Pilotis

Pilotis

An important step in Le Corbusier’s career as an architect was the 1912 house he designed for his parents – he charged them a fee. The house was too expensive to maintain so they sold it in 1919. By then, Charles-Édouard had already decamped to Paris, bigger fish to fry. Little wonder his mother always preferred Albert.

corbu-Maison_blanche_01

In 1920, the not-yet Le Corbusier and new best friend Amédée Ozenfant collaborated on the art journal L’Esprit Nouveau. We might understand it today as an aggregator of ornamentiscrime.org and vandevelde.biz.*

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In 1920 Paris, the 6FF per copy of L’Esprit Nouveau could buy 6kg of bread.* It’s difficult to know how many people forsook bread to read ideas that were to eventually gel into the Five Points. It’s also difficult for us to appreciate how novel those five points must have been at the time. Students are routinely asked to name them but neither examiners nor examinees for the life of them know why. Me, I’m all for a general knowledge of history but only if it’s continually examined and re-examined for relevance.

What we do know is that The Five Points shot around the architectural world in an instant – as much as an instant was possible at the time. There was definitely something special about them, but what?  

The columns in LC’s Dom-ino House of 1914-15 had used the principle of the 1907 Dom-ino House but just held up the building without making a show of it. Their presence could maybe be inferred from the windows that were more horizontal than vertical.

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There were growies on the roof in 1914 but the plantless rooftop space of the 1920 Citrohan House was labelled a solarium.

With the 1922 Citrohan House  MKII, LC used a grid of reinforced concrete columns to jack up the Citrohan House he’d made earlier. In patent offices, this is called an ‘inventive step’. The inventive step was to transform an economical house into a wasteful villa.

A grid of reinforced concrete columns is an inexpensive means of producing the potential to enclose space but, unless you enclose that space, all you’ve done is use a structure to display that potential. You’ve ‘defined’ a space for no reason other than to show it’s yours and that you’ve no practical need for it. It other words, it is beautiful.

The Fondation Le Corbusier claims the 1923 Maison La Roche was the first manifestation of The Five Points.

Maison La Roche is a double house, the other half designed for already-mentioned brother Albert. The two houses were once known as Two Houses at Auteuil but these days are known separately as Maison La Roche and Maison Jeanneret. Monsieur Raoul La Roche bankrolled the publication of L’Esprit Nouveau and thus features in the beginning and endgames of the Le Corbusier industry for ‘Maison Jeanneret’ is the current home of Fondation Le Corbusier that exists for the conservation, knowledge and dissemination of Le Corbusier’s workAlbert is written out of history in plain view. Revenge by proxy.

Whether divided or as a whole, the building suffers from insufficient program to fill a ground floor and force the main living levels into that neoclassic affectation, a piano nobile.  Even poor Albert gets a large hallway, staff quarters and a garage that in 1923 was almost certainly for show. Monseiur La Roche has all that plus a gallery-sized void. It seems to be crying out to be filled by cars but has only ever been indicated as landscaping. The only thing occupying this space is the idea of getting a building up in the air, at any cost.

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As in 1914, there is again a roof garden and again, the plan is very much determined by the position of structural walls and so, for that matter, is the facade. The horizontal windows aren’t independent of the structure but they’re now trying to appear as if they are. Let’s work our way down from that horizontal window lighting the gallery.

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The roof is supported by two columns painted dark to appear as mullions of the long horizontal window. These columns extend down into the curved wall that might have acted as a beam if it hadn’t been detached at one end by a door and balcony. The load at its middle is transferred to the ground floor column, the contrived displacement of which, I suspect, requires a rectangular web of concrete to transfer that load. I suspect this because of the effort that’s been made to conceral it. A piece of polished metal [or mirror?] is angled on the radius of the stair to create the impression none of this exists. Very messy.

Le-Corbusier-Maison-la-Roche

What the columns are doing is clearer here in this 1928 garden shed. They not only hold up the building but, more importantly, are telling everyone they do. Contrivedly detached from that structure, the ground floor walls define a garden shed with covered porch and axial entrance not visible from the driveway. The route the gardener takes to park his wheelbarrow is not clear.

The problem is that columns look puny when it comes to expressing wealth by enclosing unused or unusable space or by unnecessarily duplicating structural elements because, as with beams, they’re generally the size they’re meant to be. Pushing new boundaries of architectural poetry and innovation requires more massive and massively contrived elements enclosing larger spaces and for less purpose. LC tested this principle in the 1932 Pavilion Suisse.

pavilion suisse pilotis

It worked, but this doesn’t explain their attraction to the commissioners of social housing in Marseilles in 1949.

