Garden design for modernist architecture: Le Corbusier and Patrick Gwynne

Gardens at Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Patrick Gwynne's Homewood

Le Corbusier cared deeply about greenspace but liked to view if from afar and above. He was not an enthusiast for gardens, as can be seen from the Villa Savoye. It has an attractive roof terrace but is plain old grass at ground level. Many of Corb’s British admirers shared his views and gave little attention to gardens. Patrick Gwynne was a notable exception. The Homewood was designed shortly before the Second World War and its garden was dug up during the war to make space for growing vegetables. This would have made it easy for Gwynne to lay a Corbusian lawn but, over the many years he enjoyed his beautiful house, Gwynne gave much attention to making what is best described as a classic example of the Gardenesque Style. From a theoretical standpoint, it does not seem the right thing to have done. But which of them to you think had the ‘correct’ attitude to gardens? And which house would you rather live in?

29 thoughts on “Garden design for modernist architecture: Le Corbusier and Patrick Gwynne

  1. Adam Hodge

    The Courbusier’s landscape has the same bleak minimalism as I feel his architecture has. I think a few clumps of appropriately spoaced trees might have acted as a good bridge between the building and its environment, and might even have chosen Cornus controversa variegata or Cercidiphyllum japonicum.,.the bleached white leaves in Autumn are sensational.

    Interestingly Gwynne’s landscape here seems very much a response to the siol type,,we can Pinus and Betula are the indigenous trees, hence sandy acidic soil, so his broad plantings of Erica’s etc are giving low level splashes of winter ground colour and yet retaining the minimalist look…as I see it.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I visited Patrick Gwynne’s house yesterday and recommend it. The detailing is inventive, wonderful and appealing. But it stops WHAM at the edge of the terrace, as though he completely failed to realise than a modern garden was a possiblity. They said he had not visited Japan but an alternative explanation is that he had fell in love with the country from photographs: there is much that is Japanese in his architecture and the relationship of house:garden is also Japanese.

  2. Christine

    I definitely would vote to live in the Villa Savoye. Perhaps it is a misnomer that the Villa was situated within a garden (in the traditional sense) [ ]

    Rather the design impetus was to preserve the natural surroundings and enhance the experience of arrival by utilising the trees to screen the view of the house on approach to increase the drama of its revelation.

    “Le Corbusier conceived the approach towards the house to be best experienced by a car passenger. Past the entrance gate, the visitor’s vision is blocked by trees. The house reveals itself all at once as a grand white box, hovering on pilotis. This is a powerful expression of an elevated primitive shape with openings that reveal glimpses of the interior. The elevations get animated by the interplay of light and shade, solid and void, glimpses of the interior carefully framed by the external enclosure.” [ ]

    It is worth considering the innovations that the house represents:
    “The roof garden: switching from pitched roof to a flat roof and using the space as a garden terrace and bringing the landscape into the house.”

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I really like the video of the Villa Savoye (and admire the way it was done with still photos of the buildings). But I do not think it gains from being set in what looks like a football field and do not think either of these examples has achieved the successful relationship of modern indoor:outdoor space which Dan Kiley and Eero Saarinen achieved at the Miller House. It is also worth remembering that a ‘villa’ was originally a ‘village’, in private ownership, with gardens, farms woods etc. It was not a functionally isolated structure. As sculptural works, I think Villa Savoye is better than Homewood. As a place to lead the good life, I think the Homewood wins – but the Villa Savoye was closed on the day I went there so I am not, yet, in a position to make a fair judgement. You can only tell so much from photographs.
      Patrick Gwynne seems to have dealt with the ‘problem’ of having servants living in the house by keeping them on the ground floor, as at the Villa Savoye, but he gained privacy for the the front garden and terrace by confining the servants to the back of the house as well as to the ground floor.

  3. Christine

    ps. Note on the plan that more than half the living space on the upper levels is given over to outdoor living. The lower entrance level – the basement – which is continguous with the ground is considered the servant space (with the garage and maids room).

