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The Curutchet House
An architectural poem by Le Corbusier
in Argentina

Dr. Claudio Conenna  correo electrónico 
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sketch by Le Corbusier en tomo V, Ouvre Complete de LeCorbusier.

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sketches 1, 2 and 3 by Claudio Conenna  
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This work is directed to architects and to everyone who is interested in the great events of architectural creativity. Its topic is the Curutchet House, an exemplary work designed by Le Corbusier in the city of La Plata in faraway Argentina, distant from the main centers of architectural production and eclipsed by the large volume of LC's work. During the time in which the Curutchet house was designed and built (1949-1955), LC was developing some of the most important projects of his career, which would confirm his place in the history of architecture and urban planning. Christian Norberg Schulz wrote in 1974 that in general, all of LC's later period can be considered the most important actualization of architecture in the twentieth century (1). According to this view, the works that belong to the same period as the Curutchet house may constitute a prelude to the above period. These works (2) include the following: St. Dié (1946-1951); L' Unité Habitation, Marseilles (1946-1952); Roq et Rob, Cap Martin (1949); Chandigarh Capitol Buildings, India: Secretariat (1951-1957), High Court Building (1951-1956); Les Maisons Jaoul, Neuilly (1952-1955); Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (1950-1955), and others. The above works, which were designed and most of them built in the same period as the Curutchet house, naturally eclipsed the work studied here by their magnitude. Possibly for this reason, the historians and researchers who have studied LC's work have rarely referred to it. This, obviously, does not reduce its value or deny its transcendence.

In the Curutchet House, it is not only the revolutionary concept of modern architecture provided by him regarding the idea of a house, "La maison est une machine à habiter," (3) that is confirmed, but also his constant innovative aspect, his capacity for synthesis, and the outstanding lessons provided by every work. We cannot deny that this house is a highly educational work, with great value and interest for study and learning both at the general level and in its position as a response to its context (its architecture and city) (4), from its original main idea to the particular levels of functional, formal, spatial, and technological solutions. The singular importance of this work is found in the fact that it keeps offering motives and answers for timely issues of architecture, and this is possibly the most significant element of its timeless character.

Along with the compositional analysis of this work, we will also try to touch on another aspect which may be more profound or complex, that is, to try to understand what the work of LC - indisputably one of the greatest modern architects - represents for us today, at the dawn of the 21st century, with its enormous universality and variety of ideas and its constant offer of solutions, both in the technical and in the poetic aspects of their development.

On repeated occasions LC returns to the topic of the human need for beauty, which he explains in two ways: first, as the result of the use of elementary forms and proportional geometry, and second, as the result of a functional appropriateness; that is, something is beautiful when it is functional.

Concerning this house, we could say the same thing that LC stated regarding the Acropolis of Athens: "… the apparent disorder of its design can only deceive the profane viewer…".

The functionality of the residence sector is provided not only by the horizontal connections at each floor and the vertical connection of the stairs, which we could designate as physical connections, but also by the communication of visual order and psychological function. We should not forget that architecture should serve to make people's life happier. In the residence, this function of psychological service is achieved essentially through the empty space created in the floor with the bedrooms over the living room. An empty space that on another side, from the top floor, broadens the perspective over the roof garden and the square. This is another reason to recognize the functional importance of cross-sectional design.

The idea of the journey, walk-through, or promenade architecturale that we find in the Curutchet House had already been established by LC more than two decades before. The fundamental objective was to offer dynamics in the views seen during the journey, varied perspectives with unexpected and surprising views. This consists of a search and resolution of the topic of spatial dynamism (5) in which the value of time is managed as one further dimension, for the understanding of human movement within space. In this case, the ramp, as a fundamental element of the architectural journey, exceeds the strictly functional in order to create hierarchies within the relation of space and time.

In the Curutchet House, the journey or promenade architecturale is enriched significantly by the composition of architectural elements used: the pilotis, the two-way ramp, the management of the horizontal planes of the tiles, the volume of the residence with its recessed base, and the tree. The entire composition serves as an answer to the dimensional and morphological conditions of the terrain and to its location. In addition, with these elements it creates dynamic spatial situations, various perceptions of views and perspectives, and a consequent transition of scale and illumination in all of its space, with the intention of moving, in both the spatial and emotional sense, the person who experiences the building.

