Eric Lapierre: Villa „Le Lac” is far less famous than Villa Savoye, the official masterpiece by Le Corbusier, but what I appreciate more in the „Petite Maison” is its modesty and the fact it gives beginners, young architects, a lot of hope. It tells you that a masterpiece can be designed without precious materials or a large scale. It proves that good architecture is like a good book. A fantastic story can be told using just paper and ink.
The actual size of the house is objectively small - only sixty-four square meters, but the mental picture created is one of a much bigger space. By that, I refer to how the different atmospheres you experience play a role in your overall idea of the house and in your memory. This begins with the garden and the surrounding wall; the garden is very much part of the house and thanks to the entrance loggia and outside lounge it directly relates to the interior and all its functions: the garden is the house. Emphasizing this room like quality, towards the lake, a traditionally proportioned window pierces the garden wall, offering a view outward, into the landscape.
The presence of landscape is crucial; the Alps fall directly into the lake opposite the house and in doing so, transform your perception of scale. You immediately understand that the real limit of the house are the mountains in the distance. Ultimately, over time, how one lives with and observes this rich, dynamic environment is the main topic of the house. It’s beautiful and captivating, not only because of the landscape’s monumentality, but also in the way it continuously changes through each day and season.
I remember a very good text in which Bruno Reichlin noted that the long horizontal window in Villa „Le Lac” tended to flatten the landscape, because it hides the foreground and a part of the sky. This actually makes the interior much more intimate. The landscape is at once real, but also fake, like a printed image. With a vertical or full height window, you would see the ground and more of the sky. You would have the complete depth of field of the perspective, and, in a way, you would feel much more outside.
It was his mother’s house. She didn’t want to be totally exposed and live in a house that challenged her all the time. She wanted a normal cosy building, with her own old furniture, a dog and a cat. That’s why it’s loaded with seemingly unspectacular intentions. It seems a banal, almost ordinary building, but is as well an exceptional piece of high architecture. Another proof that banality is the condition of newness.
REGARDLESS OF SPECTACULAR SURROUNDINGS AND THE WINDOW THAT FRAMES IT, WHAT MAKES THE HOUSE ITSELF SPECIAL?
I appreciate, in this house and in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre generally, the huge number of different references conveyed spatially and physically. Firstly, it condenses many different periods of time into one. The bedroom he built for himself as an expansion of the Villa some years later is a pure demonstration of this. It’s a tiny space made of wood painted blue-grey (the same colour as the landscape in the distance), in which you have the famous little platform, chair and a tiny desk that allowed Le Corbusier to work while looking at the lake through a horizontal window. As soon as you sit on that chair, you feel like San Girolamo painted by Ántonello da Messina, looking at the lake. At first it seems that this room existed there for centuries. Then you look carefully, and you see the proportions of the window, the flat roof - main inventions of modern architecture.
You realise that this very compact space contains the past, the present, conventional and completely avant-garde elements.
There are many intriguing elements in the house, for example the opening in the lower part of the perimeter wall at the front of the house with a stair to allow the dog to bark at cars and people. On the opposite side, next to the stair going up to the terrace you have a little suspended platform, which allows the cat to look at the lake. A house with special devices dedicated to animals; that’s exceptional and really emphasises the atmosphere of intimacy and celebration of family life. Le Corbusier was not a functionalist, but he was a modern man, so he thought that the functions needed to be located in specific spaces. On the other hand, you can see that he often tended to contradict it, or at least blend things together. For instance, in the entrance space of Villa Savoye you have a basin for washing your hands in a strange location. In Villa „Le Lac”, you also have a little wash basin with a door and a mirror in the dining room. It is too low to really check your face, so it’s just to make this room more spacious or to underline that by opening a small door, you can modify the space: a little poem, like a haiku, made of this strange meeting of a mirror, that is invisible most of the time invisible, and a wash basin in a dining room. You have a feeling that each square centimeter has been considered as a possibility for expression.
As a student, I had the same experience when I first visited Rem Koolhaas’ Kunsthaus in Rotterdam. Every detail of it seemed to have been thought through. Nothing appeared to be done in a boring, automatic way. The signage was on the floor, the handrail was suspended from the ceiling - and not coming from the ground, rooms where sometimes oblique, the floor could be transparent and suspended, and so on.
