The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier – Villa “Le Lac”

As the UNESCO comments:

Chosen from the work of Le Corbusier, the 17 sites comprising this transnational serial property are spread over seven countries and are a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past. They were built over a period of a half-century, in the course of what Le Corbusier described as “patient research”. The Complexe du Capitole in Chandigarh (India), the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (Japan), the House of Dr Curutchet in La Plata (Argentina) and the Unité d’habitation in Marseille (France) reflect the solutions that the Modern Movement sought to apply during the 20th century to the challenges of inventing new architectural techniques to respond to the needs of society. These masterpieces of creative genius also attest to the internationalization of architectural practice across the planet.

When I first read about the inscription of Le Corbusier’s architectural work in the UNESCO World Heritage, I tried to find out which buildings were on the list. During this process, I was shocked to learn that his designs had been implemented over half a century and have survived in 11 countries, on four continents! The inscribed ones are distributed over seven countries in three continents, testifying for the first time in the history of architecture the internationalization of architectural practice around the world.

From the 1910s to the 1960s, new concepts and ideas, new architectural language and techniques have been raised, discussed, experimented and implemented to address the social and architectural issues that the 20th century was facing. The inscribed 17 sites, designed and constructed during the Modern Movement, have had a great influence over the whole world and are representatives of all the buildings which have been successful in solving social problems and meeting the needs of modern men. Some of them were immediately regarded as icons and had world-wide influences; some of them “acted as catalysts for spreading ideas around their own regions”; some of them reflect innovative concepts, principles and techniques; some of them inspired major trends in the Modern Movement such as Purism, Brutalism, and the transfer to sculptural form of architecture; some of them were designed as prototype for mass production and some of them placed the emphasis on and advocated the needs of “modern men in the machine age”.

For example, Villa Savoye is an icon for the Modern Movement, a perfect example of Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of Architecture“; Unité d’habitation Marseille is the preliminary vision of a housing model which emphasizes on the balance between individual and community and promoted BrutalismChapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut testifies to the new approaches to religious architecture and the transformation towards sculptural architectural formsMaison Guiete stimulated the Modern Movement in Belgium and the Netherlands and demonstrated Purism; Musée National des Beaux-Arts de l’Occident brought the idea of Modern Movement to JapanComplexe du Capitole symbolized India’s modernization and testifies to architectural innovations such as the use of sunscreens, double-skinned roofs, reflecting pools etc.; Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier is an early expression of minimalism; and La Manufacture à Saint- Dié, Cité Frugè, Maisons de la Weissenhof-Siedlung and Immeuble Clarté provide evidence proving that architectural designs and constructions should be adapted to the new needs of modern men and should be intended for the general public. Of course, certain buildings might be more significant or influential in certain aspects but overall, each of them is equally important and has made great contributions to the development of modern architecture.

Just if you are interested, below is the list of all the 17 architectural work of Le Corbusier inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage. If you go to the cities or countries where they are located maybe you wouldn’t want to miss them. I was a bit upset when I learnt that they were all over the world because different from writing about the 7 inscribed buildings of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, it would be very difficult to visit the all the ones of Le Corbusier and to write about them. Nevertheless, I’ve made myself a plan and a challenge, which are to visit them whenever I’m close by.

  • Argentina
    • Maison du docteur Curutchet
  • Japan
    • Musée National des Beaux-Arts de l’Occident
  • India
    • Complexe du Capitole
  • Belgium
    • Maison Guiete
  • France
    • Immeuble locatif à la Porte Molitor
    • Villa Savoye et loge du jardiner
    • Cité Frugès
    • Maison de la Culture de Firminy
    • Couvent Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette
    • Unité d’habitation Marseille
    • Cabanon de Le Corbusier
    • Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp
    • La Manufacture à Saint- Dié
  • Switzerland
    • Immeuble Clarté
    • Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier
  • Germany
    • Maisons de la Weissenhof-Siedlung

Now, I summarize here why Le Corbusier is the leading figure in modern architecture:

  • his work was creative, innovative and revolutionary and made a break with the past
  • his work reacted to the architectural and social challenges of the 20th century
  • the concepts and principles of his work have been spread constantly through half a century and widely over the whole world (over four continents).
  • his work influences directly and deeply the birth and development of the Modern Movement
  • his work marks the birth of three major trends: Purism, Brutalism and sculptural architecture
  • his work “represents a “New Spirit” that reflects a synthesis of architecture, painting and sculpture”
  • his work testifies to the modernization of architectural techniques and to the response to the needs of the modern society and modern men

