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The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

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For Part I

Following on from Graham’s first post on this architectural ‘masterpiece’, and which mainly talked about how bad the planning of the house was, today I’m going to talk about some other things that weren’t so great about this villa.

As soon as it was completed, it was apparent that the house was not comfortable. Between 1929 and 1934 the roof leaked continuously, the heating was not sufficient and, finally, the owners stopped using it.

In June 1930, Madame Savoye wrote a letter to her architect, Le Corbusier, saying:

It is still raining on our garage. (Sbriglio 147)

Earlier in March she’d sent him another one complaining about the skylight saying that it

makes terrible noise […] which prevents us from sleeping during bad weather. (Sbriglio 142)

The contractor, who claimed to have warned Le Corbusier that such a design would cause such problems, refused to take responsibility. All these problems resulted in the house feeling “cold and damp” and subject to “substantial heat loss due to large glazing” as Sbriglio noted.

In 1935, Madame Savoye wrote again to Le Corbusier stating:

It is raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked [….] it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight. The gardener’s walls are also wet through.(Sbriglio 146-7)

Two years later, she sent him another letter full of frustration:

After innumerable demands you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 in uninhabitable…. Please render it inhabitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action. (Sbriglio 147)

The skylight above the bathroom, that made a terrible noise in bad weather.

Le Corbusier was marketing himself as the one who believed that architecture had a potential to increase health and well-being – something nice and noble for architecture to be.  Though, at least one writer states that Roger’s (Madame Savoye’s son) health problems were directly linked to the villa (de Botton 65) mainly because of excessive daylight due to large glazing.

In 1935, an article published in Time states:

Though the great expanses of glass that he favors may occasionally turn his rooms into hothouses, his flat roofs may leak and his plans may be wasteful of space, it was Architect Le Corbusier who in 1923 put the entire philosophy of modern architecture into a single sentence: “A house is a machine to live in.”

During the WWII, the Germans looted it, and the cost of rehabilitation was estimated at $80,000. Madame Savoye decided not to spend the money, and never went back. Later on, the machine for living was turned into a hay barn.

Now, despite all the previously mentioned problems the house had, someone, for some reason, decided that the building should be famous. In 1964 it was listed as a public building. Since then, it has undergone 3 series of restoration, the most recent one being in 1997. Villa Savoye is now a preferred destination for architecture students from all over the world for inspiration for their new projects for the semester.

So then, the 20th century architecture masterpiece, that is supposed to be one of 20th century architecture’s best contribution to humanity and the essence of architectural invention:

had a roof that leaked everywhere;

had a skylight that made a terrible noise, preventing the occupants from sleeping;

felt cold and damp;

suffered from substantial heat-loss due to large glazing (that Le Corbusier loved, and included it in his ‘Five Points for Architecture’);

either caused the owner’s son to be ill, or did nothing to cure him;

and of course, did not make its occupants happy to live in it.

Also, if we looked at the orientation of the building, we can notice that it’s almost (not quite) the worst possible. Knowing that Le Corbusier (originally) had such a big piece of land to play with, it’s a bit mysterious why he put it in such an orientation.

Villa Savoye site aerial view.

I’m sure that, if we cared to look, we would find that other supposed architectural masterpieces would have a similar amount of shitty things, if not more. Nevertheless, the history of architecture is the history of what became famous. However, if this is the best that architecture can do for humanity, I’m not impressed. Actually, I think it’s a disgrace.


  • Allowing your clients to bear the brunt of one’s experimentation is despicable and psychopathic .

  • I really only appreciated Le Corbusier once I bought his chaise longue, patterned after the tile bench in the bathroom. You can only sit in one position, and after about 20 minutes, it is no longer possible to be comfortable. You then need to extricate yourself from your position near the floor. It does make a nice sculpture, though.

  • I recently learned that the whole anti-modernism thing was a movement that started with these letters by and to Corbu. He admitted his failures that were treating a house as a machine and expecting humans to occupy standard dwelling in modular forms. That is pretty mechanical and not to be expected of us humans. We are different from each other. Le Corb like all other architects had an unfaltering ego until later in his life, realizing the impracticality of his buildings instigating the CIAM movement, he reformed to changing the previously laid five points and modular housings etc. Although he is without doubt, the most influential architect of his and our time. (p.s. I prefer Kahn though :D)
    This is a great read man. Just stumbled onto this :))

  • That was an interesting post. I’d heard about Wright’s leaking roofs, but the problems at Villa Savoye was news to me. I’d love to see the detailing at the leaky areas. I don’t know anything about France’s climate, but it seems that it’s humid with a light rain throughout the year, like Oregon. In my opinion, a visionary “designer” refused to follow tried and tested methods of construction, or lacked the practical knowledge of water and moisture protection, both of which still happens today.

