Promenade Architecturale: A Documentation Part I : The Background

Promenade Architecturale

The notion of promenade architecturale within the history and language of architecture's Modern Movement emanates from Le Corbusier who employed the phrase specifically when describing the experience of walking through two of his 1920s houses, the Maisons La Roche-Jeanneret (1923) and the Villa Savoye (1929-31). Both references occur in the Oeuvre Compléte:

"This house [the Maisons La Roche-Jeanneret] will be rather like an architectural promenade. You enter: the architectural spectacle at once offers itself to the eye. You follow an itinerary and the perspectives develop with great variety, developing a play of light on the walls or making pools of shadow. Large windows open up views of the exterior where the architectural unity is reasserted."
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre Compléte 1910-1929, p. 60.

"In this house [the Villa Savoye] we are presented with a real architectural promenade, offering prospects which are constantly changing and unexpected, even astonishing. It is interesting that so much variety has been obtained when from a design point of view a rigorous scheme of pillars and beams has been adopted. . . . It is by moving about . . . that one can see the orders of architecture developing."
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre Compléte 1929-1934, p. 24.

Furthermore, the words promenade architecturale caption a specific photographic view up the Villa Savoye's exterior ramp towards the roof-top solarium (Oeuvre Compléte 1929-1934, p. 30).

Apart from the physical design of the two houses described, these textual citings together with the captioned photograph of the Villa Savoye ramp offer the best, albeit quasi, definition of the promenade architecturale. In plain terms, the promenade commences upon entering the building, is recognized straight away as an "itinerary" to follow, and travel along the path exposes the building's seemingly infinite architectural variety. In not so plain terms, the promenade architecturale is the synergistic manifestation of a dynamic spatial experience, whose total effect is greater than the sum of the effects of the discrete parts of the building--the "rigorous scheme of pillars and beams" and the ramp--taken independently. Le Corbusier clearly suggests with the captioned photograph, however, that the ramp itself is nonetheless the promenade architecturale's crucial element, the component that makes the promenade "real."

In the ensuing years since the building and publication of the Villa Savoye, a number of architectural writers and thinkers have contributed additional layers of meaning to Le Corbusier's promenade architecturale, and, as it happens, each new layer of meaning emphasizes the significance of the ramp. Like a promenade architecturale itself, the following series of quotations delivers a weaving path of "constantly changing and unexpected prospects," and each individual passage is thus an incremental step towards a fuller and deeper understanding of the architectural promenade idea.

"[T]he ramp was designed as the preferred route of what the architect [Le Corbusier] calls the promenade architecturale through the various spaces of the building--a concept which appears to be close to that almost mystical meaning of the word "axis" that he had employed in Vers un Architecture."
Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age

"An axis is perhaps the first human manifestation; it is the means of every human act. The toddling child moves along an axis, the man striving in the tempest of life traces for himself an axis. The axis is the regulator of architecture. To establish order is to begin to work. Architecture is based on axes. The axis is a line of direction leading to an end. In architecture you must have a destination for your axis. In the Schools they have forgotten this and their axes cross one another in star-shapes, all leading to infinity, to the undefined, to the unknown, to nowhere, without end or aim. The axes of the School is a recipe and a dodge.

Arrangement is the grading of axes, and so it is the grading of aims, the classification of intentions.

The architect therefore assigns destinations to his axes. These ends are the wall (the plenum, sensorial sensation) or light and space (again sensorial sensation)."

Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960), p.173.

James Stirling's competition entries for museums in Düsseldorf and Cologne, writes Graham Shane, both demonstrate a developing concern with circulation. What is outstanding in these two projects is the collagist juxtaposition of a vocabulary of neo-classical and contemporary architectural elements, which become a coherent text only when viewed in sequence from Stirling's 'preferred route'--the pleasure of the text depending almost entirely on this promenade architecturale.

"[At] Leicester solid wall, glass, ramp, lift tower, railing and staircase were sandwiched between raised podium below and sculpted segregated masses above.