    I suppose an understanding of the perceptions of ground floor living in a semi-rural setting at the time would be important to evaluate the merits or reasons for his layout of the villa. [ ]

  4. Jill

    I visited the Villa Savoye a few months ago, and think the photo here is rather misleading. As Christine as explained above, the house is set in a naturalistic landscape which apparently Corbusier was keen to preserve. He imagined the building placed gently on the high point of the plot, without disturbing its setting. Sadly much of the large garden was taken over in the 1960s by the town of Poissy to construct a school (indeed at one point, it was planned to demolish the Villa to make way for the municipal building, but the state stepped in and acquired Corbusier’s masterpiece for the nation). The trees have been allowed to grow up to hide the school, so the original views over the Seine valley are much diminished.
    The site also has two long flower beds full of shrub roses at the front (you can just see them to the right of the photo above). They seem a surprising, traditional choice for such an iconoclastic building, but are nevertheless original to the design. Something of their striking perpendicular layout and bold, single species planting does perhaps fit quite well with the Villa.
    The key thing for me that makes the Villa a place to ‘lead the good life’ is the stress on outdoor living – that wonderful blurring of the boundaries between inside and out, with the living room opening onto the terrace through vast glass screens, and the internal ramp that leads from the ground floor to the main living areas continuing on the outside up to the roof terrace.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the comment (I will promote the Villa Savoye on my list of places to visit!) but don’t you think the architecture would work better in a Swiss valley or a setting more like that of Falling Water?

  5. Jill

    For me, there’s that whole ‘grand white ocean liner’ thing going on with the Villa Savoye, an effect that needs some serene space around it to maintain. A more rugged, Swiss valley style terrain would play against it (especially if such a landscape had been manufactured in suburban Poissy, but I’m not sure that’s what you’re suggesting!).
    Looking again at the Homewood photo (not a garden that I know), it actually looks to me a bit like a half-hearted Falling Water setting.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    An ocean liner is an excellent analogy and, most of the time, one wants to be on the liner instead of the cold stuff which surrounds it. It would be interesting to make the surrounds of the Villa Savoye the subject of a garden design competition. The surroundings of the Meisterhäuser Dessau are another interesting comparison. They are set in a pinewood which would now be classified as an ecological setting.

  7. Christine

    Villa Savoye is not a home in the ordinary sense. Perhaps this piece of performance art gives a sense of the difference….[ ] and [ ] as with the Bauhaus it was highly experimental.
    (Not that I am suggesting Tom that you really need to dress as cube, pyramid or sphere to experience it! But perhaps visiting the typical house of the era prior to visiting the Villa might assist in understanding what was achieved by the architecture and its contextual relationships within the landscape setting.)

    The Miller House garden is exceptional [ ] and builds on the lessons of the Villa Savoye, and I agree integrates the garden extraordinarily well. Perhaps if Corb had meet someone equally talented as Dan Kiley to collaborate with the garden may have been extraordinary also.

    Dan Kiley’s contribution to the project is of greater moment than Eero Saarinen’s contribution. The interiors and furnishings of the Miller House would have benefited from Corb’s consistency of aesthetic.

    The Homewood garden is perhaps more interesting as a diagrammatic relationship. (It would be interesting to understand what this is…) The resolution of the garden lacks the purity needed to complement the architecture. (Notice this is also the case with the interiors and furnishings of the Miller House).

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I like the Dolz and I like the video. It is indeed generous of the Miller family to give their house to the IMA – as it was generous of Patrick Gwynne to give his house to the National Trust. I wonder if modernism encourages generosity? Also, I wonder if Corbusier was the better sculptor and Saarinen the better architect (because I often have the sense that Corb’s genius was less-marked with regard to the Commodity aspect of architecture). Re the Villa Savoye, Corb could well argue that there is a difference between designing a weekend retreat and designing a main residence. But I still wonder if the garden treatment does not come from the Alps, where it is common for a chalet to have a balcony and to be set in a ‘grassy field’. I guess they were farm houses and farmers had to spend the good weather doing something other than gardening. Even in England, they say that a good garden is a sign of a bad farmer.
      With regard to the garden design, the time I have spent drawing style diagrams has led me to an improper conception of what the designers ‘ought’ to have done. In the case of modernist architecture it is shown on the style diagram for what I call Abstract Modernism. ‘Ought’ is a ridiculous concept here. I suppose it comes from my finding scraps of the idea here and there – and then thinking that ‘surely someone had the idea of bringing all these scraps together in a masterpiece’!

  8. Christine

    Tom you will be pleased to know that Corb designed roof gardens because he believed “…without areas of greenery one cannot be happy”. It would be interesting to know more about the possible influence of the chalet as you say. The house was designed as a second residence. Perhaps this means that the weekend and perhaps holiday occupation of the house was more than recreational?

