Stompin' on the Savoye

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The bustling town of Poissy, 17 miles northwest of Paris, needed a high school and thought it had the perfect site. The town council expropriated 18 acres of farm land containing several orchards, a few small market-garden plots, and smack in the middle, a decrepit, uninhabited villa owned by the widow and son of a Paris insurance man named Pierre Savoye. Poissy's mayor proposed to indemnify the family and then tear the villa down. Last week M. le Maire wished he could forget the whole thing. The idea brought a hornet's nest of protests down on his head.

Though it has come on hard times, the Villa Savoye is a landmark—if not a classic beauty—of architecture, ranked by many architectural historians as the modern house second in importance only to Frank Lloyd Wright's low-roofed, deep-shadowed 1909 Robie House in Chicago.*

Designed in the pioneering 1920s by France's famed Le Corbusier, who considered it his finest "machine for living,'' it is raised on pilotis (stilts), has gently inclined ramps leading from the ground to the sun deck. Interior space is so arranged that sunlight floods the open areas behind its cubist exterior, and once prompted the owners to call it Les Heures Claires (Clear Hours). The Germans looted it during World War II, and the cost of rehabilitation was estimated at $80,000. The aging, widowed Madame Pierre Savoye decided not to spend the money, never moved back. Unlivable in its dilapidated condition, the machine for living became a machine for farming. It was turned into a hay barn. Today, fruit crates are piled high, inside and out; rotting pears, onions and apples are strewn throughout its spaces.

First to react to the villa's imminent destruction was France's Cercle d'Etudes Architecturales, which set up a cry of "Save the Savoye," then took the case to famed Art Critic André Malraux, Minister of State in charge of cultural affairs in the De Gaulle government. A storm of protesting cables came from British, Brazilian and U.S. architects, and at week's end the deluge of cables and letters was having its effect. Malraux's ministry announced that the villa would almost certainly be spared. The Ministry of Education was urged to find another site. Le Corbusier himself? He appeared a trifle wearied by it all. Said Corbu: "Houses can die as well as men, but if there's a way of saving them, so much the better."

* Which was saved from destruction last year after protests prompted Real Estate Dealer William Zeckendorf to buy it, promise to hand it over eventually to the National Trust.

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