Architecture Myths #18: The Free Plan
Like me, you probably first heard about the free plan in connection with this sketch by the man his mother knew as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris.
Or maybe it was this 1929 house with a basement. Let’s take a closer look at that famous plan, free to wriggle around inside its cage.
POINT #1: Freedom has little meaning when the cage is so accommodating. The ground floor plan has a 5 x 5 column grid but only 18 out of 25 locations have columns. 15 of those columns are exposed. One is on the periphery, 2 are embedded on the periphery and 1 is next to the chauffeur’s bed. This last one is the only visible internal on-grid column. There’s a total of 32 (> 25) structural supports. Downstairs, the periphery has 16 on-grid columns but within it are 14 off-grid columns and only 5 on-grid.
Why do universities make students produce things like this? It’s so wrong.
In the garage, the missing column and the offset column make it possible for the Savoyes to park a second and a third car. “The Savoye family was the first to own a car in the area, and LC included features in the design of the house to accommodate the automobile.” Did someone say bourgeoise? As a marketing/cashflow thing, it makes good sense for an architect to contrive a plan and a structure to show the nouveau riche how to spend their money.
POINT #2: The free plan is free to to be determined by other things.
The entire upper floor of the house has become a porte cochére and thus a very expensive way to shelter a drop-off zone. Nevertheless, curving the hallway wall does make life easier for the chauffeur. The curve of that hallway wall is famously determined by the turning circle of a 1927 Citroën – that’ll be the B14 then. Or was it? What we do know is the following.
“Le Corbusier chose the name Citrohan when he was searching for a sponsor to realize this project, and he tried with Citroen. At first it seemed like Citroen was pleased about it, but in the end nothing came out of it. At the time cars were still considered quite a novelty, which is why Le Corbusier was searching for a car manufacturer since his houses were conceived to be ‘smart’ as cars, and because he had a general thought about cities that involved cars as some kind of ‘saviours’.“
The naming is driven by sponsorship as much as admiration. These days we’d call it a “marketing tie-up creating a synergy of brand values”. By 1925, LC had got it right and a certain Gabriel Viosin sponsored LC’s Plan Voisin at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art.
“One early champion of Voisin autos was Gabriel [Voisin]’s friend, the French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (more commonly known as “Le Corbusier“). In fact, so enamored was Jeanneret-Gris with Voisin’s advanced engineering and rationalist design philosophy that not only did he own a series of Voisin automobiles, but his seminal Villa Savoie was designed around the turning radius of his Voisin sedan; the first house designed with a carport. Jeanneret-Gris also designed the door handles and other trim pieces for his friend Voisin. “
We don’t know if the Savoye’s owned a 1927 Citroën – or a Voisin for that matter. But if we assume a kernel of truth in the turning circle story, parking was not “straight forward” as we say in English.
This next photo shows a 6-cylinder C11 Voisin sedan. If you follow this link you’ll learn why this is a Voisin and not a Citroën. It may even belong to LC himself. The photo is obviously staged – looking at the front wheels – the driver’s not making much of an effort to turn. Or maybe he’s just trying to avoid that cheeky column in the driveway? Either way,
“a Voisin was the auto of choice when one wanted to show off not only ones means for being able to afford such an expensive vehicle, but also to demonstrate ones intellect, sophistication and individuality.”
CONCLUSION: The hallway wall curve may or may not be determined by the turning circle of some automobile but the basic configuration of the plan is an attempt to fuse automobile and house into a total upmarket consumer package.
POINT #3: The plan doesn’t know what to do with its new freedom. The plan is quite human. Once freed, the first thing it does is tell the structure where to go. Observe, in the above two photographs, how the structural grid has been compromised to bridge over the front door that simply must be placed symmetrically? This newly contrived arrangement becomes the grid for the columns supporting the axial ramp. I’m sure much academic airtime has been spent explaining how this bridge “bridges” between exterior space and interior space but my point is that, here, it’s the plan that’s now pushing the structure around. Suddenly now the plan is free, it’s the structure that’s oppressed. Horizontally, this 5:3:2:3:5 grid works better the full length of the house, apart from upstairs in the living room that has to be seen to be precisely three structural bays. The column forcibly displaced from in front of the entrance now reappears in the living room at the far left of this photo, embedded in the wall. This column – the closest one on the right – is supported by the beam bridging the columns moved out of the way to make way for the entrance and ramp downstairs. Now you know what to look for, you can see this contrivance in this photo. Messy. LC’s genius was clearly not planning or structure.
POINT #3: The only thing the plan does with its new freedom is represent it. Again, this is a human trait, but not one of our better ones. Those two columns remain in the driveway to show us how independent the plan is. [The turning circle story is disingenuous – you don’t pull back a wall to leave a column in the way. It’s like those movies that are “based on a true story”.] The position of the wall is as much a result of the position of the column as it ever was. It’s like a messy divorce where both parties pretend to be doing just fine without each other. Let’s go inside! See that column next to the double bed? It would make for a better plan and probably structure if the new column grid that accommodates the entrance and ramp continued for this one last bay. Let’s go upstairs and see if this proposed improvement would have made much difference. Nope. The downstairs column would appear one bay closer to the master bed where Mme may appreciate almost as much as the chauffeur. The most likely reason this column is where it is on both floors is that it’s visible from the outside. It’s effectively external. See? As long as the driver keeps his curtains open, the grid is evident. Notwithstanding, the master bedroom and bathroom are where the representation of freedom is most apparent. Walls could just as easily have accommodated the columns rather than ornamentally skirting around them. True, the columns do make a nice niche for the bed – not that that helped Mme sleep any better.
