Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Please do not tell me about Castle Howard


With great reluctance, I know, we do find ourselves returning to architectural manifestations of human aspiration and of human folly. This is because we habituate ourselves to the notion of satisfying our aspirations with our compartments. We know this is no way to look at a building or a bedroom, but we persist, even if we may think it is for no better reason than to be sociable to friends immersed in the same error. 

The conspicuously original examples of architectural approaches to satisfying these aspirations, still stir our youth in that discipline to visit them as exemplifications of their own energy at the apogee of its pathos. Beyond any question this much-exalted, much-derided work of the Century lately laid by, is of that character. Colin Rowe's Mathematics of the Ideal Villa  - comparing this architect's residential works with Palladio's - remains as proper a speculation as any, as to what we are looking for, as we edge away not from the past but from equivocation.

The difference is that between the universal, and the decorative or merely competent; perhaps in both cases it is the adherence to rules which has lapsed.

This edifice is not a success in many of the gestures offered as an excuse for its erection -- machine for living pre-eminent among them. What it is, is one of the 3 most influential houses of the century - Wright's Robie House and Mies' Farnsworth House being the others, of course - and one of the greatest revolutions in the conception of human domesticity still standing on this planet. It is very clear to the naked eye that this conception gropes for first principles, so to speak, of what could be the ideal compartment.

But that is not why we love the Villa Savoie. The things to be loved about this house are innumerable, but they center on glorious sensations of light and movement, per se, in every step throughout its enclosure and about its perimeter. These stimulating, these soothing and musical responses, need I say, describe the fundamental, stunning ecstasy of a walkabout at Monticello.

And yet it is within its spare enclosure that we hold the succinctest cognisance of drawing breath. I don't think one ever adapts to Le Corbusier's villa -- and I think he knew that. One is always in flux there. When he wrote, at his most Cartesian moment, "I occupy space, therefore I am," he could not have thought he was sitting down. Colin Rowe crystallised where our appreciation comes from, in assimilating the seeming radicalism of the architect's consistent residential vision:

Corbusier selects the irrelevant and the particular, the fortuitously picturesque and the incidentally significant forms of mechanics, as the objects of his virtuosity. They retain their original implications of classical landscape, mechanical precision, rococo intimacy; one is able to cease hold of them as known objects, and sometimes as basic shapes; but they become only transiently provocative. Unlike Palladio’s forms there is nothing final about their relationship: their rapprochement would seem to be affected by the artificial emptying of the cube, when the senses are confounded by the apparent arbitrariness, and the intellect more than convinced by the intuitive knowledge, that here in spite of all to the contrary, there is order and there are rules.

The anonymous friend who gave us our glimpses of Notre Dame du Haut is accountable for this interior "shot." It is typical and exemplary, and it is definitive. This is one's life within this vision. It may be too little, it may be too much. But it gives a very fine impression of being a mold not of oneself, but for one's own completion. More than for the jubilance of its youthful vigor, I love this house for its reminders of, but also for its leniency toward my incorrigibility. I truly do adore my imagined life in its contours, and I leave it as a blank slate to my heirs.

Stair photograph lent by an anonymous friend


  1. hi laurent - my first degree included two years of architecture - and my first and almost greatest love was the work of le corbusier - i'd love to experience one of his buildings - walk through the opened up and flowing spaces. another favourite was mies van der rohe whose architecture i experienced in barcelona, the German National Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition - restrained but sensous

  2. The "Barcelona Pavilion" is restored now and needs to have been. That said, as precious as it is, in important respects it is Mies' 2nd (but first public) iteration of a general plan and vision he developed for a family in Czechoslovakia. You will find Mies entering this blog, indefinitely.

    In my modest sense of things, the desire to experience one of Le Corbusier's dwellings is tantamount to doing so, so spectacularly do they, as you say, open up and flow, moderately dimensioned as his grid may be. This cannot be said of Wright -- or Mies, even at his least partitioned. As you will notice, the focus of Colin Rowe's essay is the Villa at Garches, not at Poissy, but the essay explicitly embraces them both 'in principle'.