  • The failings of the Villa Savoye are often used as evidence of the failure of modernism itself, because the house is often held up as a one of the greatest products of modernism. But the failings of this one house cannot be immediately extended to all flat roofed, large glass windowed products of modernism.

    In fact Ive always wondered why this house leaked so badly, when flat rooves had been used or years, decades even, and serious leaking wasnt a problem on the dozens, even scores of flat roofed white walled large glass windowed Bauhaus-like houses, factories, schools, and blocks of flats, built across Europe and even Russia in the 1920s and 30s.

    From the above it seems that Corbusier himself detailed some of the roof junctions badly, and it was a more complex roof than most, with two levels joined by the ramp, and with structures on top. And there is no doubt that he designed it as much as a sculptural piece as an actual house for living in, being more concerned with the former, though inspired by innovations in the latter. if only he had learned from his previous similar but smaller houses; this is obviously a case of an architect over-reaching their expertise in order to innovate. Not the only architect to ever do that – Frank Lloyd Wright’s extreme cantilevers at Falling Water eventually sagged after 70 years and had to be expensively rebuilt.

  • It may have had these failings, but there was no precedent to show how the technical problems might be solved. The lack of precedent combined with the exploration of form devised from liquid concrete have informed architects ever sice, and that is why it is art.

  • Polly Turton, Senior Consultant at Arup has completed a Masters’ Thesis that collects all the available material relating to these issues. One of her case studies is a climate analysis of the Villa Savoye. Unfortunately, here thesis is only a qualititative analysis, but it’s titled “Title: How climate influenced early Modernist architecture and the International Style: a study of key events, architects and buildings and their relevance to current practice”. It can be downloaded here but I’ll list her main conclusions here because they include all the ones mentioned in this post, plus some new ones.

    Positive climatic features
    Let in a lot of sunlight, daylight and fresh air creating an uplifting, healthy, residential environment on warm, sunny days.
    • Being raised on slender pillars, or pilotis, meant living areas were not subject to cold and damp rising from the ground.
    • Succeeded in terms of lightness and airiness.
    • Had a partially enclosed ‘hanging garden’ in one of the ‘outdoor rooms’ which provided a microclimate of fresh air, sheltered from the vertical sun and rain.
    • Had double glazed windows which would have helped to insulate the house, but this was insufficient without other thermal efficiency and insulation strategies.
    • Had a relatively high thermal mass due to the concrete frame therefore was able to store heat and coolth depending on external air temperatures to some extent.

    Negative climatic features
    • Experienced significant leaks due to the construction techniques and complex detailing of the flat roof and terraces.
    • Was generally cold, damp and hard to heat for most of the year due to inadequate waterproofing of external surfaces and undersized original heating system for internal spaces which had to be upgraded after the first winter it was inhabited (1930-1931). Remedying of faults continued until 1931.
    • Had a high and inefficient heating load due to the size and openness of the internal spaces and the thinness of ceilings and facades. It would have been expensive in terms of energy required to heat the internal spaces.
    • Experienced substantial heat loss due to the large areas of glazing.
    • Lack of weather tightness due to ‘ill considered’ junctions between walls and roofs/terraces and roofs and roof windows, and the layering of construction materials in the external envelope.
    • Major cold bridges between the elements of the concrete structural frame.
    • Roger Savoye, the son of the family, contracted a chest infection whilst he lived there which turned into pneumonia, eventually requiring him to spend a year recuperating in a sanatorium in Chamonix in the French Alps. Whilst the direct cause of Roger’s illness is not certain, the fact he was living in a cold, damp house may have contributed to his condition. This was the opposite outcome of Le Corbusier’s intentions to use architecture and urban planning to facilitate health and well-being, as well as the effects that harnessing climate, particularly sunshine and fresh, dry air, could play in preventing or curing a range of medical conditions (Sully, 2009).

    How well did Villa Savoye comply with Vitruvius’ principles?
    • Firmness – no, not during cold or rainy weather. Would have been light, airy and comfortable on warm, sunny days, although may have overheated on very hot days despite considerable thermal mass provided by concrete structure, or experienced glare issues when the sun was at certain angles due to the amount of glass
    • Commodity – no, was not fit for purpose as a year round home, may not have even be fit for purpose as a summer house throughout the full range of summer weather at this latitude. The inhabitants didn’t feel like this was home soon after they moved in and ultimately abandoned the house in 1938 before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Savoyes protested against a flat roof initially but Le Corbusier insisted that a flat roof was preferable to a pitched one as it would be cheaper to construct, easier to maintain and cooler in summer (de Boton, 2006).
    • Delight – debatable, for the client and inhabitants not generally a delightful building, except perhaps on warm, sunny days. For the architect and subsequent architects it is considered an inspiring building. It made the inhabitants feel miserable. Le Corbusier in response ‘reminded his client of how enthusiastically his flat-roofed design had been received by architectural critics worldwide’ (de Boton, 2006:65).