Considering the 17 properties are distributed in 7 countries on 3 continents, the protection of them is especially a tough task. Through decades, the integrity and authenticity of several building have been to some extent compromised due to for example, the adding of new sections to the original buildings, war-time destruction, interior changes, conflagration, new construction in the surrounding area etc. I was really happy when I read on the website of the UNESCO World Heritage that:

Given the special problems associated with the conservation of 20th century architecture, a continuous involvement of (inter)national specialists on the conservation of Modern architectural heritage is also essential. In Switzerland the federal administration can call such specialized experts for advice to support the local conservationists (and has done so already). A similar approach is highly recommended for other countries.

What we visitors can do is to respect the properties, that is to say we should follow the rules and keep in mind that once they are damaged they won’t go back to the original state anymore. Taking my visit to the Villa “Le Lac” as an example, I saw visitors opening and closing the doors, touching the walls and the furniture and so on. I’m not sure if these behaviors are allowed or not but even if they are, I think it’s better to control ourselves a bit, reducing the man-made damage to the lowest extent. It’s not like there are treasures behind the walls and if you can go through, why must touch the handles of the doors? The manager can not keep an eye on all the visitors so we, world heritage lovers, have to be conscious and considerate of our own behaviors.

Having explained why the 17 properties have been declared UNESCO World Heritage and mentioned the protection of them, now let’s take a look at the life and main ideas of Le Corbusier.

1. The life and main ideas of Le Corbusier

I was suggested by my friend who studied architecture to look into the life of Le Corbusier before reading about his career. Originally called Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, he was a Swiss and French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer. In 1920, in the first issue of the journal “L’Esprit Nouveau“, which was for the promotion of the new artistic movement Purism, he adopted Le Corbusier (an altered form of his maternal grandfather’s name) as a pen name, reflecting his belief that “anyone could reinvent themselves”.

In fact the first time I “encountered” Le Corbusier was when I was visiting La Chaux-de-Fonds, a city in the French-speaking Neuchâtel canton in north-western Switzerland, in the Jura mountains, just 5 km across the border from France. The tourism office arranged me a tour in both towns (La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle) to have a better understanding of another UNESCO World Heritage sire in Switzerland, “La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, Watchmaking Town Planning“. If you are interested, please click on the link to have a look.

During the tour, the guide told me that Le Corbusier was born here and in 1905, he and two other students, under the supervision of their teacher, René Chapallaz, designed and built his first house in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Villa Fallet. To be honest, I still remember what it looks like and I have to say that if no one has told you before, you probably wouldn’t recognize it. The style, I can say, is dramatically different from his later work. The guide also showed me the “Maison Blanche“, built for Le Corbusier’s parents in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1912 (now a very popular attraction) and the Villa Favre-Jacot built in the same year in Le Locle.

I was indeed shocked when I learnt that he didn’t actually receive formal academic training as an architect. He taught himself “by going to the library to read about architecture and philosophy, by visiting museums, by sketching buildings, and by constructing them”. I guess a genius is a genius, by whichever way, he or she will become a master in certain field. In 1907, he travelled outside Switzerland for the first time and went to Italy. The same winter he went to Vienna and met Gustav Klimt. In the next years, he traveled to Paris, Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, as well as Pompeii and Rome. During my visit to the Villa “Le Lac”, I saw the pottery pieces brought back by him as souvenirs from his journey to the orient in 1911. Of course, these traveling experiences in the 1900s and 1910s also broadened Le Corbusier’s horizon and contributed to his later ideas and concepts in architecture and success in the Modern Movement.

In Florence, he visited the Florence Charterhouse in Galluzzo, which made a lifelong impression on him. “I would have liked to live in one of what they called their cells,” he wrote later. “It was the solution for a unique kind of worker’s housing, or rather for a terrestrial paradise.” He traveled to Paris, and during fourteen months between 1908 until 1910 he worked as a draftsman in the office of the architect Auguste Perret, the pioneer of the use of reinforced concrete in residential construction and the architect of the Art Deco landmark Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

In 1911, he traveled again for five months, filling nearly 80 sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw—including many sketches of the Parthenon, whose forms he would later praise in his work Vers une architecture (1923). He spoke of what he saw during this trip in many of his books, and it was the subject of his last book, Le Voyage d’Orient.

