The French Library is currently hosting a lecture series from MFA French Associate Guide Isabelle Slotine, the final lecture of which will be tomorrow night. In her talks, Madame Slotine investigates the long history of the famous Palais de Versailles, from its creation in the 1700s to the many transformations and changes the palace underwent throughout the French Revolution and beyond.

I’ve been wondering myself about Versailles lately; more specifically, the way modern French architecture communicates with the ornate palaces of its predecessors, and in what ways this new style rejects such grandiosity. One of my favorite examples of this push and pull of theme and inspiration over time can be found in Le Corbusier’s work.

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Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye


Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, is the Swiss-French architect widely known to be one of the founders of modern architecture. In a time where “historical revival” was the dominant style of architecture—a style that celebrated and proliferated the opulence of estates such as Versailles—Le Corbusier’s ideas about functionality and simplicity of materials and space were revolutionary. His designs were open and flexible, a notable shift from the tight, oppressive formality of the ancien régime. His use of clean lines and disregard for unnecessary ornament made him into an icon of modernism and a pioneer of the subsequent movement away from the Baroque style of the past. His departure from this excess in architecture allows his designs to incorporate the human experience of space more fully, favoring nature over abstraction.


Maison La Roche


One of my favorite works by Le Corbusier is his Maison La Roche, which can be found in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. This simple yet striking house is the culmination of these core tenets of modernism and functionality; the open floor plan and emphasis on natural light allows for the space to flow from inside to outside, while the geometric forms and clean lines feel like a broad departure from styles of the past. When compared with buildings in Versailles, Maison La Roche feels contemplative and introspective; it invites the human presence rather than rejecting it. The house works with the surrounding landscape and natural light in a way that Versailles does not.  


Maison La Roche

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Château de Chambord

This is not to say that Versailles and other French châteaux fail to interact with their landscapes. The first time we visited the Loire Valley, home to twenty of France’s most well-known châteaux, my classmates and I were struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the seemingly endless expanse of space in which to roam. Châteaux like Chambord and Chaumont in the Loire Valley are dual experiences of both the inside space and the surrounding outdoors; they do not exist separately from one another.


Château de Chaumont

After our trip to the Loire Valley, I remember coming home to my host family in Rennes with a renewed appreciation for architecture, design, and the way our bodies can feel either at home or on edge within a certain space. My host family’s kitchen was small but clean, with simple white countertops and swivel barstools where I would sit for hours, watching my French brothers and sisters throw insults back and forth with the agility of tennis players. I was often the spectator, awestruck by their fast, easy French and swift comedic timing.

The design of this kitchen was, to me, a project of community and real presence. It was a space that invited the human form. I thought about how my small bedroom at my host family’s apartment was similarly constructed to facilitate my experience and comfort while living with strangers: I had a standalone sink in the corner of my room where I would brush my teeth in the morning, allowing for a few minutes of silent solitude before turning on my French brain for the day. The tilt and turn window in my room opened wide onto the street, an aspect of European design that I sorely missed upon returning to America.


  My bedroom in Rennes

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Le Corbusier’s oeuvre seems to encourage this sort of functionality and ease of living while also extrapolating on the château’s inherent conversation with the nature that surrounds it. I think this is why I feel so drawn to his philosophy, and to the many iterations of his thinking that came after him and are still largely influencing contemporary domestic architecture. His integration of natural elements into the interior space was a radical step forward from his predecessors, and it represented a social and political change as well as an aesthetic one. Buildings were no longer meant to serve as reminders of class and grotesque wealth but instead as equalizing forces of community and convergence.

In a famous quotation, Le Corbusier asserts that, “it is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be”. Architecture exists within a timeline, and it is important not to lose sight of both what has come before, and what is on the horizon.


  Our very own Corbusier lives just across the Charles at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

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If you’re interested in thinking more about structure and French architectural history, you can sign up here to see Isabelle Slotine’s final lecture on Versailles at the French Library tomorrow night, 10/19.


We spend the large majority of our days within the confines of different structures, from our office buildings to our own homes, yet we so rarely stop to wonder about how these spaces influence our identity and our sense of comfort and community. I recommend starting your architecture journey with this lecture series, if only to uncover the certain threads of continuity that lead from Versailles to a small guest bedroom in Rennes.
 

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Maxine Arnheiter

Administrative Assistant

Maxine discovered her affinity for French language and culture while living with a host family and studying French literature in Rennes, Brittany during her junior year of high school with School Year Abroad. During her time at SYA, her parents took beginner’s classes at the French Library—it was then that Maxine first learned of the library’s existence. Maxine continued with her French studies at Tufts University, majoring in English and French literature with a concentration in visual studies. Along with her time in Rennes, Maxine lived in Paris for a summer where she worked at a small art gallery in the Marais.

Six years after her high school experience in France and a year post college graduation, Maxine is thrilled to be the Administrative Assistant to the French Library, where she hopes to continue learning about and celebrating French culture and literature. In her free time, Maxine enjoys reading, seeing the newest art films at Kendall Square Cinema, and going for runs around the Esplanade.

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