It was probably a combination of poor accounting and poor accountability that was responsible. We’re told the structure was originally intended to be steel but that ‘post-war shortages of steel dictated the use of concrete’. Did no-one see that coming?

The superstructure would have lent itself to steel framing and a cladding re-think but I can’t believe steel pilotis and transfer beams were ever on the cards. It would have amounted to building a bridge first and then putting a building on top. We’d be looking at steels larger than this.

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Of the Five Points, pilotis were the greatest of Le Corbusier’s architectural inventions.

Presenting the display of wealth as aesthetic statement is what makes architecture different from building.

It’s clear now that the big difference between pilotis and columns is that pilotis are a more expensive way of doing the same thing. Pilotis force the client to pay for an expensive transfer slab to replicate the function of inexpensive ground. Pure genius!

Pilotis are thus more architectural than columns.

Horizontal windows provide a more evenly distributed illumination but the structural cost is lengthy lintels. Horizontal windows thus don’t feature in vernacular architectures and it is from this that their modernity derives. But if horizontal windows were merely modern, the idea of expensively delineating space that wasn’t going to be used was revolutionary – it was a new type of architectural beauty. The idea of pilotis found immediate and multiple expression throughout the architectural world in the late twenties and early thirties. Here’s a 1928 house in Brno by Jan Víšek.

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This is the ground floor of Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ 1928 Narkomfin building in Moscow.

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Here’s a 1931 proposal by William Lescaze for New York’s first slab block housing on Chrystie-Forsyth street. [Remember, this is before America was supposed to know about stuff like this.]

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The Casa al Villaggio dei Giornalisti in Milan by Luigi Figini. 1934.

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Meanwhile, back in Moscow, LC’s Tsentrosoyuz (1928-1933) was getting off the ground.

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Le Corbusier, Tsentrosoyuz building, Moscow (completed 1933)

Non-architects were unimpressed. They didn’t understand why a building needed to be raised, float or look as if it was not properly supported or permanent.

chicken legs1

chicken legs1 1

It is claimed that pilotis(/open column grids) return useful land at ground level so it can be used again but that land was never put to great use either then,

or for some time after.

The means to delineate space yet not use it in any meaningful way came to represent luxury for many years. These days, it is an expression of decadence not many are keen to continue paying for.

What hasn’t changed is how pilotis have come to represent architecture. Their continuing use indicates a building demanding to be taken seriously as architecture.

Here’s another yet to come online. [Clue: Fondazione Prada]

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This early 20th century vernacular example from France’s Atlantic coast is something else entirely.

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5 thoughts on “Pilotis

  1. Philipp Eichhoff

    Great text, as always, but, as happens sometimes, there are some things I don’t agree with.

    When it comes to pilotis, I believe it’s not enough to look at a single building. It’s crucial to see them in context with the city their architects wanted around them. Take a renaissance town hall, like this one in Rajec, Slovakia:

    It isn’t all that different from a typical pilotis building. You have an open ground floor and an elevated floor with some rooms. It just made sense to have a free standing building in the middle of a market square with a ground floor accessible from all sides. It allowed equal access to the market stalls inside and a closer, let’s say more organic connection to the space outside. It was not just about aesthetics. I agree that in most of your examples, especially the houses, it is purely aesthetical. But houses, villas, are really the worst examples to show what was new, revolutionary even, about the so called modernist movement.

    To my mind, the modernist movement wasn’t about this or that interesting looking building but about a new kind of city. In this new city, the old structure of streets and built-up blocks is broken up, vehicular traffic is separated from pedestrian traffic etc, you know the drill. The cover photo for your text shows very nicely how pilotis fit into that: everything is an interconnected open space where nothing, not even the buildings, inhibit your free movement. Obviously, that’s an ideal. Building everything on pilotis would be ridiculously wasteful. But there are instances where pilotis and open ground floors can make sense, just like in that renaissance town hall. The way I see pilotis, they can be very useful if used in the right way, like mostly everything in architecture. This is also exactly what they became in a lot of postwar developments: a tool among many, sometimes put to a good use, sometimes not. A lot of that depends not on one individual building but on the surrounding spaces.

    One last more general remark: I often feel that what you’re criticizing is something like a caricature version of Le Corbusier. He might have been quite a ridiculous figure but then, which famous person isn’t ridiculous in one way or another? I guess that’s why they tend to divide people into fans and haters, both failing to see the object of their adoration or hatred as just a normal person whose work has its positive and negative aspects and, most importantly, needs to be seen in the context of its time. It’s considering this context that I still maintain Le Corbusier was a more positive than negative influence. After all, even his brilliant later critic Karel Teige needed the work and ideas of Le Corbusier to get to his, obviously far superior, positions. And so do you, so it’s hard for me to knock Le Corbusier.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hello Philipp and thanks,

      my favourite pilotis building would have to be the Karl Marx Middle School designed by André Lurçat (1930). Just as with your market square building example, it makes a lot of sense to use the underside of a building as a covered extension of playground for schoolkids who may have to run in there to spend the rest of their recess if it rains. Both these examples have a solid reason for raising the building. I think the fishermen’s hut on pilotis is the winning example though.

