"To understand the spaces we live”
the new counter-current column
Enrico Mercatali and Vanessa Passoni
The double approach East-West
helps us understand the spaces we live
Above and below the title: three images of the external (above) and internal (below) views of Ville Savoye (1928-31) by Le Corbusier and Pierre Janneret in Poissy, near Paris; Farnsworth House(1945-51) in Chicago, by Ludwing Mies van der Rohe; Fallingwater (1935-39) by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania.
Taccuini Internazionali has visited the three most published houses in the world, realized by the greatest masters of modern architecture, in order to detect and note down the aspects that have been given little importance by the most prestigious critics and historians: we have, in a manner of speaking, “tested” the liveableness of their internal rooms. We will give you our opinion on them, by adding some interesting and useful historical remarks too.
Above, three images of Ville Savoye’s main rooms in Poissy, near Paris,
by Le Corbusier and Pierre Janneret (1928-31)
Ville Savoye (1929-30)
Le Corbusier and Pierre Janneret
If we situate this villa among the widest and most prestigious ones of the series realized by Corbu and his cousin Pierre at the end of the 20’s, considering that it is the last one of the many private houses born from the experimentation of their authors’ rationalist theories, it appears like the most complete and appropriate one to explain merits and faults of the new way of building and conceiving the new internationalist european purism, whose more fervent proponent was their Parisian Study.
Designed for a suburban life during the summer months, in harness with the woods nature around Paris, this villa is the expression of the wealthy Savoye’s desire of representing themselves in the high Parisian society and living their family life in a modern way. They commissioned it without caring for the “style”, thinking of its spaces functionality instead, and subsequently trying to hold down the exorbitant cost, by persuading the authors to revise the projects.
At the end of the work the history of the villa talks about many quarrels between owners and professionals, and even a possible recourse to the law, due to the immeasurable estimated cost overrun and most of all to the many noticed defects, particularly the ones derived from rainwater seepages in many parts of the house, especially after the strong downpours at the end of the summer, a real nightmare for Madame Savoye. On the one hand the thing is understandable, given the typology of the building and most of all the materials and techniques of the time; on the other, although, it is also strange, considering the proverbial care of the Study for the building details, being often innovative, and especially for doors and windows and the drainpipes of the suspended terraces’ meteoric waters.
We have no news, vice versa, about the buyers’ appreciation of the work in its whole, and their experienced liveableness of the interior.
As it often happens for those architectures that have “made history”, Villa Savoye is today a museum of itself after the latest repairs, which resolved the state of chronic neglect already described by Leonardo Benevolo in his “Storia dell’architettura moderna” (“History of modern architecture”) in 1965.
It’s certain that nothing more than a white plaster can show its deterioration in the course of years. But Le Corbusier didn’t seem to be much concerned about the problem, and the production of the time could not offer any product comparable with the ones on the market today for building coverings and exterior finishes.
We are also convinced, however, that the new covering techniques (used by the ones who still take an interest in Le Corbusier’s dictionary and revisit his theses with a more technologic spirit, like Richard Meier) have not added anything, but rather removed, in terms of poetic value and expressive quality.
It is significant how a domestic architecture born on a basis of social ransom, of a house intended to be within everybody’s reach, characterized by a language endowed with simplicity, rationality and healthiness, ended up meeting some very different needs: representativity and self-satisfaction of the well-off, mainly the intellectuals (a particular case is the “faithful enthusiasm” of Raoul La Roche, who had his house photographed as an “architectural model” by the most popular french photographer of the time, Boissonas, and who kept boasting about his house being even more beautiful than it seemed in pictures, with its unique “symphony of prisms” never seen elsewhere).
What were the ultimate aims pursued by Le Corbusier with his architecture, between the 20’s and the 30’s, especially within his program of theoretical divulgation that he tried to make become visible and fall into the public domain? It is clear that the platonic ideal promoted by him with his architecture — in the intimate relation between men and nature — even more than with his pictorial purism, was professed in every occasion: articles, conferences, interviews, etc.. It consisted in specific paradigms being applicable in every situation, summarized in the famous 5 points of “Toward an Architecture” (pilotis, ribbon windows, roof garden, open floor plan, free façade), born for a new liveableness and healthiness, a new relation inside-outside, a new experience of inhabiting. This idea became, in every occasion of applicability, an inevitable reason for a further propaganda, since it probably was the only thing that really interested the architect.
In Le Corbusier’s thought, the relationship between the owners and the spaces and functions of the house didn’t have anything to do with the owners themselves, least of all with their psychological and personal needs. As in all the previous houses of that decade, it had to follow the generical and universally applicable thesis of an average experience, an average person (from the Modulor scale?) constantly searched and emphasized by Corbu in every project, as his sketches fully prove, as if he was chasing a state of drunkenness, a very personal and acrobatic dramatization of human historical evolution.
