Le Corbusier’s Duplex: An architectural gem overlooking Stuttgart

Last weekend my husband and I had been invited to Affalterbach to celebrate a friend’s birthday — a dreamy village close to Stuttgart. With still a couple of hours left before we needed to head back to the airport to catch our flights back home, we wondered how best to spend the remaining time…

To be sure, Stuttgart has no shortage of interesting attractions on offer: the Porsche Museum, The Daimler Museum, the Staatsgalerie, the Weissenhofsiedlung, to name but a few. To begin with, we went to see some of the most fantastic sport cars ever to hit the road. The “James Dean”, or as he called it, “My Little Bastard” was undoubtedly my favourite.

We then sped over to the Weissenhofsiedlung (the Weissenhof Estate – now an UNESCO heritage site) to pay Le Corbusier’s famous duplex a visit.

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Le Corbusier’s duplex. The left hand side is now filled with exhibits related to the exhibition while the right hand side has been restored to its original status in 1927.

A happy coincidence: just a couple of minutes after our arrival at the duplex, a guided tour began, and we were able to tag along. In the following forty-five minutes we learned many fascinating things about the house, its history and the notorious arrogance of its creator. For my part, I love guided tours. Having a real person present an exhibition or, in this case, rooms, makes the history come alive that much more than a descriptive text alone!

Below are some of the key points from the tour. It surprised me how many of them I had no idea about, despite all the books I’d read about Le Corbusier. It just goes to show, one never stops learning.

Background

Le Corbusier built 3 houses (one duplex, and one single family house) for the 1927 “Die Wohnung”-exhibition organized by the Deutsche Werkbund.  The overall project was under the direction of fellow architect Mies van der Rohe. The objective of the exhibition was to show how modern architecture could revolutionise housing for working class families. Back in the mid-twenties Stuttgart was in dire need of new housing concepts that were not only practical, but also efficient and, above all, inexpensive to set up. To help things along, the city provided a huge tract of land with extraordinary views over the city, and even financed the construction of all the model homes. To make sure that the world would take note, Mies van der Rohe campaigned to attract the most famous architects of his time to contribute their ideas for experimental buildings. These designs embodied the newest concepts, the most advanced materials. Of all the famous names he tracked down, van der Rohe was particularly keen to get Le Corbusier on board, who was by that time one of the most famous architects alive. The Swiss master agreed after he was offered the most attractive building sites of the compound and a huge budget sweetened the deal even further. (He completely overran it.)

Aside from the man himself, other now famous designers such as Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens, and Mart Stam also contributed their own visions of how to live in modern times. Unfortunately, their houses can no longer be visited as they were either destroyed during the war or are currently occupied.

The planning of “Die Wohnung” started in 1925 and construction went into full gear in 1927. Most buildings were completed within three to four months, right in time for the exhibition to open its doors in July 1927. Around half a million people paid a visit during the three months the exhibition was open.

5 Takeaways: Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Experiment

The most interesting facts we gleaned from the tour are synonymous with the characteristics that distinguished Le Corbusier’s creation from traditional homes at the time: the pillars, the non-load bearing nature of the facade/exterior walls, the ‘large’ ribbon windows, the flexibly designed floor plan and the roof terrace.

  1. PILLARS The steel pillars (pilotis), while unremarkable, are the key to the whole construction. Not only do they lend the building a sense of lightness, they literally hold it up, extending all the way from floor to roof. They are set around the building in intervals of 2.20m and braced horizontally for lateral (side-to-side) stability. While partially visible from the outside, they are generally interior features. The pure concept, what is now known as Le Corbusier’s “Dom-ino”-house, is lauded as one of his greatest inventions.
  2. WALLS Since the pillars bore the load of the building, load-bearing exterior and interior walls became redundant. This flexibility opened up some interesting possibilities for the design of the facade/exterior walls, windows, and last but not least the layout of the house’s interior.
    Weissenhof, Le Corbusiers Duplex
  3. LARGE RIBBON WINDOWS On the picture to the left one can clearly see the facade cantilevering out over the pillars. It is wrapped, balcony-style, around the core of the building. Since the exterior walls were stripped of their customary load-bearing role by the pillars, Le Corbusier was free to endow them with generously sized windows, without compromising the structural integrity of the building. Those large windows let in a lot of light, which was a luxury for working class family homes at the time.
  4. FLEXIBLE FLOOR PLAN Another cool effect of the pillar structure was that, as interior walls were also no longer needed, Le Corbusier could repurpose the floor plan to make the house into a “machine for living“. Without the burden of planning around load-bearing internal walls (-> no structural conditioning), the combined living/bedroom could get very large. Moving, non-load-bearing partitions could be used to render the distribution of rooms as efficient, flexible and practical as possible.

5. ROOF TERRACE Following Mies van der Rohe’s guidelines for designing flat roofed houses (they were considered “modern” at the time), Le Corbusier turned his flat roof into a roof terrace, which featured visual barriers to neighbouring houses, artistically framed the breath-taking views towards Stuttgart’s centre, and returned some of the “lost nature” by adding a garden complete with bushes and trees.

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(In contrast to many of his fellow architects,  Le Corbusier’s intention was that that space was to be used to breathe fresh air… not to exercise, to lounge, or to do anything else of that nature.)

A few more quirky, but interesting ideas

Aside from the five major concepts outlined above, Le Corbusier had many other ideas that promised to make better use of the limited space available. For example, beds were hidden during the day in large closets, but could be pulled out – horizontally across the floor  – at bedtime. This way, the same space served as a living and sleeping area. No extra bedroom was necessary:

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Not quite a Murphy bed A second bed could be pulled from a closet on the opposite site of the wall. At the point where the two beds met, to form a genuine double bed, Le Corbusier had positioned light switches on the wall (not shown) which could be operated conveniently from the bed site.

Built-in closets saved additional space as no large pieces of furniture (cupboards or armoires) were needed.

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Notice the limited height of the closets. While this cost some storage space, the void above (painted in retreating blue) helped maintain a sense of spaciousness as the rooms are actually quite small. The closets are all very deep, but can be accessed from two sides. Hidden behind the one in the picture is a sink.

Blue paint was used almost everywhere to make the walls visually retreat, which was supposed to add a sense of additional spaciousness. Personally I prefer white, but each to their own.

Movable partitions could be pulled out or pushed back to separate rooms or to combine spaces as needed. This was easy to do as none of the interior walls was load-bearing.

Of course, not everyone considered Le Corbusier’s version of modern living to be entirely practical. In fact, the first tenants, who moved in about one year after the exhibition closed, started with a remodelling of the house. Most importantly, some of those walls just had to go.

Two years later, in 1929, Le Corbusier built his master piece: The villa Savoye. The 5 central concepts already evident at the Weissenhof Duplex were reused here to create arguably one of the most iconic residential buildings of all time.

Cheers, Sabine

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One response to “Le Corbusier’s Duplex: An architectural gem overlooking Stuttgart

  1. Pingback: The Gropius house – a masterpiece of space planning | KaSa Global Interiors·

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