      I like the way the sea just seems to flow under the building from one side to the other. No I don’t, because it actually does – it’s not part of the shadowy realm of architectural metaphor. There’s no doubt a good reason for this building being the way it is. I’m no fisherman but I’m guessing the shore there is extremely shallow and setting out from a point already on water saved time. Practicalities such as this kill poetic notions the architectural imagination like to invoke. Even so, all these examples are far superior to, say, the open underside of Ginzberg’s Narkomfin which seems like an affectation, as do their appearance in much of LC’s output as well.

      When I was recently in Boston, I didn’t walk underneath Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard. Even though pilotis were very much on my mind at the time. I just went up and down the ramp. Boston City Hall is supposed to have been modelled on La Tourette but it isn’t doesn’t invite you to walk beneath the building to get from one part of town to another, even though it might be a convenient or even a civic thing to suggest. On the other hand, it’s obvious you can walk beneath La Tourette but very unlikely you’d find yourself ever wanting to. (Sloping ground is reason enough to get your building in the air.) Boston City Hall ought to have been better than it is. From all this I have to conclude that focussing on the visual effects of an architectural device blinds people to any practical virtues that device might have potentially had. I’m not sure if this is a problem with LC himself, the devices he popularised, or our attitudes towards him and them. If Carpenter Center is anything to go by, LC misunderstood himself. Something doesn’t add up.

      But Philipp it’s an interesting question you raise: Was Le Corbusier an influence for the better or the worse? I’ve spent all this time pondering this. If Charles-Edouard hadn’t decided to take up architecture, we might have gone straight from Hannes Meyer’s Dessau Housing to Pruitt Igoe anyway, and without any of the distractions inbetween. Gropius and van der Rohe would still be doing their corporate thing in the US. Philip Johnson would still exist but so would Eileen Gray. It’s doubtful Rem Koolhaas would be who he is if LC hadn’t been such a media precedent. And if Koolhaas never existed as the media phenomenon he is, then his many media spinoffs wouldn’t exist either.

      I’m kind of liking this parallel universe I just invented. I’d have less to do as there would be LC the architect or LC the media construct or LC the historic caricature to criticise. I’d like to think I’d be be a designer or enabler of useful buildings for people who need them.

      Here’s some holiday snaps. Thanks again.

      https://betterarchitecture.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_2171.jpg

      https://betterarchitecture.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_2148.jpg

      https://betterarchitecture.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_2145.jpg

      https://betterarchitecture.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_2144.jpg

      Reply
  2. Abdul Qayyum

    bismillah…

    My focus was fixed when you typed ‘architectural poetry’, which reignited my memories of the theory of how to make aesthetics an intregral part of the design. The theory starts from a crit that I have a long time ago with a certain Interior Architecture student on his work about a Gundam store to have everything essentially what Gundam aims to achieve during my time in Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam.

    My theory is that aesthetic has their roots in what people perceive: something resembling fastness, lightness, fortress, heaviness, complexity, simplicity etc. etc. The reasons of that, came from our environment. The phenomenon we see with naked eyes only show a teaser of sorts to truth. When we do an analysis of the phenomenon, we see that there are several reasons that lead to the phenomenon. This is what I can only guess as a scientific study.

    However, here, the reason the philosophy of building aesthetics came to be is because we want to show more of the ‘truth’, aka the fleshing of scientific studies into a body of interconnected thoughts that informed the design. The work we have done analyzing something should lead to a certain epiphany which informs the atmosphere the design ought to possess. The atmosphere that came to be from obtaining a deep understanding of the way it is must be projected onto the surface. But how?

    I remember during my Design IV project that I had to design a tourist kiosk and the masterplan for it. What I began to do before I start designing something is to get a good picture of the whole background, to the extent as far as I need to see.

