Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture

Le Corbusier used his design for a weekend house to demonstrate that functionalist rules for architecture could produce a new style and a great work of art.

Summary of Event

The Villa Savoye, also known as Les Heures Claires, is the most beautiful, rigorous, and subtle building designed during the tumultuous developing years of modern architecture, 1919-1930. When the building’s architect, Le Corbusier, undertook its design in 1928, he had been the leading spokesman for the modern movement in architecture for five years. His aphorism “A house is a machine for living,” published in his 1923 book Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture, 1927), Towards a New Architecture (Le Corbusier) articulated the beliefs of many radical architects in the decade after World War I. Architecture, Le Corbusier declared, could be a living art only if architects ceased to copy past artistic styles and worked toward a simple expression of functional needs. The bare white walls and relentlessly regular streets in Le Corbusier’s drawings of as-yet-unbuilt designs, and his praise of automobiles, steamships, and mass-produced cheap goods, gave him a reputation as a farsighted but extreme propagandist for functionalism. Because of the broad scope of his proposals, he was much better known as a theorist of urban planning than as an architect. [kw]Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture (Spring, 1931)[Le Corbusiers Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture (Spring, 1931)]
[kw]Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture, Le Corbusier’s (Spring, 1931)
[kw]Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture, Le Corbusier’s Villa (Spring, 1931)
[kw]Functionalist Architecture, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies (Spring, 1931)
[kw]Architecture, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist (Spring, 1931)
Villa Savoye
Architecture;Villa Savoye
Heures Claires, Les
[g]France;Spring, 1931: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture[07800]
[c]Architecture;Spring, 1931: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye Exemplifies Functionalist Architecture[07800]
Le Corbusier
Jeanneret, Pierre
Savoye, Mme Pierre

In 1928, Le Corbusier’s office was busy with several large-scale commissions, including a hostel for Swiss students in Paris and a government office complex in Moscow. He had built a few low-budget houses around Paris for artists and patrons. In the fall of that year, the wife of wealthy Parisian Pierre Savoye asked him to design a three-bedroom weekend villa on some twelve acres above the Seine valley; Le Corbusier later described Mme Savoye as without preconceptions for or against modernism. The building budget—approximately 350,000 francs—was far greater than any of his previous house budgets.

The house was to be built on a gently domed hill in the middle of a field. As presented in October, 1928, the plans for the project called for a square reinforced-concrete dwelling unit with four long strip windows, lifted a story above ground level on twenty-five slim concrete pillars (pilotis). Within the open ground-floor space was a driveway curved around a glass-walled entry chamber. On the top floor was another curved-wall space enclosing Mme Savoye’s bedroom. When this project was rejected as too expensive (758,000 francs), Le Corbusier presented a second, less elegant proposal in November, 1928; thereafter, however, he fought to return to the layout of the first concept. Optimistic budget estimates and the elimination of the top-floor bedroom (its curved wall remained as a roof-garden screen) led the Savoyes to approve the project in December, 1928, at a budget of 487,000 francs. Construction began in April, 1929. The Savoyes moved into the villa in the spring of 1931, but Le Corbusier began featuring the house in his writings and lectures as early as October, 1929. For the architect, it represented the culmination of all his work and theories to date.

The Villa Savoye’s design owed much less to the Savoyes’ specific requirements than to the “five points of a new architecture” formulated by Le Corbusier and his cousin and design partner Pierre Jeanneret in 1926. These “points” were a list of functional requirements for buildings in the machine-age city that would become a universal stylistic vocabulary for architecture. The first point called for the elevation of the building on concrete posts, separating human-made buildings from the landscape and making the space under them accessible to nature and human circulation. The second point called for the creation of roof gardens, replacing the light, air, and greenery eliminated by a building by making them part of the building itself. The third point concerned the “open plan,” the separation of load-bearing pillars (concrete or steel) from walls that were to act only as screens—a requirement of structural honesty. The fourth point, the strip window, was intended to give the interior uniform light and the outside a sense of horizontal repose. The fifth, the “free facade”—the construction of the outside wall as a thin screen, not a bearing wall—would allow building fronts to be composed for aesthetic effect. The sense of overlapping thin walls, punctuated by windows and cutouts, would create an abstract, cubist aesthetic for the building.

