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 his brother Albert.
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.*
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.
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 and who am I to argue?
Maison La Roche is a double house, the less famous 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 work. Albert 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.
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.
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 conceal it. A piece of polished metal [or mirror?] is angled on the radius of the stair to create the impression none of this exists. Nasty.
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.
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’. Seriously, what kind of visionary would not 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.
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. Genius!
Pilotis are thus more architectural than columns.
Horizontal windows provide a more evenly distributed illumination but the structural cost is those lengthy and expensive transfer beams known as lintels. Horizontal windows thus don’t feature in vernacular architectures and it’s 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.
This is the ground floor of Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ 1928 Narkomfin building in Moscow.
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 have known about this stuff.]
The Casa al Villaggio dei Giornalisti in Milan by Luigi Figini. 1934.
Meanwhile, back in Moscow, LC’s Tsentrosoyuz (1928-1933) was getting off the ground.
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.
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]
This early 20th century vernacular example from France’s Atlantic coast is something else entirely.