If we judge his work today, from a less hagiographic and more realist point of view based on the universally verifiable needs of those who live in a house, we can observe how powerful and impressive is the relationship inside-outside of the big living room and outdoor terraced patio of Savoye House, while the choice of a continuous internal space, hardly free from separators, including the stairs body, makes the house’s internal liveableness cold and vague, by creating a sense of confusion and scarce identifiability of the spaces and corners where you place yourself during the day. This negative feeling is increased by the fixed furniture, privileged by the artist, being sometimes miserable, scarce or cumbersome, and the link between the internal floors and the levels of the house, whose finishes recall (not even by accident) a naval experience. But you have to admit the objective success of the spatial intercompenetration of the internal and exernal wide living rooms (separated only by the big full-lenght window and associated by the continuum of the orthogonal ribbon window, which readjusts the various solar phases of the day on the surrounding nature, seen as if it was inside a painting, but also able to determine an adequate privacy of the whole main floor of the house). The green parts themselves (regularly entrusted by Corbu to Lucien Crépin, although his very high invoices caused some frequent disputes with the owners), should have been rich and plentiful in accordance with his principles, but turned up appearing really miserable, like the tanks containing them. Not even one of the numerous old and modern pictures, from Ville La Roche of ‘23 to Ville Savoye of ’30, shows in fact an abundance of green. It must be said, however, that this idea of hanging gardens was maybe a utopia: it would have required such a complicated plant design that we couldn’t obtain it even today without spending a really elevated amount of money for installation and operating costs.
Futuristic building of old world glamour
Though being raised from the ground, it maintains a central base of stable relationship with the environment, and its upper part shows some alien harmonies that are in keeping with the Qi’s demands, mainly focused on circular movements.
The central part of the house is subjected to a strong wave of information that permeates from the bottom to the top, balanced by an equally strong Qi energy, which creates an horizontal and circular movement in the floor above.
A house with many typical characteristics inspired by esoteric meditation, with specific features of the temples of many religious eastern and western disciplines.
Above, three images of Farnsworth House (1945-51) in Chicago,
by Ludwing Mies van der Rohe.
Farnsworth House (1945-51)
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Mies was chosen by the wealthy client, Edith Farnsworth, would-be violinist and famous renal specialist, just among the three architects cited at the beginning of this column (Mies, Wright and Corbu), whose names were given to her by a friend who wanted to have a house built for his weekends of rest. Mies, however, was not selected for a professional reason, but for a convenience of proximity. When he was entrusted with the task of realizing the villa on a 4 hectares land, within the woods around Fox river in Plano, Illinois, 47 miles west of Chicago, and started to carry out the plans, a love affair started between the two, and it went on for two years during the project’s development, until the beginning of the works, which also lasted about two years. This intense but relaxing situation went on until late into the building process, but in the second part of the works and during the following years the first disputes between client and architect led to a lawsuit filed by the lady against Mies, due to many discontents inherent to the protection system and the curtains, but most of all to the cost overrun. Franz Schulze, in his famous biography of Mies of 1985, tells that he eventually had the best on her and returned only a small part of the compensation she had required. But the bitterness he kept in his heart became public, without any chivalry, with the statement: “The lady expected to get the architect along with the house”. The situation seemed to precipitate right for a love disappointment. Edith, who had a name for being a woman of vast knowledge, said about him: “Maybe he is not the primitive clairvoyant man that I thought, but simply the coldest and cruelest that I have ever met. Maybe what he wanted was not a friend or a real collaborator, in a manner of speaking, but an idiot and a victim”. It’s certain that the reason why such a unique product –especially for that time– was realized, was a strong consonance of views between the client and her architect.
The house was sold in 1962 to Peter Palumbo, a builder from London, who acquired it for his particular veneration toward Mies’ architecture, insomuch as he slavishly followed his advices, like avoiding to put paintings on the walls, and, since he wanted to be surrounded by art, replacing them with sculptures; also the one of removing the screens placed by the previous tenant on the terrace as a protection against mosquitos and the excessive heat of summer days, and replacing them with some not very functioning solutions, like some big fans in the house’s corners, and leaving doors and windows open, thus risking the dangerous insects’ attacks. But he always said that he could easily put up with this little trouble (the mosquitos, the heat in the mid day hours, the condensation due to a scarce ventilation), in order to get in return the beautiful views of nature offered by the house, in its quiet and over the course of seasons, “place of spiritual nourishment brought by a reductive beauty. An immensely convincing beauty. The pure geometry of the house and the perfect proportion of its parts are the expression of a human presence in harmony with the natural woods environment. Viewed from the inside and with an angle shot of 360° through the transparent walls, nature, especially when lights and seasons change, filters and becomes an integral part of the experience gained during the whole time spent here”. Schulze adds: “Farnsworth House is a classical project with romantic implications, an artwork that finds a mediation, through architecture, between man and nature. In this sense it evokes the spirit of Schinkel.”