Everything was a bit twisted. I saw a link between Koolhaas and Le Corbusier. Their buildings are really full of small narratives: architecture rests on generosity.
I think this method of design helps to keep our bodies and minds active. Contemporary spaces are very comfortable. You can very easily turn into a kind of apathetic couch potato. You have everything, you just go to the kitchen, it’s full of food and ice; you don’t have to do anything. Therefore, I think, good architecture is a way of bringing you into a state of awareness, similar to the one when you were an animal in the natural environment, full of danger. Obviously, architecture should not be dangerous, but it should create a stronger reality and conjure up signs to keep you awake and question how you live. In a way, good architecture is a bit like a drug, it focuses reality in a funnier and more meaningful way.
MANY CONSIDER LE CORBUSIER’S ARCHITECTURE, INCLUDING VILLA „LE LAC” TO BE PURIST, PERHAPS EVEN BRUTAL. DESPITE THE REFERENCES THAT YOU SAY ARE CONTAINED IN THE WORK, IT IS SIMPLE, CLEAN, ABSTRACT, AND MOSTLY GREY OR WHITE, SAVE FOR THE AREAS PAINTED WITH PRIMARY COLOURS. SOME WOULD EVEN SAY IT’S COLD. DOES THIS BOTHER YOU?
Some people might think his architecture is austere, or difficult. I understand one can say this. However, Le Corbusier himself was like this. He wrote important books on small desks. He was not the kind of person that needed a big table with a lounge chair, like a CEO. He just needed a chair and a piece of horizontal wood to write on it. If you visit his apartment in Paris, you see the desk on which he wrote the majority of his books. It’s very modest. Have a look at Cabanon where he died, it is again extremely rudimentary. At the time when he built it, he was really on the top of the world.
Without any doubt he was the most important living architect. He could have made many things, but instead he just built this small hut, directly linked to a restaurant full of friends, spending time painting naked, and swimming, nothing more. It is very important to understand that this architecture was made by an architect that had a certain honest opinion of what is necessary and what is not, what is valuable and what is not. If you compare him to the main protagonists of today’s architecture, he was totally different. He was a guy „what you see is what you get”. I really appreciate this quality in him.
Another thing concerning your question, and the impression of austerity one can have while confronted with Le Corbusier’s architecture is the issue of mental flexibility. When you make a house, people are usually not aware of their own potential to fit and adapt to almost any kind of space. Often a client wants to know where exactly his tennis racket will be stored. In reality, as architects, it’s not something we really should be thinking about, because maybe tomorrow he will stop practicing tennis. And what if he starts hockey? The stick is larger, what will you do with your special tennis racket shelf? Functional pattern is the way most people can grasp space. The majority wouldn’t dare to ask you to make a house that will make them feel happier or make a house that would be as light as cool clothes. The place where the pan will be in the kitchen is more important usually. Even though we know it’s not. But also, that supposed austerity and simplicity are ways of underlining that architecture rests always on a kind of imploded complexity: it is visually simple but then you always discover new dimensions of the space, new relationships between things, and this seemingly simplicity is the essence of architecture.
LET’S NOW LOOK AT IT FROM ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE. THE HOUSE IN FACT ARTICULATES DIVERSE ACTIVITIES WITH ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS, AND AS YOU EXPLAINED, YOU SEE IT AS A POSITIVE ASPECT. WHEN DO YOU THINK IT CAN BECOME EXCESSIVE, WHERE IS THE LIMIT OF THE DETAILS OR GESTURES ONE PACKS INTO A HOUSE BEFORE IT GETS ANNOYING?
I once visited a house in the outskirts of Ghent, a kind of Ghent Beverly Hills. The couple who owned it, used to have a fantastic 17th or 18th century apartment in the center of the city. It was full of old paintings, works of art and beautiful pieces of furniture. At some point, they went to an architect and told him they wanted to sell everything and build a contemporary house, in which he would choose everything inside. Apparently, he did, he chose everything. Even the ashtray, plates, and the works of art on the walls. I would get mad with such decisions. How can you choose the right work of art for someone else? If you are not able to choose a work of art for yourself, then you don’t need it. I think it’s an example of going way too far by transforming a domestic space into a showroom.
