Be sure to read Part I of this article here before continuing.
Though the philosophies of Hadrian and Le Corbusier can be easily and rightfully distinguished and compared, it is another to see the design sensibilities of Hadrian’s villa being employed in the projects of Le Corbusier. These projects include the Villa Stein-de Monzie, his work as planner and builder in Chandigarh, India, and Notre Dame du Haut (Ronchamp Cathedral).
Le Corbusier’s project Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is arguably his most famous and spectacular work. It is one of the most visited works of the architect, and it is considered to be his crowning achievement. Ronchamp Cathedral, as it is often abbreviated, is one of only two religious works of architecture that Le Corbusier designed (the other one being La Tourette in 1960). The chapel is located on the hilltop of Bourlemont in the Haute-Saone region and was built between the years 1950 and 1955. The village it overlooks is Ronchamp, which is Latin for “Roman field”. The building is an oddly shaped, dramatic white-colored structure with a wooden, boat-shaped roof that undulates and curves into a focal point. There is a deep wall with windows that let in varying degrees of light, creating a dramatic effect on the chapel’s interior. There is an emphasis on the procession, on how people move through the space and experience its drama.
Figure 1: Ronchamp Cathedral
Figure 2: Dramatic light wall in the chapel of Ronchamp Cathedral.
Michael Ytterberg, an expert on Hadrian’s Villa, wrote a dissertation concerned with the idea of procession. He mentions Le Corbusier in his work, and ties him in with the Villa. “These axes are at the basis of the notion of the architectural promenade that was a constant concern of [Le Corbusier],” he says. The architect was very concerned with the “architectural promenade,” or the procession one takes in a space when they are experiencing it.
“It is the ‘promenade,’ the movements we make that act as the motor for architectural events,” Ytterberg continues. The architecture should speak to the occupants, and guide them through the spaces in a logical, organized manner. This idea of procession was also heavily emphasized in Hadrian’s Villa, ambulation being encouraged by the architecture. Spaces in the Villa are clearly marked and the thresholds of the spaces are clearly established. This can also be seen in a plan of Ronchamp. The entrances are thresholds where a certain tension emerges, and the spaces are clear, their uses inferred through the architecture.
Figure 3: Floor Plan of Ronchamp Cathedral.
The use of the space follows conventions of a cathedral, yet Le Corbusier articulates these spaces and their functions in unique ways. One feature of this cathedral that has been popularly discussed is the thick wall of punctured light that occupies the south wall in the choir (Figure 2). This wall contains openings of various sizes, volumes, and depths. This is to allow a beautiful and irregular display of light and shadow related to mass and volume of space. Another amazing light feature of the cathedral is the calotte, located on the west end of the building. It towers over the structure, appearing to be apsidal in nature. A light shaft in this part of the structure allows for an evocative toying of the space above ones head.
These photonic features are especially important due to their direct influence from Hadrian’s Villa. When Le Corbusier was at the Villa, he was especially cognizant about how light was represented within the ruins he encountered. The architect was also aware of how the space he was sketching was affected by this light. Le Corbusier’s sketches of the Serapaeum clearly show his interest in the light as well as the human experience of the space. Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi and Giovanni Denti, in their book Le Corbusier A Villa Adriana: Un Atlante, called the Serapaeum “the apse of the Canopus: a system which will be taken up by Le Corbusier in the project for the church of Ronchamp, after repeated publications of the same designs.”
Figure 4: Sketch of the apse of the Canopus (Serapaeum) (taken from Le Corbusier a Villa Adriana: Un Atlante by Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi and Giovanni Denti)
Figure 5: Sketch of the apse of the Canopus (Serapaeum) (taken from Le Corbusier a Villa Adriana: Un Atlante by Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi and Giovanni Denti)
Figure 6: Sketch of the apse of the Canopus (Serapaeum) (taken from Le Corbusier a Villa Adriana: Un Atlante by Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi and Giovanni Denti)
Figure 7: Sketch of the apse of the Canopus (Serapaeum) (taken from Le Corbusier a Villa Adriana: Un Atlante by Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi and Giovanni Denti)
This isn’t the only time Ronchamp is mentioned in the text of these two Italian scholars. Denti and Tadeschi also mention that the Praetorium is another influence of the features in Ronchamp. Specifically, the nature of the parts to the whole in the Praetorium are related to the parts and whole of the cathedral. The scale of the Praetorium related to its immediate context is echoed in the scales between spaces in Ronchamp. The way light plays with the space in the ruins of the Praetorium heavily influenced the light experiments the architect employed in his masterpiece.
The Villa Stein-de Monzie is a single family house located in the city of Garches, France, designed and built between 1926 and 1928. The clients for the house were Michael Stein (the brother of Gertrude Stein) and his wife Sara. The “de Monzie” part of the name comes from the later occupant of the house, Gabrielle Monzie, who was a divorcee of radical socialist Anatole de Monzie and a fan of Le Corbusier’s architecture. This project stands out as one of the architect’s first single-family housing projects that showcases his five points of architecture.
