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The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa
Colin Rowe

There are two causes of beauty-natural and customary. Natural is from geometry consisting in uniformity, that is equality and proportion. Customary beauty is begotten by the use, as familiarity breeds a love for things not in themselves lovely. Here lies the great occasion of errors, but always the true test is natural or geometrical beauty. Geometrical figures are naturally more beautiful than irregular ones: the square, the circle are the most beautiful, next the parallelogram and the oval. There are only two beautiful positions of straight lines, perpendicular and horizontal; this is from Nature and consequently necessity, no other than upright being firm.
-Sir Christopher Wren, Parentalia

As the ideal type of centralized building Palladio's Villa Capra-Rotonda has, perhaps more than any other house, imposed itself upon the imagination. Mathematical, abstract, four square, without apparent function and totally memorable, its derivatives have enjoyed universal distribution; and, when he writes of it, Palladio is lyrical.

The site is as pleasant and delightful as can be found, because it is on a small hill of very easy access, and is watered on one side by the Bacchiglione, a navigable river; and on the other it is encompassed about with most pleasant risings which look like a very great theatre and are all cultivated about with most excellent fruits and most exquisite vines; and therefore as it enjoys from every part most beautiful views, some of which are limited, some more extended, and others which terminate with the horizon, there are loggias made in all four fronts.1

When the mind is prepared for the one by the other, a passage from Le Corbusier's Precisions may be unavoidably reminiscent of this. No less lyrical but rather more explosive, Le Corbusier is describing the site of his Savoye House at Poissy.

Le site: une vaste pelouse bombee en dôme aplati. . . . La maison est une boîte en l'air . . . au milieu des prairies dominant le verger. . . Le plan est pur. . . . Il à sa juste place dans l'agreste pay sage de Poissy. . . . Les habitants, venus ici parce que cette campagne agreste etait belle avec sa vie de campagne, ils la contempleront, maintenue intacte, du haut de leur jardin suspendu ou des quatre faces de leurs fenetres en longueur. Leur vie domestique sera inseree dans un reve virgilien.2

The Savoye House has been given a number of interpretations. It may indeed be a machine for living in, an arrangement of interpenetrating volumes and spaces, an emanation of space-time; but the suggestive reference to the dreams of Virgil may put one in mind of the passage in which Palladio describes the Rotonda . Palladio's landscape is more agrarian and bucolic, he evokes less of the untamed pastoral, his scale is larger; but the effect of the two passages is somehow the same.

Palladio, writing elsewhere, amplifies the ideal life of the villa. Its owner, from within a fragment of created order, will watch the maturing of his possessions and savor the piquancy of contrast between his fields and his gardens; reflecting on mutability, he will contemplate throughout the years the antique virtues of a simpler race, and the harmonious ordering of his life and his estate will be an analogy of paradise.

Villa Rotonda
Villa Savoye

The ancient sages commonly used to retire to such places, where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends and relations, having houses, gardens, fountains and such like pleasant places, and above all their virtue, they could easily attain to as much happiness as can be attained here below.3

Perhaps these were the dreams of Virgil; and, freely interpreted, they have gathered around themselves in the course of time all those ideas of Roman virtue, excellence, Imperial splendor, and decay which make up the imaginative reconstruction of the ancient world. It would have been, perhaps, in the landscapes of Poussin--with their portentous apparitions of the antique--that Palladio would have felt at home; and it is possibly the fundamentals of this landscape , the poignancy of contrast between the disengaged cube and its setting in the paysage agreste, between geometrical volume and the appearance of unimpaired nature, which lie behind Le Corbusier's Roman allusion. If architecture at the Rotonda forms the setting for the good life, at Poissy it is certainly the background for the lyrically efficient one; and, if the contemporary pastoral is not yet sanctioned by conventional usage, apparently the Virgilian nostalgia is still present. From the hygenically equipped boudoirs, pausing while ascending the ramps, the memory of the Georgics no doubt interposes itself; and, perhaps, the historical reference may even add a stimulus as the car pulls out for Paris.

1 Isaac Ware, The Four Books of Palladio's Architecture, London, 1738, p. 41 .
2 Le Corbusier, Precisions sur un état present de l'architecture et de l'urbanisme, Paris, 1930, pp. 136-38 .
3 Ware, p. 46.

scale and architecture
...central space/radiating plan, big central space--Villa Rotonda, Kahn's Goldenberg House, Retreat House (compared with Hurva Synagogue), Gooding House.

2002.10.29 09:49
Re: Traffic Design
In describing what is now a somewhat ubiquitous housing type in the USA, B wrote, "not like townhouses with the 1st floor dedicated to parking, and housing above." My mother lives in such a model of early 1970s vintage, and most of Northeast Philadelphia is of like ilk. I too have seen this paradigm as more regrettable than not, yet at the same time I realize that my mother's house is oddly related to Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, though without the pilotis, ramp and roof garden. The genealogy goes like this. First there is Savoye and Le Corbusier's housing project at Pessac. Savoye over the years decays but is rescued and restored as museum piece, all the while being an icon in print. Pessac is rather quickly transformed from Purist manifestation into what is essentially ur-postmodern design by its individual inhabitants. The house my mother lives in is then post ur-postmodern Pessac (but because it is part of a twin rather than part of a row, it still harbors buried evocations of Savoye).
The (row) house I live in, built in 1938, is (I believe just still) within the first generation of US housing to incorporate a garage. Here, all the designated parking happens in the back at ground level via a communal driveway, which in reality a semi-private/semi-public street. From the back my house shows three stories, yet from the front the houses were made to look like two story dwelling via bermed lawns.
I sometimes wonder what Northeast Philadelphia would be like if its housing had more closely followed the design of Savoye and Purist Pessac. (Incidentally, Stonorov and Kahn's Pennypack Woods housing, certainly among the first planned housing communities of Far Northeast Philadelphia, has a strong affinity with Pessac, kind of a combination of both Pessac's Purist and post-Purist manifestations.)

2005.09.08 10:54
are the origins common ? can we prove it ?
Do a thesis on the commonality of brainwashing within architectural education within say the last two to three decades. Brainwashing in the sense of becoming blind to what is otherwise self evident. For example, is the Villa Savoye really a house? Yes, it's design intention was for it to be a house, but that's not what it really turned out to be, is it?

2005.09.08 12:04
are the origins common ? can we prove it ?
I was yesterday thinking of the Villa Savoye as a museum, perhaps specifically a museum of Modern architecture even?



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