The strongly interiorized enthusiasm of both its second owner (who lives there only a few days a year, and who probably boasted about having bought such an important artwork), and the great critic of architecture (who fully embraced its spirit even without inhabiting it) have been able to destroy any other objective consideration.
Maybe more than any other architectural work, this one of Mies looks like the antithesis of a house, which should be an icon of protection from nature needed by man: its perimeter glass walls don’t give any respite to the idea of privacy (although the estate all around is quite wide). The generalized osmosis of its functions does not allow to distinguish the living from the sleeping area, the dressing room from the bathroom and kitchen: only a few hints, deriving mainly from the furniture, separate the dining room over here and the fireside over there, the relax area over here and the sleeping one over there. Everything is mixed together. How is it possible to easily and pleasantly use a kitchen that has its back to the light and forces you to cook without looking toward the outside? How can you find comfortable a living room conceived as an exhibition pavilion? Why placing the fireplace far from the outside, thus preventing yourself from enjoying the view while sitting in front of the flames? We must bear in mind that, during the evening and night hours, the interior is reflected on the glass walls thus totally blocking any view of the outside, unless you invert the inside-outside illumination to the detriment of the first. The situation during the day changes, especially with the good weather, when the view from the inside becomes really beautiful. But with what kind of weather, and during what seasons? Certainly not with a thunderstorm going on (can you even imagine the situation?) or in the wintertime (the house was really exposed to the cold, since the glass walls used by Mies were only 5-millimeters thick, the maximum at that time, and the double glazing didn’t exist), and again in the summertime, when, besides the inconveniences listed above, the house literally became an oven.
We believe that the immense success of Farnsworth House, which has turned it into a masterpiece in the history of modern architecture, derives from the tendency of historiography to celebrate the ability of its authors, who imagined and represented quality and beauty as novelty, thus pursuing nothing but a pure appearance. Objects to be admired for their beauty, without even thinking that they must be lived too, or giving a marginal role to this factor. Objects to take pictures of, in order to publish them on famous magazines or insert them in the history books of taste evolution.
Some questions to Mies: wouldn’t it have been better to insert that kitchen, whose preciousness even brought you to fight with Edith Farnsworth, in a position that would allow to use it while talking with the commensals, to enjoy the view of the park, and to keep it more ventilated?
A house less similar to an airport lounge or a boardroom wouldn’t have been more psychologically comfortable for its owner?
Not to mention the ergonomic matter of the furniture that you designed, its planned minimalism – of which you were a supreme proponent – its scanty quantity and its extremely precise placement: doesn’t it risk to imbarass the potential guests by blocking their spontaneous behaviours, or even the owner himself, although he has clearly agreed to “show himself off” and enhance his unquestionable egocentrism?
It’s no accident that the example was immediately followed by Philip Johnson, an extremely self-confident pupil of Mies and a future guru of american architecture, who made an almost identical choice for his Glass House in New Canaan.
Ethereal environment, raised from the ground, without bases or foundation, nor roots with the earth or with tradition. The claimed lightness of this building is not in harmony with the rational and controlled surrounding environment.
The psychological aspects of this construction are linked to a really strong and invasive transit of Universal Qi, which appears in the unease caused by the total lack of privacy and protection.
The rooms are totally exposed in a continuity between the inside and the outside, there is no place where you can feel “in utero” and each weather change, from the rain to the burning sun, is certainly controlled with a great electrical consumption since there are no solar panels on the roof.
Environment suitable for a restaurant or a summer pavilion.
Above, three images of the main rooms of Fallingwater (1935-39) by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania
Frank Lloyd Wright
This house, built by the american architect right above a waterfall, in the depths of the wood in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, between 1934 and 1937, put in direct critical contact the new architectonic theories developed in Europe — especially with Le Corbusier — and the american ones, drawn by their leading figure at the time, Wright, from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then, through Louis Sullivan, even from Walt Withman.
