Power and Representation I: Le Corbusier’s three “pre-modern” houses
Wu Dingwen (Tongji University, Shanghai)
“Ornament is crime.” Adolf Loos used these words to oppose the Vienna Secession, that he reproached for not emphasizing the characteristics of the material itself and ignoring cultural continuity. In his eyes, their focus on uneconomic and nonfunctional decoration resulted in the disorder of form and function. Loos’ thesis is frequently taken out of context in short sight, even to the extent that people will oppose architectural decoration altogether. It is a powerful and resonating quote, similar to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s declaration that “Less is more”, which is worshiped as a standard by many people, failing to understand the true cause.
But in fact, the discussion about ornament had been going on for some time. (The english words “ornament” and “decoration” are often translated with the same word in Chinese (装饰), but there are distinctions of course.) No matter if it’s Gottfried Semper’s “Ornamental Theory” or Auguste Perret’s opposing contributions to Art Deco, Mies, Louis Kahn, Rem Koolhaas… from early on until now, a great number of architects have issued their comments. Kenneth Frampton used his “Studies in Tectonic Culture” to reestablish the constructive nature of architecture as its foundation, and in his introduction also mentioned Semper’s and Loos’s contributions to the discussion.
However, this article is not meant to weigh in with a new opinion, asking if decoration is righteous or not. Rather I want to talk about Le Corbusier’s early designs, the three houses in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds. As architecture students in the second year, space is always the main subject of our studies: the understanding of space as a thing-in-itself, under the influence of tectonic thinking. Who can still picture the master of modernism, Le Corbusier, once enrolling in art school, taking courses about art and decoration, and in the early years even putting a lot of energy into architectural decoration? His later designs and contributions to urban planning from the period of modernism may be the most iconic. But from the work in his former hometown, it is obvious Le Corbusier already had in mind to avoid the decorative style. Still, the three designs reveal a cordial and lovely side. They also give us a better understanding of how the master grew up.
Built in 1905, the Villa Fallet was the first real architectural design of Le Corbusier. When he was 18 years of age and still in art school, it was completed by him with the assistant of architect René Chapallaz. The owner Fallet was a local jeweler, and the hills of La Chaux were selected as base for the building. Looking at the outside, the choice of slope roof and stone material lets the construction blend well with the mountain scenery. It is a typical design that speaks the language of the local architecture. The facade shows a decorative pattern of pine cones and trees, but there is already a certain degree of abstraction and geometry. This also reflects the influence of the decorative composition method of Eugène Grasset on Le Corbusier, by which natural forms were transformed in a simple and geometric way.
The front stairs of rugged rock are quite strange. They have the mood of an oriental garden, but I do not know if this was the original design or added by later generations. Although the whole design is well blended, it is still difficult to find a trace of the Le Corbusier familiar to us. And nowadays, the modern building on the neighboring base is directly exposed to the rough concrete surface of the outside. There is a sense of Brutalism, which makes us almost misunderstand the situation at first.
Le Corbusier’s most important design in his hometown was “Maison blanche”, the white villa. This was his first independent design. Entrusted by his parents to design their own residence, it was also the first design completed by Le Corbusier after his famous Oriental journey. Since then, he gradually broke away from the traditional Swiss style of the mountain log cabin associated with his early years. He now began to emerge the classical architectural principle of axial space organization. In the outer appearance, no longer does he follow Ruskin’s influence of abstracted natural forms in the decorative patterns. Instead, the decoration was reduced to a minimum. The impact of Le Corbusier’s Eastern trip gradually emerged.
Four pillars, 50 x 60 cm each, make up the main body, and also define the most important interior space, as the mother’s piano rehearsal hall was in the core of the building. While the external walls could not be exchanged, the indoor walls have no structural function and could be replaced at will. This seems to faintly reveal Le Corbusier’s later domino system and free ground plan design.
The interior uses the French style of Louis XIV. The furniture selection is truly elegant. Most surprising are the architect’s color accents, reconciling a degree of relaxation, showing traces of his skills as a painter, and revealing his excellent and unrivaled taste. Whether it is the handrail of the staircase or the framing of the fireplace, meticulous design can be found in all details. Even on the floor there are traces of hand-drawn patterns. The logic and order of the architectural details are clear and delicate. Although it is really not an integrated design that doesn’t reveal traces, it still blends seamlessly with the architectural temperament. The outer facade is completely white. While it is very pure, some may find this uninteresting, but the decoration of the interior details, and the meticulous node structure makes you feel like you are on a treasure hunt. The eyes cannot take it all in, and one is not able to grasp where the architect has hidden all his profound theory.
The Villa Schwob, which was completed in 1916, was the only one of the buildings in La Chaux he was really willing to write about in the architecture magazine “The New Spirit”. It was the last design in his home town before he went to Paris in 1917 and also his most famous design there.
The building is also the first time that Le Corbusier has used his theory of “Five Points of Architecture”. The position and size of the gates and windows are determined by the golden ratio. The astringent piling of the three stories of eaves is also obviously affected by Oriental thinking. Therefore the house is also known as the “Villa Turque.”
Since we were not able to enter the building, I cannot comment on the interior layout. However, as can be seen from the plan, the square of the building strengthens the level of space composition, showing characteristics of classical architecture. The flat roof structure indicates that reinforced concrete roofing has been used for the building, and the transition from slope to flat is most directly visible in this one of the three designs.
The Building facade has a large blank space on one wall. Some scholars analyzed that this was reflecting Le Corbusier’s typical practice, or it could even be a prototype for the famous Savoy villa. But Shi Zhiming in his work “Le Corbusier” points out that the true reason was nothing more than the owner’s dissatisfaction about the costs of the building, which were exceeding the budget by far. He canceled the originally planned mosaic, so the space was left blank.
Speaking about Le Corbusier, whether it is the perfectly classic embodiment of his white Savoy villa, following his “Five Points of a Modern Architecture”, or his industrially influenced view that the “house is a machine to live in”, it seems Le Corbusier had become too “modern” and advanced for his age. The enlightening declaration published in “The New Spirit” was so firm and decisive that he immediately became a symbol of the times. That he deliberately avoided the style still evident in the designs of his hometown made people feel that he was born with unique advanced ideas, and it is difficult to trace back his growth. In the three designs left by Corbusier in his hometown, you can see how the decorations are abstract at first and then eventually disappear.
In my opinion, the most impressive is still his smart and witty organization of space, as well as the later years of Chandigarh in India, where he made large-scale designs with both commemorative and ceremonial aspects. But before he became the master with slicked-back hair and round glasses, looking grave and stern, his three “pre-modern” houses just made me think he was still loveable at one time. Like the complex and superfluous decoration of Gothic churches is totally incompatible with today’s spirit of the times, the same goes for concise and vivid architectural details.
Nowadays we are looking at even more coarseness and simplicity. Always following the same pattern, concrete plates that make up the outer facades are the standard of architectural design. Facing the pursuit of exaggeration to show off skill, the boundless run for the trend of parametric design, or dealing with people who have no respect for architecture, I also lost some direction. However, coming to La Chaux-de-Fonds, the three “pre-modern” designs of Le Corbusier were still beautiful and moving to me, and they let me look into a designer’s sincere heart. Studying architecture has nothing to do with ideology, but giving the people opportunities to be moved by the beauty. In my approach to architecture, this will be the first and also the ultimate pursuit. Thank you Le Corbusier!
Translated by Konrad Winkler