Figure 8: Facade of the VIlla Stein de Monzie
Looking at the Villa Stein’s entrance façade (Figure 9), one can see the rigid nature of the project, and how it follows the form associated with modernism. No orders are present, stone and marble are not used in its construction, its monumentality is of a different nature than Hadrian’s Villa, the structure is subdued and reserved, and the play of mass and volume differs from that of Ancient Roman architecture.
While this is to be expected of a characteristically Corbusien building, it is perhaps atypical to attribute an influence from Hadrian’s Villa unto this project. There is not much scholarship that exists on this comparison, though Michael Ytterberg does mention the modern villa in his dissertation:
“In this plan the use of angled and curved walls guides the house’s occupants through the grid of the house. The architectural form is intended to capture in concrete and steel the ephemeral ‘dance’ of human activity in the course of the day.”
The plan is a driving force in this project. The structure of the villa allows for less of a need of load-bearing walls in the interior space. This opens up the plan for free use of space and walls that can articulate and divide space in a way that appears defy the laws of physics. Upon gazing at the plans, one can map the procession that the occupants had to take throughout the space. By scaling back all the way to the site plan, it is clear that the long driveway was meant to be used to frame the view of the house and evoke the feelings of a grand procession towards a palace. This is around the time the automobile was first entering the lives of families living outside of the city, and its popularity was immense.
The introduction of this modern technology captivated and transformed the lives of the world population. Le Corbusier was a huge fan of automobiles, and ceaselessly compared them to architecture his whole life. The first floor plan, despite being the more regular of the two floors, still employs the aspects of the free plan. The second floor plan is where the more radical articulation of space takes place. As mentioned earlier, the procession was something that was held in high regard by both Le Corbusier and Hadrian in their architecture. Both were concerned with an architecture of human scale, and this is achieved in their seminal works. At Hadrian’s Villa, the irregularity of the plan does not discount its value in establishing order, articulation of space, and experiential architecture. The Villa Stein-de Monzie is also successful in this regard.
Figure 9: Floor plans of the Villa Stein de Monzie
Chandigarh, translating to the abode of the Hindu god Chandi, is a specially constructed post-colonial city in India that was largely designed by Le Corbusier. The city was a result of India’s newly-elected Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s desire to modernize and Westernize his new nation. Nehru sought to set a precedent in the East upon his appointment as head of newly-independent India. Le Corbusier was named the principal architect of the modernization project, also being referred to as the Architectural Advisor to the Government of Punjab. The city was a monumental project that also included a team of expert architects.
A building infused with Hadrianic influence is the Assembly building. This project was undertaken in the 1950s and Le Corbusier was well established in the profession. His numerous buildings and publications gave him an ethos that allowed him to explore any avenues he wanted on his projects in Chandigarh. One could make the argument that the entire project is related to Hadrian’s Villa. The Villa was designed as a large complex with a set of rooms following specific functions, and could been as a synecdoche to the city of Rome. The Capital Complex in Chandigarh could also be seen as this microcosm articulated through the use of several spaces with separate, distinct functions.
Figure 10: The Assembly Building in Chandigarh, India
Figure 11: The Capital Complex in Chandigarh, India
The notions of procession and hierarchy still exist in these spaces, yet it is with different intentions and with different results. Specifically, the Assembly building, also referred to as the Palace of Justice, invoked two structures at the Villa of Hadrian.
William MacDonald and John Pinto state:
“In such powerfully expressive monuments as the Ronchamp Chapel and the government center at Chandigarh, India, heroically scaled to their natural environments, we discern formal as well as spiritual affinities with the Villa. The sequence of massive vaults sheltering the Chandigarh Palace of Justice recalls his sketches of the Central Service Building. Similarly, the coarse texture of rough concrete he employed at Chandigarh evokes the ruined masonry of the Larger Baths recorded in another of his early drawings. Shorn of revetment and overgrown with creepers, the bare walls of the villa take on an organic quality that ties them to the earth. Le Corbusier’s rough-cast concrete surfaces, apparently shaped by centuries of wind and rain, achieve a similar timeless quality.”
The rustication of the Assembly may not aesthetically drive one to conclude that it is evoking a state of ruin, but the idea of plain concrete and monochromatic nature emerge from Le Corbusier’s exploration of the villa. Also, the similarity with Ronchamp is articulated within the curvature of the roof element. Le Corbusier’s obsession with the materiality of the baths as well as the way light entered these ruins is apparent. In the Assembly building, a sculptural form known as the hyperbolic paraboloid occupies the roof. This structure is a vertical lighting element that allows for a broad distribution of natural light.
There exists the possibility that the references in the Palace of Justice to the villa may or may not be intentional, but this leads to an interesting conclusion: If the references to Hadrian’s Villa in this project are unintentional, then Le Corbusier has gone so far in his design philosophy that the spirit of the villa’s design has ingrained itself and become second nature to the architect. For this project and that of Ronchamp (late projects in his career), the implication of such a notion is that a short visit to the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa automatically manifest themselves forty years later in the architecture of the world’s most celebrated architect.
Le Corbusier’s visit to Hadrian’s Villa in 1911 reignited interest in the villa in the 20th century, closing a large gap on the scholarship and interest of the site. The Villa and the architect’s obsession with the great minds of the ancients influenced what modern architecture is supposed to be. It was through the study of the ancient that a modern aesthetic was born.
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