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Formula? Manifesto? Bauble? Understanding the architectural production of Le Corbusier’s early 20th century villas.

Part 1 Dissertation 2012
Ben Strak
University of Cambridge UK
The 1920’s villas of Le Corbusier are some of the most instantly recognisable pieces of his large oeuvre. The Villa Savoye and Villa Stein-de-Monzie - among the richest and most complex examples of these - have gone on to be shorthand for that early phase of heroic modernism, even for the entire modern movement itself. Embedded as they are in architectural consciousness, understanding their architecture is the subject of three-quarters of a century of scholarship. The sheer volume of interpretations however begins to cloud rather than sharpen understanding.

To extract a more truthful account of the production of this architecture, three major strands of investigation will be set against each other. The first understands the architecture in light of Le Corbusier’s extensive published writings. Preceded by extensive bodies of theory, these villas can be seen as the outcome of a theoretical formula determined in advance.

The second interprets the villas’ design as indissolubly linked to LC’s approach to urbanism - emerging from an urban discourse as much as a purely architectural one. Manifestos for broader urban theory, these villas are a microcosm of a way of living and building that (it is contended) ought to be universally replicated.

Of course, as the domains of an unvaryingly wealthy clientele, these villas are also a luxury commodity available to a limited audience. The third strand of investigation will posit that they must be perceived as the setting for the social life of an haute-bourgeoisie Parisian milieu with highly particular requirements.

The villa has been typologically the vehicle for many generations of architectural discourse. This focused investigation into these two yields insight into the limits of this format as a way of expressing new ideas about the discipline.

Ultimately however it is the question of production that concerns us. Simply put, how it is that these villas came to be as they are? Indeed, so many years of study later we are confronted by the prospect that we have reached the limit of what can ever be known of this process. Must we acknowledge a more exhaustive account than the present one impossible?

Ben Strak

Dr Nicholas Bullock
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