30 August 2018

Giving Credit Where It's Due -- To Corbu

Villa Savoye

 If you’re reading this blog, you’re obviously interested in modern houses. Perhaps you live in one -- or aspire to.

Why? What do you love about modern houses? Is it the walls of glass that provide panoramic views and welcome natural light? The open floor plans and crisp, clean lines? What about outdoor spaces that are as much a part of the house as the indoor spaces?

As a modern house enthusiast, you love all of the above. But do you know why those attributes are available for us to enjoy in the first place? (If you do, kudos!)

In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, there is one name every fan of modern houses should know. In fact, we should celebrate his birthday every year!

Le Corbusier
He was born October 6, 1887, in Le Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Eventually, he would become a French citizen. His real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Griss, but he preferred the pseudonym he adopted when he moved to Paris in 1917: Le Corbusier. Simply “Corbu” to the initiated.

Le Corbusier believed that science and the technologies that brought about industrialization could, and should, be utilized to produce “modern age architecture” of internationally accepted principles. In 1923, he published Vers une Architecture (Toward a New Architecture), in which he declared, quite radically, that “a house is a machine for living in.” 

In keeping with that concept, he believed every aspect of architecture should serve a purpose or function. Non-functional decorations (or ornamentation, in architect-speak) had no place in or on modern age architecture. As Corbu said, The plan is pure, exactly made for the needs of the house.”

Among other inspired structures he produced to turn architecture on its head, Corbu designed the stunning and now-iconic Villa Savoye (pictured above) on the outskirts of Paris -- an elegant white box made of reinforced concrete that’s poised atop a grid of slender pylons in the midst of a large green lawn surrounded by trees.

A Mecca for architects and architectural students, Villa Savoye exemplifies every one of Corbu’s “five points of new architecture” that he declared in writing in 1927. Immediately, Corbu’s “five points” became the foundational principles of the Modern architectural vocabulary. They still are, as you’ll recognize below:

1.     Pilotis – A grid of reinforced concrete columns that bears the structural load, replacing the typical supporting walls and creating a new aesthetic. Among other results, Pilotis allows a house or building to be raised up on reinforced concrete pylons, which creates free circulation on the ground level for a variety of uses.
2.     “The free design of the ground plan,” aka the open floor plan - Structurally, heavy-duty beams and structural columns carry the weight of the floor or roof above, not walls. Aesthetically, open plans provide a sense of spaciousness and reflect a more casual living style, eschewing the need for “formal” spaces.
3.     Independent façade- This means that the exterior walls of a house or building are not structural, load-bearing walls. Columns in the interior support the house or building so the façade can be much lighter and more open, or made entirely of glass. And the glazing, or glass, isn’t encumbered by lintels or other structure around it.
4.     Horizontal “ribbon” windows – Another revolutionary concept at the time, horizontal windows eliminated vertical sash windows in favor of providing natural light inside evenly across a space.
5.     Roof gardens – Because Corbu replaced traditional sloping roofs with flat ones, he used this space to compensate for the portion of the land the house consumes. Note that Corbu’s idea predates sustainable design and green roofs by decades.

So just to remind you:  Corbu’s birthday is October 6th…


In a future post, we’ll connect Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement in Europe with the visionary architect on this side of the ocean who turned the movement into “an American opportunity.”

12 July 2018

Necessity Is The Mother of Invention: Green Design in the Mid-Century

If you’re like most people, you think sustainable design and construction are strictly contemporary concerns practiced by architects who advocate environmental stewardship. (Green design is actually mainstream now. And that’s a good thing!) Today’s home and building owners welcome the associated cost savings and take pride in knowing they’re doing their part to preserve the natural environment.

What you may not know is that many mid-century modernist (MCM) architects – way back in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s – factored principles of sustainable design into their residential projects long before the practice acquired its “green” moniker. Their homeowners reaped the benefits, oblivious to the concept of “eco-friendly” design. To them, their homes were even more pleasant and special.  

Let’s look at four principles MCM architects utilized without knowing they were being “green.”

Deep roof overhangs

A standard element of sustainable design today. In the early- and mid-20th century, modernist architects had to devise a method for protecting all those wonderful walls of glass and horizontal bands of windows from the high, hot summer sun to reduce glare and heat gain on the interior. Heavy draperies were not an option. The solution to the problem was to make the roof overhangs extra deep, at least by three feet. In the winter when the sun is lower in the sky, light and welcomed warmth would slip under the overhangs.

Of course, this practice is even more effective since the advent of energy-efficient windows. MCM architects had nothing but inefficient single-pane glass for all the glazing and windows on their houses – which made deep roof overhangs vitally important.

Masonry inside for absorbing and radiating heat 

All modernist architects, from the 1920s to young practitioners today, believe visual and physical access to the natural environment is imperative for a home to enhance its owner’s daily life and sense of well-being. In MCM architects’ efforts to blur the line between indoors and outdoors, they used an abundance of glazing (glass), of course, and they brought materials from the exterior of a house into the interior, reusing it in one form or another. The brick, stone or stucco on the outer walls might shape a floor-to-ceiling fireplace, indoor planters, and an entire accent wall in the main living area. The slate, terra-cotta tiles, etc., used for walkways and retainer walls, porch floors or pool decking would reappear in the house’s foyer, kitchen, staircase, or “rec room.” MCM houses often combined those materials with terrazzo flooring in foyers, sunrooms, or bathrooms. (This was back when terrazzo was far less expensive than it is now). In the winter, those masonry materials absorbed the heat from the low winter sun then radiated it into the interior at night as “passive heat.”

Operable windows for cross-ventilation

Another method for minimizing the separation between outside and inside was to maximize natural light and ventilation. We now know this principle greatly reduces a house’s dependency on electrical lighting and air conditioning, reducing both the cost and the house’s carbon footprint. It goes without saying that the glass that helps define all modern houses flooded MCM interiors with natural light.

But the glass was fixed in place. Not a problem today – unless you care about energy conservation -- thanks to air conditioning. But before HVAC systems made it possible to stay cool in a windowless office warren, ventilation was a major concern. So a modernist architect might tuck a row of operable windows along the bottoms of the glass walls and place sliding horizontal windows, for example in strategic locations on the opposite side of the house.* When both were open, cooling breezes swept through the house.

Today, “green” architects care about cross ventilation so homeowners can turn off the air conditioning at certain times of the year and enjoy the natural breezes. Or year-round in perfect-weather locales like L.A. and Hawaii.

*Narrow footprints 

Most MCM houses, especially the more modest ones for “everyday” folks, had narrow footprints. They might even be long, yet only one-room deep. This was – and still is – a very efficient, eco-friendly design in terms of energy savings. Natural light can permeate the entire interior and operable windows on either elevation make natural ventilation a snap. Radiant heat from masonry elements (see above) can also impact more of a house with a narrow footprint.

All of the above is just more evidence of early- and mid-century modernist architects’ brilliance. They were ahead of their time.

*   *   *

About that last point: In a future post, we’ll discuss how being ahead of their time frequently caused a host of headaches for those brilliant modernists and the people who lived in their houses.