Toward a Carchitecture: Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye

Genevieve Hendricks
May 28, 2013 5:41PM

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the automobile, the airplane, and the steamship announced the arrival of the machine age. The automobile in particular was heralded as a beacon of modernity and enthralled the poets, artists, and architects who followed the development of its design and manufacture. Cars fascinated Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and he repeatedly addressed the power and potential of motor vehicles in his writings, projects, and urban studies. The voracious rate at which automotive technology progressed, as well as the refinement of streamlined production processes, produced a mechanistic phenomenon that transformed perceptions and perspectives of travel and tempo. By creating the condition for such new views, the automobile functioned both as a symbol embodying mobility, power and speed, and as a concrete object. Le Corbusier’s enthrallment with these machines reveals itself at vital moments in his career when he articulated the shifting needs of architecture and society as the city developed on the scale of motion. In the Villa Savoye (1928-1931), one of his more visionary projects incorporating these themes, the car becomes the hero of a quest story.

The architectural promenade begins with the automobile leaving Paris to journey to the suburban villa in Poissy, during which trip the landscape would be viewed fleeting by rapidly while framed by the rectangle of the car window. The pastoral provides the backdrop for the mechanical, as the car speeds through the countryside, reducing the surrounding greenery and vegetation to a blur. All comes into focus with the gradual diminution of speed as the machine pulls into the driveway of the Villa itself. Le Corbusier was quick to point out that the base of the building was designed to accommodate the turning radius of a Voisin car passing under its elevated main floor.

Upon leaving the car one enters the house and proceeds upward on the central ramp which leads to the main floor in a maneuver both celebrating mobility and also seeking to re-establish an equilibrium between man and nature after the exhilarating ride from the city to the villa. The ramp facilitates a smooth gliding motion that continues the sense of movement of the automobile, but now at the slower pace of the pedestrian. Reaching the rooftop terrace, the visitor is provided with a final framed view which ritualistically re-enacts the initial vista through the car window that began the sequence when leaving Paris.

Images copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, and may  not be reproduced without permission.

Genevieve Hendricks