    Did the Villa Savoye fulfil Banham’s 5 criteria for the purpose of buildings?
    Dryness in rainstorms – no, after only a week of moving in to the house, the roof
    sprang a leak over one of the bedrooms, and in 1937 even Le Corbusier had to admit that the house which he built was uninhabitable (de Boton, 2006:66).
    • Heat in winter – not sufficient
    • Chill in summer – yes
    • Acoustic and visual privacy – yes
    • Surfaces and spaces for belongings and activities – on the whole yes, but surfaces
    and spaces were negatively affected by the lack of dryness and heat when most
    needed, so were not appropriate for year round occupancy of the building

    Did the Villa Savoye meet the architect’s own design criteria or statements?
    In Le Corbusier’s own words, the function of a house was to provide:
    ‘1. A shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive.
    2. A receptacle for light and sun.
    3. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life.’
    (Le Corbusier in De Boton, 2006:57)
    From all the available evidence in the literature, it appears to have failed on providing shelter against cold and rain in particular, and arguably did not provide enough ‘cells for personal life’ or an appropriate division of internal space to create a comfortable living environment. Le Corbusier also said that:
    ‘What modern man wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars’ (Le Corbusier in de Boton, 2006:59)
    Villa Savoye was certainly minimal, well lit, and had a roof terrace from which to look at the stars, but it was definitely not well heated when it was needed. In a lecture given in Buenos Aires in 1929, Le Corbusier talked about daylight and sunlight in the context of his plans for Villa Savoye:
    ‘…the sun is everywhere, in the very heart of the house…air circulates everywhere, there is light at every point, it penetrates everywhere’. (Le Corbusier, 1929 in Porteous, 2002)
    This was true, and a welcome feature of the building, on warm sunny days.

    She concludes:

    If Le Corbusier had listened to and addressed the Savoye family’s initial concerns about the flat roof and thought harder about how to make it water tight given the temperate, rainy climate of suburban Paris (de Boton, 2006), it might not have leaked or felt so damp inside. Given that “it was possible to do watertight flat roofs in the 1920s and 1930s. Techniques were available, but success was dependent on complexity of buildings surfaces, quality of the contractor and the detailing” (Ross, 2012) an architect inspired by industrial engineering should really have ensured the water tightness of the Villa Savoye, a fundamental requirement of a well designed building (Banham, 1984). Another outstanding question is whether the Savoye family commissioned Le Corbusier to build a summer house or a year round house. If the former, one could argue that Le Corbusier was sticking to the client’s brief and focused on how the building would be used and perform in warmer, summer months. However, even if this were the case, summer in Poissy-sur-Seine can be a relatively cool and rainy, and the building felt cold and damp during the summer as well as the winter. Perhaps the Villa Savoye, and Le Corbusier’s architecture at this time was better suited to a more Mediterranean climate, as the Unite d’Habitation in Marseille was to be.

  • says:

    Overrated? I don’t think I was trying to imply that. I am sure Le Corbusier and his work are highly rated among the architectural society, perhaps rightly so. Did he influence architectural development in the 20th century? Probably did.

    My point is (as stated at the end of this blog), that if this is highly-rated architecture that was rated according to architecture rating standards, then I don’t think it’s a good thing to humanity. Perhaps I agree with you that (apart from the practical problems) he influenced 20th century architecture, but I wholeheartedly disagree with ignoring such problems when it comes to measuring buildings’ worth. Buildings are made for humans to live/work in, and thus resources must be used so that buildings serve that purpose as their first priority. They are not objects to be admired from a distance – we have statues and art pieces in museums for that. Yet architecture/architects still tend to treat buildings that way, convince clients that it’s a good thing, and then waste people’s time and money and the earth’s resources, trying to turn that piece of art into a building that could be used by human beings.

  • Is your point that Le Corbusier’s work is simply overrated? Can you acknowledge that apart from the practical problems, his architectural ouvre is a fascinating exploration of form that undoubtedly influenced architectural development and thought throughout the rest of the 20th century? If not, it would be interesting to read your thoughts on what 20th century architecture should be considered significant and worthy of study.

  • says:

    I would love to be able to follow your references, Can you add a bibliography? I love the Villa Savoye, but I also love your darker side. Thank you, I will refer my students to your website.