The column closest to the bathroom appears downstairs at the foot of the bed of the head maid. This too is messy. I doubt LC spent much time thinking about the architectural experiences of servants. The design phase of VS was lengthy – the Savoyes were in no hurry. My best guess is LC couldn’t be bothered to properly resolve the downstairs rooms. Maybe fees were drying up. Maybe LC submitted a fee proposal to fix it and Monsieur Pierre said “Don’t bother – just leave it as it is.” These things happen.
POINT #4: Too much freedom is not a good thing. This house just keeps on giving! In this next photo, the boiler flue is next to what must have been the warmest radiator in the house. In the same way as the walls broke free from the tyranny of structure, the flue broke free from the tyranny of walls. In the middle of the photo is a soil vent pipe (SVP a.k.a. DWP) that has also broken free from the tyranny of walls. However, it can’t escape being linked to the two toilets directly above it. Let’s hope it never does.
POINT #5: Freedom without the freedom to move is not freedom. Back in the chauffeur’s room, I noticed for the first time that bed tucked behind the double bed. [Who’s it for? A sixth staff member? A child? An elderly parent?] Rene Burri‘s 1959 photo shows the chauffeur’s room partitioned.
This next photo showing the same windows has some boxing/partition not apparent from the outside. Also, there now seems to be a door connecting the chauffeur’s room and laundry room. This door isn’t original but nobody cares because it helps shift tourists through the place faster and so keep the Corbusier industry alive.
POINT #6: The plan is never that free. Moving away and on from VS, this next plan is derived from the structural, constructional and social dictates of its time.
And so is this next plan , but in a different time.
Socially, this house is equivalent to the reception wing to the right of the Victorian mansion above. It’s purely for show. The bathroom is still positioned in the traditional place close to the entrance, its door pointing discreetly away from the living and dining areas, yet convenient to where the bed is. Everything in this room is locked into compositional balance, the centre of which is the living area, the centre of which is the on-axis coffee table, the centre of which is the ashtray.
POINT #7: Freedom is what you make it. Unfortunately, one man’s freedom is another man’s tyranny. Given a choice, a Japanese person would prefer to have their reception room at the end of some multi-cornered corridor leading “deep into” the house as a sign of respect. An Arab would prefer the reception room as close as possible to the front door or, ideally, separately accessible from the outside. Given a choice, many Russians would prefer a separate kitchen to a separate bedroom,
but a separate bedroom is also good.
Where rooms go is a matter of cultural preference as much as anything else, and that preference is subject to change. This next image is of what, in the UK, is known as a “through-lounge”.
The room at the front of the house used to be called just that – the “front room” – and it was the reception room, the parlour. Pressure on space and the decline of receiving visitors as a way to spend one’s weekends meant these underused spaces came to be joined to the more “lived-in” parts of the house. This usually has the opposite effect of “hollowing out” the house as activity shifts to the (old) front and (new) rear where it’s most pleasant to be. The “through-lounge+kitchen extension” is a typical first job for many architects and, as such, they’re generally overcooked. This is not a bad thing for the architects.
In the 1980s, the plan became less a matter of cultural preference and more a matter of personal preference with the real-estate phenomenon of lofts. The idea was that you would buy some disused industrial warehouse space and live in it largely as you found it.
Thirty years on, even without there being any walls, the selection and arrangement of furniture can once more determine a plan at least as rigid as determined as one created by structural walls.
The loft “phenomenon” also led to the phenomenon of shell apartments that purchasers were expected to “fit out” however they wished. Some were more shell than others.
This led to completely arbitrary plans being inserted into whatever volume of self-supporting space one could afford.
Maintaining the “feel” of a loft while providing the features of modern apartment plans is an architectural genre in itself. What it comes down to is an ordinary apartment having little or no corridor space, and a large living area with an exposed column or two.
The plan can be anything. It doesn’t matter. It has become as inconsequential as the partitions in an office tower. With a few communal catering and spa facilities in the core, what we see below might well be the apartment building of the future. POINT #8: Freedom is an illusion. In this post I wrote of an approach to freer planning that I noticed in the plan of one of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses.
See how the wall dividing the house vertically is not aligned with the window openings as implied by the plan? See how that wall makes a path with added headroom around that angled column? These are things the plan has freedom to do, and it uses that freedom to do them. This isn’t a representation of freedom. It is adapting to circumstances. The structure is doing what structure does – creating an enclosure – albeit rather uncompromisingly so. The plan exists only to make that enclosure liveable. The plan is not the generator. It deals with any given situation as best it can. The Existentialist perspective is that the freedom to make choices and to take responsibility for them is the only freedom there is. The plan is thus condemned to be free.