    Wiki has a little on the history of the commission demonstrating even Corb was budget conscious:

    “Pierre and Emilie Savoye approached Corbusier about building a country home in Poissy in the spring of 1928. The site was on a green field on an otherwise wooded plot of land with a magnificent landscape view to the north west that corresponded with the approach to the site along the road. Other than an initial brief prepared by Emile for a summer house, space for cars, an extra bedroom and a caretaker’s lodge, Corbusier had such freedom with the job that he was only limited by his own architectural palette. He began work on the project in September 1928. His initial ideas were those that eventually manifested themselves in the final building but between Autumn 1928 and Spring 1929 he undertook a series of alternatives that were influenced primarily by the Savoye’s concern about cost. The eventual solution to this problem was to reduce the volume of the building by moving the master bedroom down to the first floor and reducing the grid spacing down from 5 metres to 4.75 metres.”

    An account of the costs:

    “Estimates of the cost in February 1929 were approximately half a million Francs, although this excluded the cost of the lodge and the landscaping elements (almost twice the original budget). The project was tendered in February with contracts awarded in March 1929. Changes made to the design whilst the project was being built including an amendment to the storey height and the exclusion and then re-introduction of the chauffeur’s accommodation led to the costs rising to approximately 800,000 Francs. At the time the project started on site no design work had been done on the lodge and the final design was only presented to the client in June 1929. The design was for a double lodge but this was reduced to a single lodge as the costs were too high. Although construction of the whole house was complete within a year it was not habitable until 1931.”

    The saying is everyone has a good novel in them – perhaps you have a masterpiece!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am no expert on Corb but the French garden historian, Dorothee Imbert, (author of The modernist garden in France Yale University Press 1992) wrote that ‘To Le Corbusier, gardens and landscape were green abstractions that belonged to the trilogy of “Sun-Air-Vegetation”. For the urban landscape, the “encounter between the geometric elements and the picturesque elements of vegeation” was “both necessary and sufficient”’. ‘The garden in the air is the “modern recipe for ventilation,” Le Corbusier declared. Easily accessible, it is protected from harsh sunlight and rain, and its dry paving prevents rheumatism. Hygienic, it transformed the usually inert apartment building into a breathing sponge that integrated air and greenery within its concrete structure. Such a garden was convenient for city dwellers because it was “efficient and maintenance-free.” Atop the Immeuble-villas one woulf find the “solariums, the swimming pool, the exercise rooms and the promenades amid the greenery of the hanging gardens”’ So I think Corbusier liked greenery and views and sun and air but, like Lutyens, he was not a ‘garden person’ who wanted to grow things or get soil or his hands or do many of the other things which gardeners do. Another way of putting this is that Lutyens and Corbusier were not a ‘hobby gardeners’ and nor did they have much interest in doing anything with greenspace except for looking at it. You could also make a comparison with the traditional gardens of Japan and China. Owners looked at them from within structures. The stroll garden, for walking, was a comparatively late introduction.
      I guess the Homewood cost a lot more money than the Villa Savoye: the family had to sell a Welsh village to raise the money!

  9. Christine

    Rather than consider Villa Savoye to be an example of architecture which is ‘anti-garden’ or merely disinterested in ‘gardens’…I prefer to consider it as architecture which changed the garden/landscape relationship. Jill’s comments suggest an embryonic attempt to consider an ‘abstract’ relationship for trees, lawns and flowers in the manner of a garden.

    Here is another example of California Modern which perhaps better exemplifies the landscape lessons of Villa Savoye.

    [ ]

    Tom, I was attempting to find you photographs of 1920s villas in Paris to give a comparison with Corb’s work…and instead of finding a garden have found the prototype of the Berlin Wall?
    [ ] (See street view and photographs).

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I think Jill makes a fair point – but I think the attempt was exceedingly embryonic!
    I spoke to the author of a book on the modern house about it and his view was that Corbusier liked to think of a house having landed, like an aeroplane, and being a self-contained entity which needed a view but no land to make use of at ground level.

  11. Christine

    Yes, metaphors are very important in design.[ ]
    [ ] Noting your commentary on metaphor in architecture I would like to make a few comments. Metaphor in design can be both a conscious act on the part of a designer for example the metaphor of a sailing ship [ ] or it can be an assigned metaphor as in the gherkin [ ].

    Interesting to note the disparaging ‘vegetable’ term is now a well recognised nomenclature and source of pride for Fosters. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I very much agree about the usefulness of metaphors and believe they have both functional and asethetic uses. Do you think Corb’s ‘machine for living’ metaphor was both functional and aesthetic – or was it intended to be only functional?
      Re Foster + Partners use of the gherkin metaphor, I have two thoughts (1) the embrace may have come from the partners, rather than from the great man (2) they might have wanted to fend off some of the ‘below the belt’ metaphors which have also been applied to the building.

  12. Christine

    I think it was saying something about the transformative impact of the machine age [ ] and the influence it would have on lifestyle and living in much the same way that sustainability inevitably will in our age.