Both Düsseldorf and Cologne employ this vocabulary over larger fields, with an extended circulation path passing between, above and below--strong, easily recognised forms that function symbolically at a city scale. The question is whether or not link spaces of the complexity of Düsseldorf's foyer will have an internal poetic coherence for the user, lacking as it does the simplicity of storyline that contributes so much to Leicester's success.

the "Düsseldorf foyer"

It is this 'preferred route', these sentences, this promenade architecturale, that distinguishes Stirling's work as architecture and protects it from the Piranesian chaos. It is this same route that is so lovingly described, both by Stirling at great length in his lecture, and in the deadpan text and line drawings that illustrate these competition entries--and which can be so easily ignored."
Graham Shane, "Cologne in Context" in Architectural Design, no. 11, 1976, pp. 685-7.

Banham augments the definition of the promenade architecturale with two cogent ideas--one is practically self-evident and the other is cleverly subtle. First, Banham's citing of the analogy between the promenade idea and Le Corbusier's "philosophy" on axes generates a powerful merger whereby the combination of path and destination takes a paramount position. Second, Banham's phrase "preferred route" carries a slightly critical tone--although the promenade architecturale is the travel plan of choice, it, nonetheless, cannot exclude the tangential or marginal course.

"Perhaps the most striking feature of the Villa is the ramp, which lends a simple walk on the roof terrace the aura of a ceremonial ascent. What is the origin and meaning of the motif? The articulation of the arrival-zones in terms of solemnly exposed ascents has been a major theme of "high architecture" from Palladio up to the great châteaux of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Le Corbusier's case, however, the forms appears to have industrial, that is, machine age overtones recalling motorized traffic with its roadways in the forms of bridges, ramps, and loops. In Towards a New Architecture he had published a photograph of the Fiat test track on the roof of their factory in Turin, and in Paris, large elevated access ramps for taxis were outstanding architectural elements at the old Gare Montparnasse and the Gare de Lyon. All this most have interested Le Corbusier and there is little doubt that ramps in his houses reflect something of the thrill of fast motorized circulation within the modern city.

Race track on roof of Fiat Factory in Turin

This idea found other, more obvious realizations in later years, The most spectacular is Harvard's Carpenter Center: its ramps are a sort of miniature version of Boston's Southeast Expressway running through the structure in a bold S-shaped curve, piercing it like a tunnel, and inviting the pedestrians to take a metaphorical stroll through Corbusier's ideal "ville radieuse."

So much for the explicit machine-age symbolism. But the ramp is also a spectacle of pure form and space, and it has been praised as such by Giedion who insisted that it is impossible to "comprehend the Villa Savoye by a view from a single point; quite literally, it is a construction in space-time." Le Corbusier's own comments on space-time are more straightforward: "It is by moving about . . . that one can see the orders of architecture developing." And once again, as he had done earlier in connection with the Villa La Roche, the architect speaks of "promenade architecturale," and the vernacular architecture of North Africa as sources of inspiration.

Stanislaus von Moos, Le Corbusier, elements of a synthesis (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1979), p.87.

In addressing the symbolism of the ramp within the Corbusian oeuvre, von Moos simultaneously increases the holdings of the promenade architecturale's definition. Although referring specifically to the ramp within the Villa Savoye, the notions of "ceremonial ascent," "machine-age overtones recalling motorized traffic," and " a construction in space-time" likewise identify auxiliary characteristics of the architectural promenade concept. As if it was the instrument of a twentieth-century ritual, the ramp as promenade architecturale seems capable of somehow manifesting a transcendence, whereby the active participant glides into the realm of the thoroughly modern. Additionally, von Moos suggests the Late Italian and French Renaissance tradition of articulating "arrival-zones in terms of solemnly exposed ascents" as the promenade architecturale's most likely historical precedent.