The Villa Savoye fulfills all five points masterfully in a complex yet integrated whole. The principle of the “open plan” separates the structural pilotis from the enclosure, made of taut, thin concrete walls finished in smooth white stucco. Resting on its white pilotis, the house rises from its field as the image of abstract reason in harmony with nature. The “open plan” also turns practical circulation into dramas of spatial experience—first as one drives up to and under the house by car, then as one climbs the interior ramp or the adjacent spiral staircase from the entry to the free-form living floor. This floor wraps around an open terrace, from which another ramp climbs to the steamship-funnel-like roof screen. The terrace represents the principle of the roof garden inserted into the mass of the building. The ribbon windows are uniform on all four sides, even where they cut through the wall that encloses the terrace. The house thus combines symmetry and repose with an exciting intermingling of closed and open spaces.

The Villa Savoye is a “machine” for beauty and harmony with nature. Le Corbusier declared that the Savoyes, “who will have come here because this countryside was beautiful . . . will contemplate it, preserved intact, from the height of their suspended garden or from the four sides of the long window. Their domestic life will be inserted into a Virgilian dream.”


Le Corbusier himself saw the Villa Savoye as the climax of his ideas of the 1920’s, but not as a new starting point. His designs soon began to change radically. The house’s critical success, however, forced reconsideration of the nature of Le Corbusier’s achievement and provided justification on several levels for adopting his methods.

For critics, the house disproved the common estimation of Le Corbusier as an art-hating functionalist who could conceive utopian cities but not real buildings. In reality, as the Villa Savoye proved, Le Corbusier saw architecture as an art before anything else. The white, rectilinear style in which he worked symbolized for him the marble classical architecture of the Mediterranean world, the exotic stucco architecture of the Arabs, and the vision-transforming planes of cubist painting. (The architect was himself a painter; he called his orderly version of cubism “Purism.”) Functionalism was only the twentieth century’s means toward architecture’s eternal purpose: to give walls and space vivid emotional impact.

The Villa Savoye realized this purpose in a new, abstract way. In its geometric purity, it could be read as a contemporary version of the perfect harmony of the classical temple or the Renaissance country mansions of Andrea Palladio. The interplay of wall screens, solid geometrical shapes, and half-hidden open spaces gave the house an abstractness unknown to classical architecture, as did the way in which functional elements became part of the composition. Modernity and technology, in Le Corbusier’s hands, could call up the whole past history of the architectural art without ceasing to be the tools of “the machine for living.”

The Villa Savoye’s aesthetic success seemed to bear out the inevitability of the “five points of a new architecture.” With the very limited repertory of the points—white freestanding walls, exposed supports, ribbon windows, unornamented right-angle forms, flat roofs—Le Corbusier had created a structure that seemed to meet all possible requirements of modern building, practical, urbanistic, ideological, and aesthetic. Younger architects who had come to doubt the usefulness of classic and Gothic Revival styles took Le Corbusier at his word and declared that his manner was a perfected style—in fact, the only possible style. This was the argument made by the Museum of Modern Art Museum of Modern Art (New York) in New York in its seminal “International Style” exhibition of 1932, which showed the work of Le Corbusier and others in order to prove that such a new style existed. The argument was taken up by such architects as Wallace Harrison and Edward Durrell Stone in America, Bertold Lubetkin and the Tecton Group in England, and Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil. Despite angry disclaimers by modernists with different approaches, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the “white box” style canonized in the Villa Savoye came to seem mandatory for contemporary architecture.