The definition of the main entrance is given by a simple element, a prism where the door is located, which can clearly be recognized by its isolation in the empty space of the free plan and shows us where we should enter. It is in this prism that a strict presence and definition are assumed by the point of change or passage from the open to the partially covered, from light to shade, from noise to silence, from the unknown to the answer, from mystery to revelation, and from creative exploration to architectural drama.

The free plan, created and used once again by LC, where the sense of its opening is verified, allows the visual integration and incorporation of the park within the limits of the building. In this specific case, the free plan, defined as a threshold, was created with no other end than to gain functional coherence and spatial significance for the entrance along with the elements that are "freely" grouped and ordered within the plan, and for the empty space at the center of the landplot that is created below the residence as a complement of its width.

One of the most outstanding elements in the spatial design of the Curutchet house is transparency, which could be defined in this case as an inherent quality of the organization of this building. In its design, we can appreciate two types of transparency (6). A real - literal - transparency, expressed as a main premise, with physical and material qualities and direct views, that is, like a "view directly from." As its complement, we notice a transparency that we can define as phenomenal (Greek = faínomai), apparent as a finer and more detailed exploration and search in the development of the design for a suggestive perception achieved by the penetration of large masses of light through empty spaces and openings created deliberately in order to advertise the presence of an open space that is not seen directly, but is perceived; that is to say, in terms of phenomena, a "perceiving through".

The area of the roof garden, in front of the residence and above the office, was ideally devised in terms of its location, with a view towards the two squares in the foreground and the forest in the background. This is a design for the enjoyment of the benefits of the sky, sun, light, shade, and views. In the design of this building, LC exploits the shape and position of the lot, as well as parallel conditions, in order to achieve the best views and maximum natural light at different levels. This forms an elaborate proposal of space management that essentially starts from the setting (7). We could contend that the spatial result of this house is achieved starting from a sincere and broad dialogue of opposites which co-exist perfectly with each other, such as mathematics and perception, reasoning (objective) and psychological experience (subjective), geometry and plastic irregularity, restriction and freedom, unity (overall composition) and breakdown (dematerialization and departure), full and empty, transparent and opaque, brightness and shade, open and closed, structural order and visual variety, rectangularity and obliqueness, dynamism and staticity, the real and the imaginary, the expressed and the phenomenal.

The spatial situation of the lot, with less than 200 squares meters (8) and with three dividing walls, where the Curutchet House is located has as its main characteristic, as we have said before, the opening toward two squares and the forest. Besides the consideration that for this work, external space functions in fact like a visual magnet, since, for any part of the house one turns in some way towards it, we can point out three principal situations of interior-exterior relations as a direct response to it. These appear more clearly at three different levels. The first is at the entrance level, the second, at the office level, and the third at the residence level.

The most important message that we receive from this brilliant architectural composition, starting from the spatial relationships between the inside and the outside, is that it responds to needs of a psychological-spiritual order, beyond the eminently material, technical, and functional.

In the formal language of this work (residence + office), we may notice that there is an interplay of three of the various compositional criteria of LC's philosophy of design which we could call influences, towards which he felt somehow attracted at the moment of designing and building. These are pure forms in architectural volumetry, the white architecture of the Mediterranean, and mechanistic aesthetics. With this arsenal of forms and his favorite details, LC finds a masterful solution for the three languages in a perfect composition through his own style of elaboration. The dedication that LC feels as an architect is found specifically in this elaboration, in the creation of a new language of his own, which naturally is based on technological evolution.

In the Curutchet House, we find various signs of the architectural language used by LC in the majority of his works, with its respective function and semantic value. Besides the five basic "vowels", namely the pilotis, free plan, continuous horizontal window or fenêtre en longueur, roof garden, and free façade, we also find curved walls, skylights in the bathrooms, sliding doors, brise-soleils, a ramp, an open staircase, an insulating wall, and areas with a double height.

The rigid geometry in the façade's surface is balanced with the plastic interpenetration of the volumes, which together achieve a varied and changing interplay of perspectives. It consists of a functional artwork that reflects the optimism and high ambition of one of the greatest pioneers of the modernistic movement. We could state that in this plastic interplay, there is a reminder on LC's part of a revision belonging to the Purist architecture attempted during the twenties.

The brise-soleil of the main façade (that of the office), which develops from the first level above the pan-de-verre of the office and elevates itself above the second level, that is, the roof garden, providing in this way a frame, limits, and a scale, occupies the center of the overall composition, both in the vertical sense, by occupying the two more central of the four levels, and in the horizontal, by departing perceptibly from the sides. The way in which it appears with so much empty space beyond its four edges and behind gives us the impression that it is suspended in the air.