But the differences between european and american theories remained considerable, although western modern architecture was about to enter its ripe age:
in his Fallingwater, Wright elaborates a building that amazes the world, both for its structural complexity and the juxtaposition of its pure volumes, free from any symmetry and external decoration and immersed in a completely natural environment, which was definitely something new for his architecture. What this style had in common with the european architecture, of Le Corbusier in particular, was the total freedom from any scheme in the plan and facade, as well as the absence of ties with the past. The differences, however, remained huge. The main one was, for Wright, the direct and explicit relationship between architecture and location, the former becoming an organic whole with the latter, by adapting to it and reflecting it, and also taking into account the orographic, climatic, cultural condition of its surrounding. The european idea, supported by Le Corbusier and other previous authors, wanted architecture to be an expression of internationalism, based on those criteria of multiplicity and repeatability that were followed in the car industry and aimed at a general standardization and prefabrication. If the european “machine à habiter” could be placed anywhere — town, sea or mountain area — creating a strong contrast between the white modernist stereometry and its natural or historical location, the american thought was that beauty should come from an adaptation to the place itself, and architecture should be able to camouflage and adapt to a place’s features, especially the ones that have an impact on our senses, like wild nature, an urban or agricultural context... A totally different approach to places: if in Europe it was considered possible to put natural events under control and take advantage of them by directing them to healthiness and physical well-being, in the United States their effects on our psyche were still romantically enhanced, as well as that positive influence always evoked by nature on man, despite its irrational and mystical origin.
Fallingwater was realized for Edgar J. Kaufmann, department store magnate and sought-after costumer for architects (he also had a house built by Richard Neutra in Palm Springs in 1946). Maybe his “House on the waterfall”, the most published architecture of the modern, went beyond a specialistic field and became an icon of american art’s new frontiers. Its staggered floors on the surface of the water were immediately praised by the journalism on current events for their fascinating and crystalline geometries, and so was its luxurious interior, so “american” in its traditional juxtaposition of materials and natural colours, and able to reflect the whole american dream of an adventurous experience.
By observing the environment of Fallingwater, trying to breath its air that mixes the interior and the exterior so intensively, peering at its corners and wide rooms, we can be sure of one thing: living here must be an intense experience, as many of its visitors have stated after the recent renovations. Its owners were enthusiastic as soon as they took possession of it, as the chronicles tell; but it must be said that if this had been a purpose built house and not only a refuge for the weekends, clearly played on the adventurous connection with the water running below (starting from the little ladder hanging beneath and made for diving, commissioned with the project’s assignment) it would have certainly been a failure. The interiors, of huge width (highlighted by the rooms’ poor height) are maybe just a showcase for Edgar and his family’s ambitions, and the triumphant fireplace with its gigantic kettle, founded straight on the rock and turning the stream into a loud waterfall, is the theatrical transposition of an emersonian pioneer bivouac, whose counter alter is an internal excessive decoration, full of wooden mouldings that dramatize even further an environment that already causes anxiety. We believe that the house didn’t allow to sleep peacefully, neither to have a serene relationship with the surrounding nature. We don’t know much about the use that its owners made of it at the time. We know, however, that they chose a different architect for their following houses.
The peculiarity of this house is being right above a water course.
Water has a molecular memory, organized in clusters, able to influence the surrounding environment by altering the biological structure of all living beings. If you live near a water course, you need to have a precise worldly wisdom.
Living above a waterfall, with its rushing vitality, needs some further precautions that only the massive rectangular terrace protects in part. The house is in fact englobed in a rocky ground, and the minerals inevitably become in tune with the effects caused by water and amplified by the waterfall.
This way, a really strong and archetypal Yin-Yang overflows toward the house.
In the East, it would be unthinkable to build such a construction without foreseeing the functional harmonies that could allow the Qi energy, produced by the powerful water flow, to go upwards. A “fortress” like this would be considered a place exclusively suitable for a gathering of personnel and animals.
Above, three corners belonging to the houses examined, definitely more significant than the main rooms for understanding the architects’ personalities and their architectonic approaches. In Ville Savoye, we can notice a first attempt to design the bathroom in a less miserable and functional way, during an historical phase that gave little attention to this room, except in the houses of the aristocracy or the upper middle class. Attempts of cubist expression aimed at reaching a domestic physical well-being that was not in everyday use yet. Mies’ conception of kitchen space was quite squalid, and considered this room as a pure transition point, far different from the dear old kitchens of Central European tradition, where you could both cook and dine. Here, the prevailing conception is the american “cook and ride”, possibly aimed at preparing frequent drinks to be enjoyed on the sofas. Even more intimate is the american tradition of dining in a rural place, around the family table, brought back by Wright. But why placing the house in the most panoramic and wild point of the region, inside the forest and above the waterfall, and then forcing the owners to dine without windows, surrounded by walls that look like a cave? If Bruno Zevi was still alive, I would ask him this question.
for Taccuini Internazionali:
Enrico Mercatali and Vanessa Passoni
Milan, 4th July 2012
(translated from italian by Penelope Mirotti)
Lesa, 8 Agosto 2012