It’s impossible to give you a complete introduction of Le Corbusier’s life in one post, but I do suggest you read more about it on Wikipedia. The article is very well-organized and I believe you will grab a idea of the critical moments of his life in chronological order. For example: Paris: Painting, Cubism, Purism and L’Esprit Nouveau (1918–1922), Decorative Art Today (1925), The Five Points of Architecture (1923–1931), The Founding of the CIAM (1928), The Cité Universitaire, Immeuble Clarté and Cité de Refuge (1928–1933), World War II and Reconstruction: the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille (1939–1952), Postwar Projects – The United Nations Headquarters (1947–1952), Religious architecture (1950–1963) and so on. If you are interested please click on the link above to read more about them.

As for his ideas, the most popular and widely spread ones are probably the “Five Points of a Modern Architecture“, the “Architectural Promenade“, the “Ville Radieuse and Urbanism” and the “Modulor“. I’ll explain a bit more about the first one when I talk about my visit to the Villa “Le Lac” and if you are interested in the other concepts please read the article on Wikipedia which I mentioned above. Now, follow me to explore the laboratory for and the foundation of the Modern Movement – the Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier.

2. The Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier

First of all, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Mr. Moser, Mr Harbaugh and Miss/Mrs Berthoud, who made my recent visit to Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier possible and successful. Please note that the Villa is closed till 3rd March 2018, BUT visits are possible on reservation for groups of more than 12 people (12 people included). Please click here to contact the Association Villa « Le Lac » Le Corbusier for more information or for an appointment.

2.1 Practical information

2.1.1 Opening hours
  • March (or April) to June: Saturday and Sunday from 14:00 to 17:00
  • July and August: Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 18:00
  • September (sometimes also October): Saturday and Sunday from 14:00 to 17:00

Please note that in 2018, the Villa will be open from 3rd March. Also, more importantly, as I said above, the Villa is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year by appointment for groups from 12 people!

2.1.2 Ticket prices
  • Adults CHF 12.-
  • Students CHF 10.-
  • Children CHF 6.-

Please note that no debit or credit cards are accepted.

2.1.3 How to get there

Address: Villa «Le Lac» Le Corbusier, Route de Lavaux 21, CH-1802 Corseaux

From my own experience, I suggest you walk to the Villa from Vevey train station directly because it’s only 15 mins away by foot. If you want to take a bus or train you can get off at the stop Vevey, Bergère (bus) or Vevey-Funi (train) and then walk for another 7 mins. I personally prefer to just walk without looking for the bus stop or waiting for the bus. Once you see the signpost as shown below, you are next to the Villa already.

2.2 My visit to the Villa

Before you start your journey, I recommend you obtaining a brochure from the reception desk, which provides you with the essential information about the treasures in the Villa. For example, the floor plan, the chronology, a brief introduction to the interior, exterior and restoration and so on. With the help of this brochure, your attention will be guided towards the details of this Villa and you will be amazed by the innovation of Le Corbusier.

When I first arrived here and had a brief tour of the Villa, both inside and outside, several words came into my mind, quiet, simple, small, practical, comfortable, peaceful, low-key, perfect location and marvelous view. To be honest, the Villa was quite different from what I had expected. A house for the parents of such a great architect, I almost missed it had I not seen the signpost. The wall separating the house and the road is quite high and even if I’m 180 cm tall I had to stand on my toes to take a glimpse of the garden, but I guess this feature ensured the privacy of the residents here. Except the location and the view, I was a bit disappointed about the Villa because in my imagination it should have been a palace or castle or at least something similar. Nevertheless, why has it been praised as the “little gem of ingenuity and functionalism“, “laboratory of modern ideas“, “a living machine“, “an early expression of minimalist needs” and why has it set out “the standard for a single span minimal house“? Bearing these questions in mind, let’s start exploring and discovering the true values of the Villa hidden under her simple and unadorned appearance.