"Having reached the entrance to the monastery [of Ema, which Le Corbusier visited on his first journey to Italy in 1907], the visitor encounters a long, gently ascending ramp with low steps leading upward in the opposite direction. Going up this ramp one is looking out through large apertures enclosed with semicircular arches onto the path one has come. Was this the proto-type, the model--retained in the memory--for the ramp in the Villa Savoye and for all other ramps in Le Corbusier's later work?

It was not merely the ramp as such that we discovered here but its special formation as a path which is open to the outside permitting the visitor to look back to whence he has just come. In other words, it is the ramp as architectonic promenade which so cogently suggests the comparison with the Villa Savoye . . .

The entrance to the [Villa Savoye], the beginning of the upward path through the house, and the terminal point of this path, and finally the vista point, from which one looks out from the building onto the landscape, are all situated above one another. . . .

Man's movement through space became the guiding principle of a new and different architecture, not just movement in and through space but also in the alternation between movement and being stationary. Thus the ramp in the Villa Savoye not only leads from one place to another, it also connects places that are harmoniously balanced within themselves. It does not simply lead through the building but has a beginning and an end, and when one end is reached it begins to lead us once more to another place."

Jürgen Joedicke, "The Ramp as Architectonic Promenade in Le Corbusier's Work" in Daidalus, 1984, June, p. 104-108.

Joedicke presents a fairly convincing case when suggesting the entrance ramp of the Monastery of Ema as the leading precedent for the promenade architecturale, especially with regard to the inside/outside nature of the ramp and the overall ability of the path to reflect upon itself. These qualities are well evident at the Villa Savoye, where Joedicke further notes the stacked correspondence between the beginning and end of the route through the building. This relationship between the path and its point of termination immediately recalls Le Corbusier's own thoughts concerning the "axis" and the architect's requirement in providing the axis with a "destination." Consequently, with the convergence of beginning and end, the definition of the Corbusian promenade architecturale comes to full circle.

The practice of promenade architecturale within twentieth-century architecture does not end with Le Corbusier, however. As already marginally noted, the architecture of James Stirling also exhibits traits attributable to the promenade idea, as does a specific project by Rem Koolhaas. Each of the following quotations examines the presence of the promenade architecturale within the building designs of these two architects, and thus adds a few more steps, along with some new twists, to the established course.

"Although the movement route has been thoroughly assimilated in twentieth-century architecture as a strategic device, the term promenade architecturale cannot be used in describing the work of other than a handful of architects. The inevitable Corbusian associations raise the level of expectation beyond that usually associated with a movement route, suggesting an integration of circulation and form resulting in an experiential dimension of unusual richness and subtlety. . . . From the beginning, circulation was an important generator in [James] Stirling's designs . . . In [the Cambridge History Faculty Building], the promenade architecturale becomes the conduit for a dynamic visual experience . . . As in the [V]illa [Savoye], the ramps [of the Olivetti Training School at Haslemere] act as a contemplative device, their gentle ascent under a glazed 'vault' giving access to space, sunlight and greenery, symbolizing that liberation of the spirit epitomised by Le Corbusier's work of the 1920s. As in the villa, the promenade architecturale gradually unfolds to reveal a visual sequence containing enclosure and exposure, with spaces and volumes compacted into a geometrical composite . . . In all three [German Museums: Nordrhine Westphalia; Wallraf-Richartz; Staatsgalerie], the promenade architecturale emanates from an analysis of the complex texture of the city, resonances of which are evoked by metaphor and allusion and by a juxtaposition of forms that combine visual surprises with vitality and grandeur. . . . In [the Staatsgalerie], James Stirling's promenade architecturale reaches its joyous and most profound fulfillment, transcending his earlier logic in an affirmation of the role of architecture as being to provide man with an experiential foothold in the world."
Geoffrey Baker, "James Stirling and the promenade architecturale" in The Architectural Review, 1992, Dec., pp. 72-75.

"The promenade architecturale surges across the [Staatsgalerie] complex in a magical mystery tour that resonates with memories of city structuring. In this scenario associations are transformed and decoded so that, for example, the traditional rotunda acts not as a point of culmination (as in the Pantheon or in Schinkel's Altes Museum) but as a dynamic participant in an elaborate dialogue between inside and outside and between an ideal and reality."
Geoffrey Baker, "Stuttgart Promenade" in The Architectural Review, 1992, Dec., pp. 76.

