground floor. There’s also a basement that, being the realm of servants and machinery, is devoid of both light and architectural invention. Published plans of it are rare. The ground floor contains the boundary between the two domains and this boundary is no less definite for being intangible. Although the servants’ stairs are displayed as a sculptural shape in the lobby and can be used by anyone in the house, they are off-axis and second option to the ramp directly in front of the entrance and which is clearly not intended for use by servants. The fact the servants’ corridor and stairs are open to the hallway should in theory increase the possibility of the paths of servants and served paths crossing. This would, after all, be hardly surprising in a summer house for two residents, two guests and a staff of four (comprising a chauffeur, cook, maid, and housemaid). But this does not turn out to be the case.

The lobby represents interaction but does nothing to encourage it. Consider what happens when a car carrying Madame and/or her guests arrives. The maid, on-call in her room, either sees or hears the car coming up the driveway and goes to the front door to meet it. The chauffeur stops the car outside the front door which is now being opened by the maid who is ready to take coats and hats. While the owners and guests are going up the promenade architecturale, the maid goes down the stairs to give the coats to the housemaid who will hang them and dry them if necessary. (There is no closet in the hallway.) The maid then goes up the stairs to either await or relay instructions for the cook. Those are busy stairs.

Depending on what the guests are doing, the chauffeur either leaves the car where it is and stays on-call or parks it. In either case, he goes to his room via its outside door. This is not for his convenience. When the guests come to leave, the maid will be waiting with the coats, and hats will have been placed on the ledge by the door. The chauffer will not have reached the car via the hallway and front door as his room has no internal door. This is either so he can’t fraternise with the female servants, or so he won’t let cold air into the hallway for the guests descending the ramp. To many, the placement of a wash-basin in the lobby underneath the ramp has been a source of mystery in terms of plumbing and function, but not in terms of class. Since the maid is the only member of staff who crosses that unseen boundary, it is for her and her alone to wash her hands after she has put down her book or sewing or whatever she was doing in her room and before she enters the house proper. This aesthetic ostensibly generated from function, light and space was perfectly capable of identifying and separating social classes and who was to benefit from the aesthetic.

Finally, can anyone tell me why the washbasin in the lobby of the Villa Savoye is not in the position shown on the original plans? I seem to remember old library books having pictures showing it very visible from the front door. Has it been moved? And if so, why? Given all that’s been said and written about this house, I can’t believe I’m the first to notice this.

Here is Part II: The DARKER Side of the Villa Savoye