    I remember RapidKL has a certain atmosphere that is complex yet cheerful and simple with their branding. When I began to make several test boards, I began to feel the atmosphere of making these exact branding. Even though yes, I can feel the atmosphere of the brand, the practicing is done to experience the mode of thinking the original author was in. Not necessarily everything, but essentially everything what the author thinks concerning RapidKL.
    Picture:
    http://qayyum94.deviantart.com/art/RapidKL-s-Brand-Character-and-History-562177986
    http://qayyum94.deviantart.com/art/RapidKL-s-Transport-Map-and-Payment-System-562178271

    Now the scientific study is done, it is time to transfer the essence of branding (complex, yet cheerful and simple) onto reality. At this point, I have made several models of the same masterplan, however, headed by a different entity.
    Picture:
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des1.png.htm

    Since RapidKL is more interweaved into Shah Alam as it provided a crucial service (public transportation), I started to make test models with the RapidKL mode of branding in mind. At this stage of project I had delineated all limits and constraints of the project, so all I had to do is to make a certain form that will fit in elegantly with the branding and the constraints.
    Picture:
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des2.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des3.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des4.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des5.png.htm

    The purpose of the masterplan is then decided: to shelter working and shopping people from hot sun, since we discovered that shade is prevalent in sitting place due to the hot and humid climate during day and midday. An additional purpose came from RapidKL itself: as a place to wait for the bus while plotting future events or dream or finding time for self-service. Several testing has done, and I have arrived at a form that will fit in perfectly: 4 strips of concrete, moving up and down at certain points (those points are where I wanted my column to be). I tried to interweave the ribbons a la Zaha Hadid, but I found that it is too complex for my project and deadline is imminient, so I made the ribbon straight, for the sake of simplicity. I found out after doing it that it matches the fact that the brand also aims for simplicity.
    Pictures:
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des7.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des8.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des9.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des6.png.htm
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des10.png.htm

    The overall configuration of tourist kiosk is then decided (the purpose of the kiosk is to act as a ticket/card renewal kiosk, the configuration to allow for smooth, elegant, easy and cheap operation), and the definite form will fit in elegantly to put in propaganda that the branding conveys. I have done it after I have designed the masterplan, and the definite form, the last minute before designing presentation board.
    Picture:
    http://img1.imagilive.com/affiche/0816/des11.png.htm

    So from this experience, I have drawn up a procedure how to integrate building aesthetics and design together:
    1. Delineate all limits and constraints
    2. Recognise the brand
    3. Experience the atmosphere of branding
    4. Inserting main purpose of designing (usually informed by site and human behavior in the site, as well as its relationship with surroundings)
    5. Inserting additional purpose (comes from client itself. The client’s persona must match with the reality of site and surroundings)
    6. Determining configuration. Configuration must suit the intention that the client conveys and wants to convey.
    6. Testing by trial-and-error.
    7. Found a suitable form. Refining and details to articulate and elaborate the harmonication or contradiction of reality of the client’s thought.

    I had such a good time formulating this theory. Makes things less boggled when designing for a special client. What are your thoughts on this?

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hello Abdul, I’ve gone through all your information and have a few thoughts. I agree with you when you say aesthetics has its roots in what people perceive and have thought a lot about this topic. It’s also true that the things we see with our eyes are not the full story. However, we can’t deny what we see because everyone, regardless of where they were born or where they were educated will see the same things. It starts to get messy when the things we see make us think about other things. (A building that looks like a boat would have no meaning for a person who had never seen, or did not know what a boat was.) It’s these other meanings that are always the problem for we have little control over what other people might think. Sure, we can provide a story (and let them know) how we’d like them to think about what we’ve designed and much of what architects write about their projects is just this. By the time we’ve worked out that we don’t agree with it, there’s always something new for us to look at and think about.

      Analysis and studies of the type you describe ought to lead to a better understanding of the things you want your design to communicate to the people who see it. This, I think, is what you call 3. Experience the atmosphere of branding. It’s very similar to 6 but what you have to work with to do that will be mostly determined by your 4. and 5. You will repeat the last two steps until you arrive at something which says what you want to say, and using the resources and configuration you have to say it.

      So yes, I do see a process that will work. The problem will be with 3. How can you be sure that what you want to communicate is what needs to be communicated? Your truth as a designer may not be the same as mine as a potential user. As long as you can convince people of yours then there’ll be no problem and everyone will be happy. You leave form-finding to last however. Shape is important because it’s what makes us perceive buildings as objects in the first place, but don’t forget colour and pattern. These can also convey very strong messages that are equally if not more appropriate than the ones shape can convey. For example, your ticket office is probably going to have a big sign above it saying TICKETS. Why? Because shape is inadequate. Some people won’t look at it and see a ticket office. Also, don’t forget the position of things. A ticket office that’s hidden around the back is not going to be like a ticket office even if someone does see it. These other variables are always in play. I guess what I want to say is that it’s never just about shape even though that seems to be the only focus in architecture schools.

      Good luck with the rest of it.
      Graham

      Reply

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