issue #08

Casa Curutchet: Details and Discoveries Beyond the History Books

By: Juan M. Villafañe

 

November, 2017

It was a rainy, dismal day in October 2016 when I visited the Casa Curutchet.  The visit was a side excursion from a project-related trip to Argentina.  Completed in 1953, the house is one of only two Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) projects in the Americas (the other being the Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts).   The house is a 45 minute drive from the center of Buenos Aires to the city of La Plata, via a swiftly moving, modern highway passing horse and cattle farms and very little else.  I did not have an opportunity to walk around La Plata and appreciate the city – if it was any consolation we learned from the docents that neither had Le Corbusier – he never visited the site and (supposedly) never met Dr. Curutchet.  The story goes, that Dr. Curutchet asked for the world’s greatest architect – his advisors suggested the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.  One can suppose that this search for the “world’s greatest” must have pleased the Le Corbusier to no end, his manifestos and even his own self-created phantasmagoric pseudonym of Le Corbusier (French for “the Crow”), suggest an ego that may have accepted such a title.  Despite Corbusier’s apparent remoteness he delivered a masterpiece rich in space and materials, and sensitive to its surroundings in a way that I was not expecting.

 

History books often show Casa Curutchet in isolation – perfect plans and perfect sections detached from the context like many modern buildings existing in a perfect vacuum.  That is not this building.  Corbusier wove the brise soleil and adjacent terrace into the street-scape, reacting to the piano nobile of the adjacent Beaux Arts façade, respecting the scale of the existing building and retaining the line of the urban street face. He also incorporated into the design an existing tree that remains in place 70 years later.

The entry gateway aligns with the interconnecting ramp and marks the beginning of layered spaces created by raising the occupied volumes above the ground.  Initially I was overwhelmed by the space of the ramp, attempting to orient myself to the surroundings and realizing I was in a very special place.  Within a compact urban row-house infill, the ramp creates a transition space to separate from the street allowing for a discrete zone for Dr. Curutchet’s office which faces the street.  The living spaces are elevated from the ground by Corbusier’s piloti columns allowing for further privacy. A structural engineer friend visiting the house with me, asked “do you like all these columns?” I had to reflect on his question as the columns did not register as clutter – the answer was an absolute “yes”. The columns were slender and unobtrusive contributing to the sense of order in the garden space – how could I not like these columns?

One enters the residence via a stair house which serves as the entry foyer – a third layer transition element to create the sense of privacy for the residence above.  Upon ascending the stairs to the first residential floor, one enters the double-height living area which is connected to the large terrace floating below a mature tree canopy. I can only imagine what kind of parties took place in this spectacular space.

Individually the building details were simple and worked to reinforce the overall concept to a degree not evident in the small plans I found in my research prior to visiting. The lozenge-shaped bathrooms on the dormitory floors looked highly inefficient in plan until I realized that the toilets and bidets neatly fit into the curvilinear walls – the space behind the fixtures allow for cleaning and the curved wall create a circulation space for the bedrooms that the artist Richard Serra might envy.  The bathroom walls are rectilinear where one needs a conventional door, or to allow for a simple rectangular clerestory window.  Both of these upper bathrooms include a skylight, and all the restrooms included full height glass tile mosaic, each bathroom using the same concept made unique by simply changing the tile color.  Railings in the stair vary by use – in some cases they are round where the hand touches them. Material changes from wood to steel, and where there is only a railing, to prevent falls, a thinner metal profile allows less obstructed views.  The flooring materials appear to be borrowed from industrial applications.  End-grain wood is used in the house, and large-format terrazzo in Doctor Curutchet’s office.  (End-grain wood which is extremely durable, was originally used for streets and in factory floors. – the large broken marble pieces could have been waste material – here rendered as a unique large-format terrazzo in the Doctor’s office where cleanliness was critical).  The spaces in general were small in area compared to modern north American standards, but they never felt cramped.  The connection to the exterior and interconnection between spaces provides even the modest-sized bedrooms a sense of grandness and graciousness.

 

The sun started to come out as we explored the house and right before I had to return to Buenos Aires.  With the sun coming out the house started changing as the rooms grew brighter and shadows grew stronger.  I realized I was sad to leave and would not witness the light transform the character of the spaces further, and sadder still knowing it would be a long time before I might ever come back to this special building.  The house although restored in 1988 could use another restoration and visitors were encouraged to interact with the house in a way not imaginable in a U.S. building of this type.  

 

Le Corbusier’s influence to modern architecture is periodically generalized to what he described as five points of architecture – a series of essential elements or parts.  Casa Curutchet includes his five points - pilotis, free plan, free facade, ribbon window and roof garden – these elements create a whole that is exponentially better than the sum of its parts.

Original Building Section

VR tour of the house – more telling than my pictures:

http://www.archdaily.com/876672/explore-le-corbusiers-only-south-american-project-the-casa-curutchet-with-a-virtual-walkthrough

The College of Architects runs the tours – they were friendly and I appreciated the information they shared with us during our visit:

https://www.capbacs.com/capba-casa-curutchet

Juan M. Villafane

Associate Principal | AIA, LEED AP