    • says:

      Thanks Mary – glad you liked it. Here’s a site that mentions client complaints to Monseiur Le Corbusier, Mr. Mies and Mr. Wright:

      It has a list of references at the end but most of the information in the post came from the Sbriglio one. (Sbriglio, Jacques. Le Corbusier: La Villa Savoye, The Villa Savoye. Paris: Fondation Le Corbusier; Basel: Birkhäuser, 1999) The letters are also quoted and referenced in this article about The Villa Savoye and the Modernist Historic Monuments:

      • says:

        Seriously, your critic of Le Corbusier is shallow and egotistic, to say the less, but you didn’t want to mess around with Van Der Rohe, did you?
        Your link to this article regarding Farnsworth House is the biggest proof that you would publish whatever it comes to your hands to proof you are a clever critic of the Neues Bauen movement, just to fall into your ignorance’s cesspit. You would have to read the Farnsworth case to realise that much of its shortcomings as a house where due to budget constrains that arose in the context of post WWII shortages in materials, as well as the Korean war mobilisation. Also, Mrs Farnsworth was carefully and thoroughly brief about the design and possible shortcoming, etc. Why, if you are so clever, don’t take a step forward your shallow critic and try to do the same you did with villa Savoye, but this time with an impeccable monument as Villa Tugendhat?

  • I think star architects and architecture writers and critics have an incestuous relationship. Who is going to become a famous critic, writing about buildings that actually function? How boring is that? As an architect, your eye candy designs will get headlines, your failures will be swept under the rug, known only to a few occupants and bloggers.

    • Thanks Mike, I thought I’d not reply until I’d read The International Style properly. What you say is true – it is a very incestuous relationship, or at least it was at that supposedly important time of 1930-1932. We have a couple of rich kids, charged with their first real job, off to Europe to gather information first hand. We have a bunch of German architects who, although they’d done fine so far, could tell that it was all going to go shit pretty soon, and gave them what they wanted and made sure they kept in touch. In some of Hitchcock and Johnson’s text and captions, you can almost hear their interviewees speaking. But that was all from an age gone now. What we have now is journalists and even their days are probably numbered. The trend seems to be for architects to post images on the internet with some text that is no better than it needs to be. Most is mediocre because nobody reads it anyway. Comments, I notice are increasingly no more than a sentence if that. Tallies of likes and dislikes imply architectural worth, but no-one is really any the wiser because in a few seconds’ time there will be something new to look at for a few seconds. I’m not surprised that the architects who have the popular vote are those who produce images of buildings that can be comprehended in a split second. (BIG, I’m thinking of you – but not just you.) This could be just the way it goes. More evidence that the internet is causing our critical faculties to atrophy. It’ll be a strange new world, the future. Graham

  • Oh lighten up. This thing was built in 1929. It was a pioneering piece of design and looks timeless in 2012. Some leeway should be given to those at the forefront of the avant gardes. If people didn’t experiment then nothing new would be created and everything would be imitation Georgian. If this was recreated today, advances in construction methods and materials would ensure that the same problems would not happen again.

    • says:

      No. This is serious.

      It is true that it was built in 1929, but then it wasn’t habitable until 1931. And even then, the Savoys stopped using it a couple of years later. On the other hand, the ADGB Trade Union School by Hans Meyer was built in 1930 and has been habitable ever since, and was used by the Nazis and the FDGB as a training facility after being a school for 3 years. They must have thought of it as a good and useful building at the time. Villa Savoy, on the contrary, was looted by the Germans in WWII, and later on used as a ‘pioneering’ hay barn. Considerations have been made to demolish it to make space for a school complex (I’m sure that would have been a better use of the site), but architects felt that the house should be saved, and so it was.

      And experiment what? On sleep deprivation due to the terrible noise that the skylight made, the flooded bathroom, the coldness and dampness, or being unhappy in their own house, etc.? Other architects have created houses that provided shelter without all these problems. Even prehistoric man figured out a way to protect himself from the harsh weather. Ah well.

      It is true that the house wasn’t created today but he should have considered the available materials and construction methods at the time. Many of the Villa Savoye’s problems were created by design decisions made by Corbusier, such as the skylight on the bathroom’s roof that made a lot of noise as glass would, or the large glazing that caused the house to lose vast amounts of heat, and feeling cold because probably there wasn’t any heating system available to provide all that heat. Perhaps if that glass had a u-value of, say, 0.35 W/m2.K like current state-of-the-art glass the Villa Savoye wouldn’t have had that problem. But it didn’t. And he should have known better.

      I’m sure most houses that were built in the 20s or, for that matter, a 1000 years before were more successful in solving problems instead of making them worse.

    • Timeless??? You’re joking, right? There is no possible way that this building could have been designed at any time in human history except for the past century.