Comfort and Le Corbusier
I was in Savannah last week, serving on the Chrysalis Remodel Awards Jury, where we reviewed 500 entries from across the country — whole-house remodels, kitchen and bath redos etc., etc. It struck me that the overall level of design in both traditional and contemporary modes seems to be improving, a trend confirmed by Chrysalis founder Ken Kanline, who said that people are looking at the home more as a lifetime commitment and less as another stock to trade. (The awards will be announced in June.)
Several new communities north of Savannah, in historic Beaufort, on the South Carolina coast, (pronounced Buford), where The Prince of Tides was filmed, also seem to bear this out. Cooter Ramsey, of Allison Ramsey Architects, gave me a quick tour. We drove by one of his most popular designs — “Bermuda Bluff Cottage” (shown above), which draws inspiration from the region’s rich architectural history. Eight-foot deep porches — with ceilings always painted sky blue — elegant classical proportions for doors and windows, and simple roof outlines combine with modern layouts to produce memorable designs that seamlessly connect past and present. This is fine design rooted in context and a sense of place.
One of the most successful recent New Urbanist developments near Beaufort is Habersham, master-planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who began the return to pedestrian-oriented communities thirty years ago with their innovative plan for Seaside, Florida. I drove through Habersham and was impressed: the community is not gated; porch-wrapped houses in a range of sizes and classical styles face meadowland, forest, and shoreline views. Garages are on alleys at the side or rear. A small town center contains storefronts and row house-like condominiums.
Habersham recently received a “Best Neighborhood Design in America” award from the National Association of Home Builders. It’s worth a visit to see traditional design that is very well done. Some of Houseplans.com’s New Urbanist plans would be right at home here, such as plan 453-16 below:
or plan 443-6, below:
At the same time I have been reading Nicholas Fox Weber’s excellent and exhaustive new book Le Corbusier: A Life (Knopf, 2008), about the Swiss-born architect who reinvented the house as a “machine for living.”
What a brilliant and impossibly self-involved individual he was! Constantly writing his mother in Switzerland to tell her how to live, while she did the same to him. He designed a house for his parents that nearly bankrupted them and which they had to sell upon completion. He infuriated his friend Eileen Gray by blithely painting murals (he was a great abstract painter) on the walls of her villa in the south of France without permission. Sounds like Frank Lloyd Wright, who re-arranged his clients furniture if left alone in their houses for too long. If the 800 plus-page tome is too much, read Martin Filler’s marvelous and witty assessment of it and the man in the current New York Review of Books. Here’s a perfect Filler riff: “Although Le Corbusier was determined to be well-known, he was also determined not to be known well.”
Corbu was extraordinary in his ability to re-conceive the house and city, for better or worse. His Villa Savoye of 1929, shown above in a recent and very clever Lego model (Legorbusier??!) from SocialisBetter on Flickr’s Creative Commons, celebrates movement and light — with ramps instead of stairs (hard to do in Legos), presaging Wright’s Guggenheim Museum by thirty years — and puts the backyard in a courtyard on the roof. A brilliant, brilliant design that still inspires architects and designers today. It doesn’t seem to matter that rain poured down the inside walls, though it is riveting to read the increasingly desperate letters from Mrs. Savoye (on view at the house when I visited some years ago) demanding that Le Corbusier come out and fix the roof before finally suing him for shoddy work.
Corbusian design and Habersham would seem to be opposite poles: one about cool geometric abstraction and the other about comfort and a sense of history. But maybe not: Corbu’s later designs, like his Maisons Jaoul near Paris used barrel vaults, masonry, and concrete in a reinterpretation of vernacular French building traditions. He reinvented his approach many times over, like Picasso. And when it mattered to him, he analyzed and rethought every detail, as in the wonderful, tiny, spare but warm cabin, or “Cabanon” he built for himself and his wife in the south of France. A life-size model of it was recently on view at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. Here’s an image of it from Icon Magazine:
Love that box seat! Perhaps he had a sense of humor after all…To me the interior deftly expresses the stripping away of care and clutter for summertime escape. In any case we need both the Corbusian and more traditional design approaches — embodying change and continuity — to enrich the world around us.