The Petite Ceinture is a 17 mile railway circumscribing central Paris. It was built in 1852 to connect the Gares of Paris, became one of the world's first suburban transit systems, and fell into disuse during the 1930's as the Paris Metro succeeded it in efficiency. Today it is abandoned and little known, preserved by indecision over its future. It is a retreat from the city, and a home for underground culture. In places raised up, depressed or underground, it is an exceptional place to look back upon the city of Paris.
This is a rough journal of what I've found on the P.C. as well as during walks around Paris.

samedi 7 juin 2008

Villa Savoye, June 7th, 2008

Jay and I have been wandering Paris since he arrived six days ago, visiting museums and buildings of interest both new and old (mostly old). A trip to Villa Savoye means our first journey outside Central Paris, and a glimpse of one of Corbusier's most iconic buildings. The Villa Savoye (Villa Savoir in French) is a pilgrimage site for anyone with any interest in modern architecture - so for two architecture students this was like meeting a celebrity - putting a face to a name we've heard a thousand times.

We woke late to an overcast day, had a typically slow breakfast, and went from Metro to RER (A5), passing tens of 'Immeubles' - the hideous descendents of Corb's Unite - on our way out to Poissy (40km almost due west of Paris), where we caught the bus (50 to La Coudriae) to the gate of the Villa. The entrance as it is now, is unremarkable; a white metal mesh gate in a white wall identical to any of those next to it. We walked down the winding gravel driveway beyond the gate, and one of the first things we saw was a gate house - something neither Jay nor I had ever seen in photos or heard of in books or lectures. The guide book (Deborah Gans' The Le Corbusier Guide - excellent so far) doesn't mention anything about it. We wondered whether it is original.....

The path continues for about 200 feet through the mature, and naturalistic grove of trees, until it empties out onto a large, lawn-covered clearing - as if like Vitruvius' well manicured clearing. The Villa is central.

The doge had recently re-read an article about the house, and chose the authentic entry sequence - along the driveway, under the house, between the pilotis, and around to the east side of the garage. I snapped pictures from all round, trying to find the classic facade from the four almost identical sides (Villa Rotunda?, - another square-plan, identical-on-all-sides country house). Entry was free for students, and we stashed our backpacks in the garage - surprisingly small for a three car garage (in fact, the scale of the building is deceptively large in photos). There's a cool detail in the two skylights on the east and west ends of the garage ceiling: the skylights are built within planters on the main floor above, so the view up through them is not just of the sky, but of lavender, rosemary, and perhaps a passer-by. There is a sense of connection to the rest of the house upon arrival.

We spent most of the afternoon at the house, wandering around, taking photos, and spending a lot of time drawing - we sat in original Corb furniture as we sketched! Many things said by professors or books were even more impressive in person (Sam calls the house the perfect house) - the natural transition between rooms, and inside and out; the use of color; the framing of views within the house, and to the landscape beyond (there's a fantastic built-in desk on the top balcony with a view to the Seine in the bottom of the distant valley - this really plays with sense of scale and distance. Also the profile of the horizontal roof line crops the top of the mature trees beyond, giving a painterly white-green-blue effect); the rough finish of tile work in the kitchen and bathroom; the ramp in the center of the house (whereas Frank Lloyd Wright places the hearth in the center of the house? - here Corb places an element celebrating the experience of passage), the ramp that takes you from top to bottom, from inside to outside, and keeps your connection to the rest of the house uninterrupted (a staircase cannot do this); the way the spaces become abstract in their color and shape, and you feel slightly disoriented, until someone walks across the doorway, and suddenly the space becomes earthly again. I particularly loved the skylight above the entry to the southwest bedroom - the effect it has on the the colorful walls, and the focus on the doorway as a destination at the end of the hallway. And also the size of the sliding glazed doors in the main living room! It took three of us to close one of the panes - there are two panes and each must be about 10' x 12' (120 s.f. of glass - thick glass!). The columns in the main first floor courtyard were also interesting - elliptical in plan, not circular like the columns throughout the rest of the house. I assume this is to strengthen the wall in the direction of maximum force: the major axis of column in plan is perpendicular to the wall, thus in line with the wind load upon the wall. Moreover, the eyebrow above the horizontal window on that same wall is the profile of a very gently sloped trapezoid - effectively a truss serving the same purpose as the elliptical columns.

We didn't meet many people (although Jay coincidentally got a call from his old architecture professor). Most walked around in silence. Occasionally some informed person would lead their friends around the house stating the obvious like a real estate agent: "and this is the main room...". There was a girl who floated around the house offering to inform any French-speaking visitor. When no one was around to be helped, she was reading one of two books on Corbusier - clearly incredibly enthusiastic about her job. She was thrilled to see that we were sketching, and was the one who asked if we'd help close the large sliding doors. We all tried, and failed, to share our enthusiasm.

We stayed until closing, and walked back to the train station via an ancient church (12th century) where Louis-the-something was christened in 12-something, and which Le Duc redesigned in the 19th century. There was an excess of ornamental details, and Jay was seduced. Unfortunately, while I was outside, and Jay inside sketching, the church was locked, and it seemed Jay was locked inside - for about an hour. Eventually the steward arrived, and we were reunited in time to miss our train by 30 seconds. But we were back in Paris before long, and finished the day with our first real dinner out of the apartment - in a restaurant along Canal St. Martin - delicious; Jay had carpaccio, and I had a white salt-water fish I'd never heard of, followed by tiramisu and creme brulee. A decent birthday.

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