The Villa Savoye also proved that functionalist beliefs did not necessarily lead to low-budget, utilitarian decisions in design. A sensitive artist could transform a type or program—in this case, the modern house—into a personal, unique work. That Le Corbusier had transformed functionalism into art was a crucial point in the arguments over modernism in the period from 1928 to 1931. His own earlier writings had given the (mistaken) impression that he saw modern architecture as a cheap form of social planning, not an aesthetic discipline. The idea that functionalism could be the means of building a new visual and social world economically had been even more strongly advanced by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus design school in Germany, and by German municipal housing architects. To such designers at the beginning of the Depression, preoccupation with art in preference to society seemed blinkered, willfully individualist, and reactionary. By putting art, in the form of the Villa Savoye, before social reform, Le Corbusier seemed to be breaking with this position.

Supporters of the modernist aesthetic who feared that social planning would replace artistic judgment in a social revolution were relieved to see that the greatest practitioner of the modern style was not a revolutionary. This sense of relief was essential to the Museum of Modern Art’s encouragement of the Villa Savoye’s style and helped lead to the adoption of Le Corbusier’s manner (and that of the equally art-conscious German modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) as the style of the corporate establishment after World War II. The power of Le Corbusier’s earlier urban-renewal arguments, however, made his approach equally acceptable to the architects of government housing projects during and after the Depression. After World War II, urban-renewal architects tended to confuse his arguments with those of Gropius.

By the time Les Heures Claires was completed in 1931, Le Corbusier himself had begun to transform the elements of the “five points,” especially the piloti, box, and free wall, into heavier and more earthbound terms. His Swiss Pavilion in Paris (1931) used massive concrete pilotis with sculptural shapes and stone facings on the hostel block. The De Mandrot house of the same year rested on the ground, not on posts, and used fieldstone and rough plywood. Having proved in the Villa Savoye that machinelike abstract geometry could be used to make great buildings, Le Corbusier began to explore organic shapes and materials toward the same end. It would be some two decades before his followers took up this path themselves, and still longer before architects and critics realized that his ideal had been the freedom of the artist, not the necessity of machine functionalism. Villa Savoye
Architecture;Villa Savoye
Heures Claires, Les

Further Reading

  • Benton, Tim. “The Villa Savoye and the Architect’s Practice.” In Le Corbusier, edited by H. Allen Brooks. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Traces how Le Corbusier developed the Villa Savoye’s design, using the architect’s preliminary drawings and his lectures about the house. Discussions of budget and the clients’ complaints illuminate the practical problems of Le Corbusier’s art. Includes illustrations and index.
  • _______. The Villas of Le Corbusier, 1920-1930. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Chronological catalog describes the circumstances, characteristics, and importance of all the architect’s house designs before 1930. Presents little discussion of nonresidential work of the same years. Provides a full list of surviving architectural drawings of Le Corbusier buildings.
  • Blake, Peter. The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright. Rev. ed. 1976. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Provides an accessible and entertaining account of Le Corbusier’s life and principles. Somewhat dated; chapters written during the subject’s life were not revised after his death, and the book reflects little of the widespread dissatisfaction with modernism after 1960. Includes index.
  • Curtis, William J. R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. 3d ed. London: Phaidon Press, 1996. A general textbook that devotes much attention to Le Corbusier and defends his achievements against contemporary and later critiques. Synthesizes the insights of other authors and critics while stressing the classical features of the Villa Savoye and other Le Corbusier work of the 1920’s. Includes endnotes and index.
  • Jencks, Charles. Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture. New York: Monacelli Press, 2000. Biography by a noted architectural historian covers Le Corbusier’s personal life as well as the development of his work. Includes endnotes and index.
  • _______. Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. Presents an often complex analysis that convincingly links the biographical, artistic, and theoretical in the architect’s work. More inclusive than Benton’s account (cited above), but more speculative. Includes index.
  • Le Corbusier. Precisions: On the Present State of Architecture of City Planning. Translated by Edith Schreiber Aujame. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. Collection of the 1929 Buenos Aires lectures in which Le Corbusier explained the Villa Savoye as the synthesis of his principles. Illustrated by the architect’s own sketches.
  • Rowe, Colin. The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, and Other Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976. The title essay introduced the idea that Le Corbusier’s architecture had classical as well as functionalist sources. This and the other essays illuminate how architects can be inspired by the past in indirect ways, but Rowe often relies more on hunches than on scholarship.

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