Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two kinds of people go to Poissy, a small suburban town in the 5th ring of the Paris region: those who live there and those who go to see Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

By our bewildered looks as we stumbled off the RER A, it was obvious we were part of the latter category. And not just any tourist will make the trip to Poissy to see this modernist house; it is hardly to be found in regular guidebooks. An apparently plain, white concrete summer home that even the neighbors rarely know about is highly spoken of in lecture halls on the other side of the Atlantic in big American universities. Architecture students gape at slides, hear the stories, write papers about it, and slowly come to either hate it or love it. Or outwardly criticize it and secretly admire it.

Our group was comprised of ardent lovers of Villa Savoye. I had planned the trip with my coworkers, Gary and Seung-Jin (Yale and GSD grad students respectively). Seung-Jin’s butt mate at Harvard, Carl, who was visiting from Rome, had also joined us. And just as we were about to leave Paris that morning we met up with another architect (Carl’s friend’s friend) Rene, a grad student at UVA, and her boyfriend, Ian, who will be starting law school soon. Ian was the only one unfamiliar with the villa but he was quick to convert.

Photo by Seung-Jin Ham

We decided to walk the 20-minute journey from the train station instead of taking the bus. I was the only one who spoke a little French and somehow I became the person leading the way, following the little map I had drawn in my Moleskine notebook, but Rene was there to my aid when we wandered just a little bit off course.

Photo by Seung-Jin Ham
I can honestly say about Savoye that it is a building that far surpassed all my expectations when I met it in person. I had read about Le Corbusier’s five points of a new architecture, about thickening of space and phenomenal transparency, I had written about the house’s Palladian proportions, and seen pictures of the interior ramps and the circular driveway, but seeing it all together was strangely enlightening. It was all one thing, there were no points, features or lists; there was just the Villa Savoye and the experience of being in the Villa Savoye. The sculptural quality of the spaces, the promenade through the house, the vistas opened up by the carving of windows and balconies, and the lightness of the architecture were all admirable and coherent. There was a reason and intent for every little detail. Every element had a certain abstraction to it: a folded up concrete slab could be an outdoor picnic table or a high stool, or a bar when you have a party. We all spoke about how amazing it would be to live in this house, a non-academic idea that rarely emerges in a building such as this. I had a vision of rebuilding the Villa Savoye, with wooden floors and modern concrete, on the shore somewhere, and living in it.

I have rambled like someone too overcome with emotion to make any sense. Yet that is how I felt. Later we had a small picnic outside the in the lawn and then took a nap in the warm summer sunshine. We set off in the late afternoon, and had late lunch in Poissy before returning to Paris.

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