2.2.1 The foundation of the Modern Movement

Think about it, have you heard much about the Villa either from books or on the internet? If you are not studying architecture then probably not right? This is because the Villa was designed and built between 1923 and 1924 for Le Corbusier’s parents, who had been living here since the completion of the construction and till they passed away. If you design a house for your parents, you probably wouldn’t either want to write too much about it because attracting too much attention would inevitably disturb the peaceful life of the old couple. However, the Villa was mentioned in several occasions and I read from the official website of Villa “Le Lac” that:

L – C 1954 : 1922, 1923, I boarded the Paris-Milan express several times, or the Orient Express (Paris-Ankara). In my pocket was the plan of a house. A plan without a site ? The plan of a house in search of a plot of ground ? Yes !

I can understand that this is among Le Corbusier’s most personal works but as for being one of his most inventive works, I read from the brochure that it is because:

The Villa “Le Lac” illustrates the concerns that Le Corbusier had set out in his first writings, and which had ensured the success of his Villas built from the 1920s onwards:

  • the search for human scale
  • proportion
  • the open plan layout made possible by the reinforced concrete structure
  • the orientation
  • the ribbon window
  • the roof garden accessible from outside the house
  • the search for the minimal dwelling

More importantly, this Villa also plays the role of a presage because it foreshadows three (the roof garden, the open plan layout and the ribbon window) of the “Five Points of Architecture”, an architecture manifesto developed by Le Corbusier in his early career authored in “L’Esprit Nouveau” and “Vers une architecture”. The five points are:

  1. Pilotis – Replacement of supporting walls by a grid of reinforced concrete columns that bears the structural load is the basis of the new aesthetic.
  2. The free designing of the ground plan—the absence of supporting walls—means the house is unrestrained in its internal use.
  3. The free design of the façade—separating the exterior of the building from its structural function—sets the façade free from structural constraints.
  4. The horizontal window, which cuts the façade along its entire length, lights rooms equally.
  5. Roof gardens on a flat roof can serve a domestic purpose while providing essential protection to the concrete roof.

If you are interested you can click here to read more about these principles on wikipedia.

2.2.2 The interior of the Villa

The first picture in this section is the floor plan of the Villa and it is a picture that I took of the brochure. The moment I entered the living room, I was amazed by the ribbon window (11 meters long), the light that flooded in and the marvelous view of Lake Geneva, the Rhone valley and the Alps. What a tranquil life it would be to live here. Afterwards, I took a walk in the Villa. In a few steps, I entered the bedroom from the living room and in another a few steps, I entered the bathroom. All the rooms are equally and adequately lit by the light from the ribbon window. After walking through the storage room, I passed the laundry room and the kitchen and returned to the living room in probably one minute. Wow, how small is this house? As you can see from the floor plan, it is an elongated rectangle (16 m*4 m) which covers a total area of 64 square meters. Doesn’t sound so small right? Well, the open floor plan made it possible for Le Corbusier to design the interior in such a way that without servants, the daily activities of the old couple such as washing, storing, doing laundry, cooking, eating etc. could be done easily and conveniently. This design revealed his support and fondness of minimalism in his later works and that’s why this Villa is an early expression of his minimalist modern architecture. Another phenomenon that I noticed in the Villa is that the interior decoration was very simple. One one hand, this feature was probably related to minimalism and on the other hand, it indicated Le Corbusier’s “attack” on decorative art in 1925 by combining a series of articles from “L’Esprit Nouveau” into a book, L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (Decorative Art Today). He repeatedly claimed that “modern decorative art has no decoration” and in the future the decorative arts industry would produce only “objects which are perfectly useful, convenient, and have a true luxury which pleases our spirit by their elegance and the purity of their execution, and the efficiency of their services”.

There are some details in the Villa that you might be interested in and I’d like to mention them here so that you can pay attention to them during your visit. First of all, you should be able to notice that at the eastern end of the house, there’s a small living room which is both connected to and separated from the main living room. Because of the partition door and the foldaway bed, this room can also be used as a guest room. The pottery pieces on the wall in front of the windows were brought back by Le Corbusier as souvenirs from his journey to the orient in 1911.

In the bedroom you will see a secretaire designed by Le Corbusier when he was young and on it, a photo of his mother Marie Charlotte Amélie Jeanneret-Perret. At the corner you will see a tilt-back chair given by the cantonal council of Vaud to Mrs. Jeanneret-Perret on her 99th birthday. At the beginning I didn’t believe it because it seemed to be a rather simple chair, but in order to convince me, Mr. Moser turned the chair around and on the back stretcher of the chair I saw engravings saying “from the cantonal council of Vaud to Mrs. Jeanneret-Perret”.

