IT STILL LOOKS LIKE A VISION OF THE FUTURE THAT NEVER CAME TO PASS
When Le Corbusier formulated his cinq points d'architecture - pilotis, free plan, strip windows, free facade and roof garden - he probably envisaged the roof garden as a suitable place for a leisurely aperitif or a spot of nude sunbathing, not as a machine-gun post. But that's what happened to his double villa at Stuttgart. Built as a model of Modern housing for the Weissenhofsiedlung, the city's famous exhibition estate of 1927, it's had a very chequered history.
Now, with funds from the Wüstenrot Stiftung - a foundation which has financed work on several Modern Movement buildings, including Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat - Stuttgart-based practice Architektur 109, Mark Arnold + Arne Fentzloff, has restored the double villa, half as a show-house and half as an information centre explaining the history of the estate. The result is of interest on three accounts especially: for its response to the questions such show-house restorations raise; for highlighting the role of colour in early Modern buildings; and for focusing attention on the whole topic of Modernist housing.
Though part of it was bombed during the Second World War and rebuilt in a mostly retro style, the Weissenhofsiedlung still looks like a vision of the future that never came to pass. Mies van der Rohe was the exhibition's director and he found a superb setting for the estate on a hillside north-west of the city centre.
Such well-known names as Walter Gropius, J J P Oud, Bruno Taut, Peter Behrens and Hans Scharoun, as well as Le Corbusier (with Pierre Jeanneret), were among the chosen architects *.Mies' own long apartment block was the backdrop to the estate, anchoring it on the west, but the plum site went to Le Corbusier. This is at the south-east corner, where Friedrich Ebert Strasse climbs to meet Rathenaustrasse, which runs north in a shallow S-shape across the hill. Here Le Corbusier built both a single-family house and the double villa - the house just southwest of the villa, a little higher up the slope, but the two forming a unified composition as you approach. Together they represent the basic house types Le Corbusier had proposed earlier - the family one a Citrohan House, the double villa the Dom-ino House - and serve as a manifesto for the cinq points.
Of all the dwellings built for the Weissenhofsiedlung, Le Corbusier's proved the most difficult for the Stuttgart authorities to let once the exhibition was over. In 1932-33, to attract reluctant tenants, they made some major changes to the double villa, which were not reversed until this present restoration. Then in 1938 the Nazis requisitioned it and went on to install those machine guns; a photo shows a swastika ag ying from a pole in the garden.
The double villa suffered damage during the war, and thereafter saw successive occupants and more alterations until the City of Stuttgart restored it in 1984, along with much else at the Weissenhofsiedlung (10 interiors and four interior layouts), whose importance was acknowledged at last. But the restoration was crucially awed - hence, 20 years later, this scrupulous new one.
This time there was the luxury of two years' analysis of the property, everything from paint scrapes to an archaeological dig, before 15 months of building work. Mark Arnold explains the concept behind it. He says: 'On the basis of the research, there is a mixture of restoration and reconstruction, along with saving and making sound the original fabric where possible. Externally, we wanted to get the double villa as close as we could to its state in 1927. The same goes for the interior of the right wing - the show house. Meanwhile the left wing, which will be used for an exhibition on the Weissenhofsiedlung, gets a coat of white paint, but visitors can still see how it was altered over the years.'
Architektur 109 had to deal with structural problems - most seriously the lack of adequate foundations beneath the two cuboid blocks projecting at the back of the building, which house the staircases and small ancillary rooms. But the main visual consequence of the restoration is that the double villa has its original proportions again. The changes in the early 1930s included the construction of a cellar, which raised the base of the building by 30cm, and the addition of another 8cm to the parapet on the roof - matters which the 1984 restoration didn't redress. Now the levels are as they were at first.
The panoramic view from the roof terrace through the three-dimensional frame that spans the front of the building was prominent in Bau und Wohnung, the 1927 record of the exhibition.
Up here, you see just how stunning the villa's site is, with Stuttgart in the valley below and a low range of hills in the distance - what a great place to relax. In another refinement of proportions, the paviours on the roof now have the dimensions of the originals.
Doubtless the low parapet troubles Stuttgart's health and safety fraternity but visitors here will only be in small supervised groups.
Le Corbusier's sliding-wood windows were lost in Stuttgart's early changes. In mid-1930s photos you see conventional substitutes with additional lights whose verticality subverts Le Corbusier's intentions - they no longer read as a 'strip'.
The 1984 restoration partly dealt with this and Architektur 109 has completed the job by reinstating the slit-like windows at the rear which illuminate the corridors.
At the point when the double villa was built, Le Corbusier was keen to prove the exibility of quite small domestic volumes, taking as his model the Wagons-Lits railway carriage. So the living space, entered through a very tight, carriage-like corridor, can be reconfigured at night to form bedrooms, by means of sliding partitions that extend from fixed storage units (concealing the beds) and slot through bisected steel stanchions near the window.