Another extreme is when architects propose no use, no function, just a disposable area. This can also be problematic. I think Villa „Le Lac” is somewhere in between. It is very balanced. The building works with the real life, with real objects and is not trying to be perfect. It’s also made with ordinary things. The furniture there, was mostly his mother’s original, classical pieces.
Regarding this, I can see a similarity between Villa „Le Lac” and Fisher House by Louis Kahn. I visited it years ago when it was still inhabited by Mr. and Mrs. Fisher. They were really cool, warm people. Every three weeks, they allowed a visit, regardless of if it was a bus of architects or just a single student - as I was. All you had to do, was write to them sufficiently in advance, and it was set.
The famous corner window is always photographed empty. Obviously, it wasn’t like that in reality. There were objects, sculptures, things they bought in Mexico during their honeymoon or whatever, and all this did not undermine the quality of architecture. It’s really a house that obviously satisfies your mind and intellectual ambitions as an architect, but you could go and live there with your family that eventually, doesn’t mind about architecture and it would work very well.
Imagine you come back from work, you are tired, you just want to have a drink, listen to a piece of music or just do nothing, relax. You don’t always want to admire the sculpture you live in. If you live in a masterpiece, that’s really cool, you’re really lucky, but you don’t want this masterpiece to occupy your mind for your whole life. It can be a masterpiece by the virtue that you can forget it and just live there. The most important hints are always in a second position, never in pole position.
I think the goal of Le Corbusier was not to build sacred things, it was to make daily life really cool. It was about the quality that architecture can bring to everyday life. I don’t say that it is not important to live in a space loaded with values that you believe in. I just want to stress that if it is made in the first row, in a demonstrative way, then it is like a trap in which you are stuck. When the building screams: „look, I’m a masterpiece” I am not interested in this. Eventually, I am happy to visit it once, as if it was a museum. It has to be the aim of a good house to live in a very light way, not to be constantly reminded about a state of exception. Daily life requires simplicity that doesn’t exclude, of course, complexity.
I will give you another example from the art world. I love Guernica, but I would not want to live with it in my living room. I would be exhausted by it. That’s a very important thing to consider. Does your house dictate how your life should be? Does it transpose you into Jacques Tati’s „Mon Oncle” character or not? Partly of course, but it needs to still be related to banality as well. That’s the real difference.
HAVE YOU TRIED APPLYING THE SYSTEM OF PROPORTIONS IN VILLA „LE LAC” TO YOUR OWN WORK?
We have never tried to make a whole building with one proportional system - using the Modulor for instance. Vacchini did, he used the Modulor in his buildings, even representing his symbol in the sections. I never did such a thing. Anyway, I still think proportion is one of the most important expressive tools we have. In the office, when I see a well-proportioned drawing, we calculate what it is, and often it’s a classical variant. Personally, I really appreciate the diagonal of a square (1:1.41). It’s a very beautiful proportion. At least I like it. I don’t use these classical proportions as a priority, but I am quite aware of them.
Le Corbusier explains that in his architecture the proportional system defines everything. For instance, for La Tourette Church he invented the concept of „ineffable space”, explaining that at a certain moment when all the elements of the space are regulated and defined by a certain regime or system of relationships between things, the space starts to radiate, and you reach the point of a so called „ineffable space”. You read this and you say: more nonsense from an architect! But, in La Tourette Church, you really have a very specific experience. Elementally, it is not different to many buildings - you have some stairs, different levels and a few colours, all inside a box made of raw concrete, but something really happens there.
What is also fascinating about proportion is the role it has in ordering all project inputs. When you imagine a project, you deal constantly with a whole range of data that are measurable like the cost, the area, quantities of materials, function, but you also deal with completely non measurable data - the beauty, the feeling etc. The result of the negotiation which occurs at the crossing point between measurable and non-measurable is a proportion, a ratio between measures or things. By definition, it’s a relationship of measures. Sometimes more this way, sometimes more that. Le Corbusier explains perfectly that understanding these decisions precisely enables a building to speak. The proportion will either frighten you or make you laugh.
I mentioned at the beginning that Le Corbusier represents the idea of who I think an architect should be. It’s a person who controls these two realms - measurable and non-measurable and makes beauty from very prosaic things. Proportion is at the crossing of these arguments, and that’s probably why Le Corbusier involved himself with it so much.