"[P]ushed by having to produce a huge library [in Paris] with minimum financing, [Rem Koolhaas] suddenly thought of exploiting the fold, a method of design I have already mentioned. [The architect] folded and cut up sheets of paper and this led him to a new movement system where the library is both a continuous linear route and a set of near-horizontal planes. The trick is that much of the library floor has a tilt: not so much that books on a trolley roll away, but just enough to move from floor to floor. In effect, the building is an enormous ramp with various surprising events superposed along the route. The idea has some precedents--the 'architectural promenade' of the seventeenth-century French hôtel, the programmed walk through an English landscape garden, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, which also has an organizational ramp as a route of exploration--but Koolhaas' invention is different. He makes the whole floor a ramp and weaves through it a grid of columns and randomized incidents. This, once again, is the method of superposition. Different layers of meaning are strained through each other without any narrative, or priority. This is different from the controlled promenade architecturale -- for instance Le Corbusier's Mundaneum project--because it refuses to privilege one interpretation over another."
Charles Jencks, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), p. 88.

Baker's descriptions of the "movement routes" throughout Stirling's buildings and projects are unquestionably a positive affirmation of the promenade architecturale as defined thus far, whereas Jencks' description of Koolhaas' Bibliothègues Jessieu presents a negation of the Corbusian promenade ideal. Both historians clearly hold a thorough and accurate understanding of the promenade architecturale, yet neither of their analyses are completely satisfactory nor conclusive. In his general study, Baker correctly notes the long standing importance of circulation within Stirling's designs, and furthermore recognizes Stirling's steady development of the circulation route in conjunction with specific built forms that carry both functional and symbolic significance. What Baker does not note, however, is whether Stirling ever intentionally directed his circulation routes towards specific "destinations." Jencks, on the other hand, stresses Koolhaas' total elimination of the "narrative and priority" of the promenade architecturale within his library design, and thus the idea of path and destination is altogether antithetical to the library's overriding design concept. Could it be that the combined notions of "axis" and "destination" which Le Corbusier held in such high regard at the beginning of the twentieth-century are precisely the concepts now lost to architects at the end of the same century? Did the promenade architecturale indeed "lead us once more to another place?"

"Get carefully out of your car and consider where you are. You may be standing on a sloping floor. The space in which you stand is ambiguous and endless. Where does Level D end and Level E begin, and why? And are you indoors or outdoors?

Every element of traditional humanistic architectural space--the walls, the floor, the ceiling--is ambiguous, askew or both. The parking garage subverts all architectural expectations.

But they are built routinely, and we use them with scarcely a second thought. The spatial experience of the parking garage may actually be more consonant with how most people experience the contemporary environment of highways, interchanges, electronic media and computers than their experience with traditional buildings. Most architecture is solid and static. Parking garages make room for dynamism. And each of the cars is a private realm that has entered the place but is essentially unaffected by it. The classical principles of architecture seem not to apply. In our world, the renaissance man -- standing firm, heroic, contemplative but ready to act - would probably get run over. . . .

We needn't find [parking garages] beautiful. But perhaps they do contain the seeds of great things to come."

Thomas Hine, "Ramps give a slant on design" in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 11, 1994, sec. N, p. 1.

In calling attention to the modern parking garage, Hine presents an eloquent and very reasonable answer to what the "other place" at the end of the promenade architecturale might be. There is, however, one specific building design that provides a better answer to the promenade architecturale question--Le Corbusier's Palais des Congrès. Designed as the European Parliament in Strasbourg the year before Le Corbusier died, the building has not received critical attention simply because it remained unexecuted, yet, not only does it relate directly to the Villa Savoye, it is also the culmination of Le Corbusier's promenade architecturale ideal.

roofscape of the Palais des Congrès



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