Sunday, November 7, 2010

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye
OK, I don’t know how to pronounce it either. But the taxi driver in Poissy understood where we wanted to go, so that turned out fine. We were very pleased with ourselves having successfully negotiated the big train interchange at Les Halles (a rather awful place these days) and managing to get on the correct train out to Poissy, about a 30 minute journey from central Paris. Our friendly taxi driver deposited us at the gate of a charming park in full autumnal colours. It was raining, so we made our way damply through the fallen leaves to – finally – espy the Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier’s most famous building, and Evan’s “favourite”. Built in 1929 (the same year as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, for those of you who have been keeping up) as a country house for a private family, the Villa bears the family’s name. They have long since gone down the toilet bowl of history, but the Villa has been restored and is open for inspection.

Terrace and living room from the ramp

Wash basin in the front hall (??)

We began with the interior. It was the drier option, even though the Villa Savoye is notorious for leaking. It was the first and classic example of Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of New Architecture’: concrete piles or stilts, a free facade, an open floor plan, long ribbon windows and a roof garden. All these points from the architect’s manifesto are illustrated in this building. Coming to the building as a lay person, so to speak, I was very impressed. The place is light filled, colourful, intuitive to navigate, clever (in the bedroom spaces in particular), has an attractive stairway and an inviting ramp, and delightful views to the patch of countryside which still surrounds it. The place just feels good inside, and looks serenely beautiful outside.

We overdid the photos, marvelled at all the details, sloshed about in the rain and wet leaves to take outside shots, and kept exclaiming how amazing it was that this was built in 1929 – it could be built tomorrow and seem modern. The influence of Le Corbusier is undoubted. Then there is that weird thing about changing his name (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret – he was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen later in his life) to...Le Corbusier. Apparently adopting a single name to identify oneself was the ’in’ thing with artistic types at the time, especially in Paris in 1920. Le Corbusier felt that it indicated that anyone could reinvent themselves (Schopenhauer would have disagreed, but that’s another blog post).

We had a lovely wet morning in Poissy, and then successfully took the train back into Paris. This time we detrained at a different station and popped up to street level at the Arc de Triomphe. The rain was heavier, and it was necessary to find the nearest cosy bistro for warmth, dryness, food, hot chocolate, and, incidentally, their free wi-fi. This cosy place proved hard to leave, and it was rather late in the afternoon when we set out for our next objective, the Cité de l’architecture, housed in the Trocadero above the Tour Eiffel. Dripping, we huddled gratefully indoors, and found such a charming place that we stayed for the next three hours.  Well, it was raining out.

The museum is presently showing a temporary exhibition focussing on architecture in cartoons. The display was very absorbing (and very crowded) and included lots of panels showing the ways in which cartoon artists create worlds in their drawings, both realistic and fanciful – even utopian. There was also a display and model of the new building in Brussels devoted to Hergé, the creator of ‘Tintin’. A visit to Brussels to see this is now very high up on my (long) ‘To Do’ list.

The Herge Museum in Brussels - on  The List

Tour Eiffel & cafe au lait
In the coffee shop in the museum we could sit in recreations of designer chairs and view the Tour Eiffel up close and personal. We visited several long galleries displaying facades, capitals, statues, doorways and sometimes whole chunks of medieval (and later) churches, saved for posterity (and the patronomie) presumably when the churches, chapels and convents to which they were originally attached were destroyed. Displayed against deep red walls, these fragments look very impressive.

In the modern architecture gallery we could see models of dozens of spectacular modern buildings in France (and a wonderful one of the now destroyed UK Crystal Palace). But the really exciting thing in this gallery was example of one of Le Corbusier’s ‘unite de habitation’ from Marseille. We examined the models, the drawings, the comparative buildings, the information: and then realised that the structure we were standing in actually housed an actual example of one of these apartments: the very first modern apartments ever designed. Le Corbusier had an incalculable influence (I skim lightly over the social problems that came with apartment living – that’s another story).

Cité de l’architecture
The evening was rounded off with French food at Drouant, home of Chef Antoine Westermann, finishing far too late but replete and with a great sense of achievement. A day spent well, if damply.

Wet leaves on the Avenue Victor Hugo
(Marilyn & Jim's picture)

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