The other items that I’d like you to pay attention to are the movable hanging lights close to the ribbon window and close to the reception desk and the telephone on the reception desk. In order to tell you the history and use of them, I have to start by introducing to you the family of Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s father was an artisan who enameled watches and his mother gave piano lessons. In 1924, his parents settled in this Villa but unfortunately his father passed away one year later. His mother, lived here for 36 years till her death in 1960. When you step in the Villa, Mr. Moser will probably advise you to store your bag in the cupboard behind the reception to avoid touching the fragile walls. This cupboard was originally used by Mrs. Jeanneret-Perret to store her music sheets. The movable hanging light close to the ribbon window is the original one installed in the 1920s and for me, it looked super artistic (that’s why I took so many pictures of it). Even now at my home I don’t have a light that this but Le Corbusier already installed it in the 1920s. No wonder he is the pioneer and leader of the Modern Movement. The telephone and the movable light close to the reception desk are from the 1950s and the latter was used by Mrs. Jeanneret-Perret when she was playing the piano. Why placing the telephone so high on the reception desk instead of on the table? Mr. Moser told me that at that time it was very expensive to make phone calls and if you had sat down and talked through the phone comfortably, you would probably have ended up paying the bill with a huge number. What’s also worth mentioning is that Le Corbusier’s elder brother Albert Jeannette was violinist and in 1939, he also moved in and lived here till 1973. Now the floor has been restored to its original state as in the 1920s but when Albert was living here, he was also teaching music lessons so he had to change the floor to wooden one to ensure good acoustic effects.

Last but not least, can you notice the scale on the side of the reception desk? As Mr. Moser told me and I read from the brochure, the number starts with the last painted layer and ends with the support. Through the scale, you will be able to see the supporting medium, the primers and various layers of paint. Please don’t touch it because it’s very fragile. Now let’s step out into the garden and take a look at “one of the finest horizons in the world”.

2.2.3 The exterior of the Villa

When I stepped outside, what caught my attention immediately was the view over Lake Geneva and towards the snowy mountains peaks. Being attracted by the marvelous scenery, I walked towards west along the 4-meter wide terrace (3rd pic in the gallery) between the lake and the south façade of the house. By the end of the it, I saw the narrow staircase leading up to the roof garden (4th and 5th picture in the gallery), one of Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of Architecture” and also one of the fundamental means of bringing nature to houses.

On my way back, the 10-square-meter green garden on the eastern end of this estate did raise my curiosity.  It is enclosed by high walls. I can understand that on the eastern and northern ends they probably play the role of protecting the privacy of the residents but why building the southern wall obstructing the view of the amazing lake and mountains leaving only a window like a photo frame? As I read from the official website of Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier:

  • L – C 1954 : Have you noticed that under such conditions one no longer “sees” ? To lend significance to the scenery one has to restrict it and give it proportion; the view must be blocked by walls which are only pierced at certain strategic points and there permit an unhindered view.

The window in the southern wall has the same dimensions of a composition module of the ribbon window and together with the walls, it makes the green garden look like an interior “green hall”. How would it feel to sit on the bench with a cup of coffee, looking at the eternal snow on the Alps while listening to the water of Lake Geneva clapping the shore? I guess only the Jeanneret family and their friends know…

Except the upper annex added on the northwest corner (1931), the north façade cladded with galvanized steel sheets (1931), the south façade cladded with aluminum sheets (1931) and the north wall separating the property from the road (1951), the Villa has remained quite true to its original plan.

At this point, I believe I’ve given you a brief introduction to Le Corbusier’s life and achievements (or influences) and a rather detailed tour of the Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier. If you can organize a group of at least 12 people you can come here anytime in the year by making an reservation. However, if you wanna come as an individual, I’m afraid you will have to wait for a weekend in the spring, summer or autumn season. Either way, please keep in mind that when you visit the Villa, you are not visiting a palace or a castle, but a “little gem of ingenuity and functionalism”, a “laboratory of modern ideas”, a “living machine” and “early expression of minimalist needs”.

The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier – Villa “Le Lac” was last modified: May 22nd, 2018 by Dong

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