The brise-soleil of the residence, which is supported through all its height by the constructed volume, gives us the impression of a very perforated skin that covers the windowed front side of its "architectural box." The heights of the brise-soleil follow the proportions studied in the Modulor: 0.863 m for the level of the parapet and 2.260 m for the upper level.

The Curutchet House has an undeniable architectural value, both in the quality of its design and implementation and because of its importance in its historic context. Besides, the didactic virtues that it includes within the general and specific levels of its design process offer themselves for more extensive recognition and study.

Its architectural value is based on the following: Firstly, a) on the contextual manner in which it is situated as a component of the city, b) on the resolution of zoning issues with a delicate occupation of its landplot that considers the particularities of each one of its borders, and c) on its elaborate central idea, design by cross-section.

Secondly, a) on the functional resolution of the volumetrically separated and functionally integrated themes (office and residence), b) on the spatial richness that is developed in a singularly masterful way in such a limited space, and c) on the volumetric response, which considers the value of empty space as a fundamental variable to resolve the psychological dimension of its users, within the composition of fullness that architecture implies.

Thirdly, a) on the formal plasticity of the complex, b) on the individual value that it provides to the constructive and planned elements of its composition (slabs, walls, columns, stairway, ramp, entrance prism, brise-soleils, baldaquin, bathrooms), and c) on their articulated design, which integrates without uniting or separates without disintegrating, which liberates without creating anarchy and creates hierarchy without degrading.

Besides the designed and constructed result of this work, as a product of material resolution through technology, function, space, and form, its didactic value can be found beyond this, that is, in the design process, where LC enlists the incorporeal variables of psychology and perception in his search through other paths, within and beyond architecture. The fact that LC carried out this work at full maturity of his life and career allows us to say that he had many more elements to measure and involve in the design, which beyond being experimental, is a product of experience. In this work's design process, we cannot ignore a much wider exploration process that involves writing, observation of other cultures, painting, sculpture, and LC's own experience from many years of architectural practice. We find the common denominator of LC's processes of exploration and design in their timeless character, with down-to-earth adaptation to each circumstance, but also answers that aim upwards, in a manner that is detached but simultaneously committed to reality, with a high level of thought, critical thinking, and resolution. The breadth of thought within LC's dogmatic attitude could be attributed to his nature as an impassioned voyager or traveler and observer of other cultures and architectural types, as a process of renewal and subsequent transformation. In this way, LC becomes a type of apostle to the nations, preaching the new testament of architecture, illuminated by an Esprit Nouveau with universal and timeless principles.

Finally, to conclude this study of the Curutchet House, we have chosen a sentence of his which leads us to express the same thoughts that he expressed when he began his analysis of The Lesson of Rome (9): "…all of a sudden you touch my heart, you make me well, I feel happy, and I say 'This is beautiful. This is Architecture. Art is here…'".

Claudio Conenna PhD-architect  correo electrónico 
Salonica, Greece, july, 2001

 

Notes

1. Norberg Schulz Christian, Meaning in Western Architecture, London, 1975, p. 207.

2 Le Corbusier, Oeuvre Complète 1946-52, Vol. 5, Zurich 1966.y Œuvre complète 1952-1957, Vol. 6, Zurich 1968.

3 Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture, Paris, 1958, p. 83.

4 Arrese Alvaro, "Le Corbusier y La Plata", Summa 181, Buenos Aires 1982, pp. 38-39.

5 Tomas Héctor, El lenguaje de la arquitectura moderna, La Plata, 1997, pp. 159, 177-179.

6 Rowe Colin, Manierismo y arquitectura moderna y otros ensayos, Barcelona 1982, pp. 155-177.

7 Pérez Oyarzún Fernando, Le Corbusier y Sudamérica, viajes y proyectos, Santiago de Chile, 1995, pág. 143. Liernur Francisco - Pschepiurca Pablo, "Precisiones sobre los proyectos de Le Corbusier en la Argentina 1929/1949", pág. 40-55, Summa 243, Buenos Aires (11/1987), pág. 52.

8 The approximate dimensions of the lot are the following: 8.90m perpendicular width, 23.05m long side, 17.40m short side, 10.30m diagonal façade.

9 Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture, "… Mais tout à coup, vous me prenez au coeur, vous me faites du bien, je suis heureux, je dis: c'est beau. Voilà l' architecture. L' art est ici…", pág. 123.

 


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