An architect friend of mine, following a trip to the Paris region last year, told me about his visit to the Villa Savoye (as the villa “Les Heures Claires” is best known) in Poissy, Ile de France.
Upon investigation I discovered the existence of (roughly) the French equivalent of English Heritage – Centre des Monuments Nationaux – of which the Villa S is one. Further searching of the CMN website revealed a) that Poissy is directly on our favoured route between Gif sur Yvette and Le Shuttle and b) there were other CMN sites “worth a detour” within easy reach of Gif itself.
The Queen’s Dairy [Laiterie de la Reine] and the Shell Cottage [La Chaumiere aux Coquillages] are both follies within the vast park surrounding the Chateau of Rambouillet, a mere 30 minutes drive away. It’s a charming town, dominated by the Castle and with a large church on a hill. Like all other French towns it is pretty much shut down on Monday mornings. Of course, I missed the morning tours so bought a ticket for the 2pm show. We bought foodstuffs for a picnic in the Chateau grounds from the Carrefour Express (only food shop open in town) and headed towards the follies to be sure not to miss the guided tour. The Chateau itself is the Official Residence of the President of France and is also open to the public but it was the follies that I most wished to see and enjoy the sunshine whilst it lasted.
The Queen’s Dairy was built for Queen Marie Antoinette by her husband Louis XVI. It’s a plain building from the outside but once inside you are in a vast rotunda where the tasting took place – all veined marble, sandstone walls and a grey and white floor to give a milky atmosphere.
Beyond the rotunda is the cooling room (above) at the back of which is a grotto containing the figure of Jupiter as a child suckling Amalthea’s nanny-goat. There are various other roundels and friezes depicting mythological creatures and characters. Apparently after the French Revolution these ended up in England and were only finally restored to their original location just a few years ago in 2009.
The Shell Cottage in another part of the grounds is equally breathtaking. It has a thatched roof and ox bones built into the walls. It’s a copy of a late 18th century rural building but inside is an amazing shell-decorated room with original furniture and fireplaces. Of course, no photography is allowed which is even more of a shame as the postcards definitely did not show the interiors to the best advantage. The guided tours are in French which would be OK but the guide spoke at break-neck speed it was hard to follow everything he said.
I would like to say that it was like going from the sublime to the ridiculous going from Rambouillet one day to Poissy the next but there is nothing ridiculous about the Villa Savoye. It is an amazing visionary building so far ahead of its time. I just felt that it was so sad that it did not have the care and attention devoted to it as had the Rambouillet properties.
Built between 1928 and 1931 by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier “this ‘box in the air’ was the culmination of the architect’s formal research and implementation of The Five Points of New Architecture”. Briefly these points are :
Stilts – by using stilts he built his ‘box in the air’ as if just sitting on the grass
Roof Gardens – the flat roof is a usable terrace and flowers may be planted
Open-plan – reinforced concrete frees the interior of load-bearing and separating walls. Light partitions are sufficient to separate the different areas
Free-floating facade – the facades are free of the load-bearing structure, and placed freely on the stilts.
Horizontal window – the non-load-bearing facades can have long windows creating light and airy interiors. (See the exterior pictures above)
Corbusier Chaise Longue
Le Grand Confort Armchair
Pony Hide Lounge Chairs
To be said in its favour it was possible to tour the building in your own time, take photos at will, sit in the various architect-designed chairs and generally please yourself!
Also there was an excellent bookshop – much better than the one at Rambouillet.