    So yes, I do think the metaphor was both functional and aesthetic and perhaps going even further possibly becoming more than a metaphor, extending into a philosophy.

    I wonder does Foster still dislike the title gerkin? Quite right, that there should be a desire to adopt the least offensive metaphor of those on offer. Regardless of its origins it is a compliment…

    Utzon has had to endure many similar jibs…[–ixTEz_GIwTdjOc7MfMA=&h=418&w=1000&sz=91&hl=en&start=65&zoom=1&tbnid=-4m9P9vuyHJUKM:&tbnh=62&tbnw=149&ei=8sFgTo-NL4LMmAWQksTVDQ&prev=/search%3Fq%3DSydney%2BOpera%2BHouse%2Bcartoon%2Bimages%26start%3D63%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN%26tbm%3Disch&um=1&itbs=1 ]

    ps. a flipflop is another name for the thong. [ ]

  13. Christine

    It is interesting that the Barcalona Pavilion [ ] also known as the ‘German Pavilion’ ecapsulates the modernist principle ‘form follow function’ influenced in part by an idea articulated by Adolf Loos that ‘ornament is a crime’.

    For this reason high quality self-finishing materials were favoured by Modernists, a principle which was continued into Minimalism.

    However, materials (and therefore expense) is not the standard by which architectural quality is judged. Rather it is the quality of the idea which takes precedence, with materials having an important role to play in the resolution of the design idea. Including the principle of structural honesty.

    Hence Mies Van der Rohe was criticised for the lack of purity of the material resolution of the structural details at Crown Hall. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am a great admirer of the Barcelona Pavilion and count among its virtues the design idea, the relationship of inside:outside and the materials.
      But I do not follow your point about the standard by which architectural quality is judged – surely it has to include the quality/durability/appearance of the materials used?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The Homewood and the Barcelona Pavilion are distinghuished by their excellent use of excellent materials. Much of the best modern design in the UK was spoiled by an ideological taste for raw concrete which, especially when badly detailed, soon looks terrible in a wet climate. Occasional greening initiatives in London have shown how much more popular modernist architecture might have been if combined with soft, lush and beautiful materials But it is of course that no amout of marble or gold can save a bad design. Perhaps we should say that bad materials can make a good design bad BUT that good materials cannot make a bad design good.

  14. Christine

    Yes. The Brutualist style is another topic altogether. [ ]
    And it is interesting as a precedent to Hi-tech architecture.

    Greenery is a wonderful foil for architecture good and bad. It is certainly true modernist architecture would have been more popular if “combined with soft, lush and beautiful materials”. Perhaps the popularity of modern architecture is directly proportionate to its use of “soft, lush and beautiful materials.” (ie. California modern, Minimalism etc).

    I definitely agree “bad materials can made a good design bad (or less worthy) BUT that good materials cannot made a bad design good (or more worthy).”

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the link, which suggests that Rayner Banham may have intented the term Brutalism and the Smithsons were leading practitioners. I first heard the term ‘Brutalism’ from a very civilized architect-planner-engineer (probaly in 1968) who said with a mixture of pride and amusement that ‘You know, they are calling it Brutalist architecture’. I drive past the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens fairly often and muse on this remark. I think he knew that architects were on a ‘hiding to disaster’ but could also understand why they were doing it. As the link notes ‘With many Brutalist buildings, the feeling exists that the needs of expressing an architectural ideal comes before the needs of the human beings who have to use them. By the time the backlash against Modernism was in full swing in the 1970s, Brutalist buildings often bore the brunt of the criticism.’ I also pass a Brutalist office block designed by Ernő Goldfinger (now ) and am myself amused that in converting it to residential use and curing the sick buildings syndrome it had (when serving as the HQ of the National Health Service!) they decided to apply white paint to the Brutalist concrete. This made it look better and it is now ‘luxury apartments’.

  15. Christine

    A factor in postwar rebuilding which seldom gets much press (and occurred in Australia also) was a chronic shortage of both dwellings and materials with which to build. Some strange but interesting residential designs occurred due to the desire to maximise space and minimise materials.

    Perhaps the Brutalist philosophy in architecture evolved as a response to this particular circumstance?

    And well yes, the obvious response to raw unfinished materials is to create a counterpoint of luxury. See Louis Kahn
    [,_New_Hampshire_-_Louis_I._Kahn_(1972)b.jpg ]

  16. Tim McArtney

    Does anyone know Le Corbusier’s quote about trees “standing as silent sentinels and witness to the acts of men….”or something like it?


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