(Hence the choice of stanchions rather than concrete pilotis at the front of the house. ) The storage units, originally made of concrete and later removed, were rebuilt in wood in 1984 but wrongly detailed and proportioned. Because of the expected oor weights when the house is open to visitors, Architektur 109 couldn't reconstruct them in concrete as Arnold had hoped (instead there's a steel frame), but it has corrected the other errors. The loading issue also compromised restoration of the roof, where the concrete planters have been remade in fibreglass.
Adding much to the impact of the double villa inside and out is its recreated colour scheme. The 1984 restorers approximated it, but lined the walls of the interior with a textured paper and painted on that, whereas the paint now is on newly smoothed plaster, as in 1927. Including red ochre, brown, blue, rose, three greys, pale green and white, the colours reflect the palette of Le Corbusier's Purist paintings of the 1920s, which he later codified in his wallpapers for the Swiss manufacturer Salubra. They're close to those he used in the Maison Guiette, Antwerp (1926), which were restored in the late 1980s ** .'If this or that wall is blue, it recedes; if it is red, it holds the plane? Architectural polychromy doesn't kill the walls, but it can move them back and classify them in order of importance. Here a skilful architect has wholesome and powerful resources to draw on, ' wrote Le Corbusier in his essay Architectural Polychromy (1931).
So colour was, for him, a tool for spatial manipulation, though possibly more relative and unstable than he acknowledged, as Josef Albers went on to demonstrate in both his teaching and his paintings (see Review, page 62).
At the double villa the results are intriguing but ambiguous. Following Le Corbusier's theories, the blue walls at either end of the living area in the restored right wing should appear to recede and increase the dimensions of an otherwise modest room, but what really gives a sense of spaciousness is the view through the long strip windows, dispelling any feelings of confinement. The grey on the outer face of the staircase, accentuating its presence, makes the little study behind it feel more cramped, while the light green and blue at roof level seem only decorative. How scientific can colour application be?
What we have now, though, is another early Modern scheme accessible to the public: a place to contrast Purist theories with those of De Stijl (the Rietveld Schröder House, the Sonneveld House) or such individual solutions as those in the Klee/Kandinsky House at the Bauhaus.
So what to make of this restoration? Acknowledging the extent of reconstruction (not always in the original material), Arnold says: 'In a sense it's just a picture.' But if it's partly an illusion, it's an instructive one, especially when you go next door to the left wing and see the enlarged corridor, a repositioned wall, and other evidence of life after 1927. The white walls for the future exhibition make it all look very spruce but some areas of original paint are still exposed.
In the context of Le Corbusier's great houses, whether the Purism of Villa Savoye or the enriched qualified Modernism of the later Maisons Jaoul, the double villa is not exceptional. It's a rather terse demonstration of the cinq points, and spatially less interesting than the family house nearby. But it is full of eloquent traces.
There are details, such as the window sills, that are not by Le Corbusier but by his assistant, Alfred Roth, who oversaw the project. There are clear signs that the job was done in a hurry, by workmen who were probably none too skilled - the uneven concrete slab above the living room, for instance. In the 1930s an opening was made in the party wall to connect the two wings and you can see where it's been refilled. On the groundfloor stanchions at each end of the villa, there is a small depression a few centimetres above the balustrade, which is where it was fixed when the cellar was constructed. All this adds up.
And the Weissenhofsiedlung, to which the double villa's exhibition will hold the key, is justly on the architectural tourist trail. The fact that it was partly rebuilt makes it look less an avantfigarde ghetto than a place where Modernism has quietly triumphed, starting to eclipse its stolid traditional neighbours - another illusion. Around 90 per cent of it today is rented but, says Arnold: 'It takes a special person to live here; they have to be enthusiasts. It's still an island in the city.'
Flat roofs are about as popular in Stuttgart as they are here. With its clever planning by Mies and quite disparate housing, the Weissenhofsiedlung is the perfect place to consider Modernist ambitions and what became of them - a site which poses questions that still aren't answered today.
Credits Client Wüstenrot Stiftung Architect Architektur 109: Mark Arnold + Arne Fentzloff Project manager Sabine Schmidt-Rösel Consultants Prof A Gebessler, Prof B Burkhardt, Prof N Huse Restoration research H F Reichwald, Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg (protection of historic monuments) Dr Claudia Mohn Landscape architect Jochen Koeber Structural engineer Wenzel Frese Pörtner Haller Air conditioning Dipl. Ing K Graupner Heating Ing. Büro Zelano + Dohn Electrics Ing. Büro G Volz Exhibition design space4 WEBSITES www. architektur109. de www. space4. de www. weissenhof. de