This article was originally published on March 26, 2014. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
The two-family structure known as Houses 14 and 15, designed by International Style, Le Corbusier's work in Stuttgart serves as a critical prototype in the development and realization of the Swiss architect’s architectural identity, which would revolutionize 20th century architecture.
Following the First World War, economic circumstances meant that architectural extravagance was no longer realistic. As a response, the Deutscher Werkbund, a German association of artists, designers, and architects, commissioned leading architects such as Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens, and Le Corbusier to showcase a new domestic architecture of Modernity. The completion of the Weissenhof Estate would mark the start of the Die Wohnung (The Home) Exhibition of 1927, allowing patrons to personally experience a new vision of society through architecture based around the ideals of reducing costs, simplifying housekeeping, and improving living conditions. Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who coordinated the development, recognized that an exhibition of Modern architecture would lack credibility without the participation of Le Corbusier, who had become immensely influential as a result of the publication of his ideas in Vers une Architecture and L’Esprit Nouveau. Mies, who contributed four of his own home designs to the development, wrote to Le Corbusier on October 5, 1926 inviting him and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to design two detached residences for educated, middle-class families.
Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, like all other architects involved, were given schematic guidelines for the location, size, budget and program for each house. The Paris-based architects, who were busy preparing their proposal for the League of Nations, spent hardly any time in Stuttgart throughout the design and construction process, eventually sending Alfred Roth, one of their two employees, to the project site as a resident architect. The committee was disappointed by the preliminary design proposals; not only those received from Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, but also those submitted by the other architects. In addition to cost overruns and code violations, proposals were generally more spacious than the committee had intended. Due to budget concerns and the committee's request to reduce the built area of their design by 30-40%, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret proposed to redesign one of their two houses, converting it into two smaller attached dwellings that would occupy the same footprint as the original single home. These two attached dwellings came to be known as Houses 14 and 15. The Deutscher Werkbund appreciated the smaller residences, but, still not satisfied, attempted to convince the architects that only one unit was necessary. Le Corbusier, however, was not willing to negotiate. Less flexible than his German counterparts, Le Corbusier had more power over the committee than the other architects because Mies was worried that Le Corbusier would withdraw from the project if he were excessively constrained.
Both structures utilized reinforced concrete to embody the qualities of Le Corbusier's Five-Point manifesto: pilotis (the use of columns to lift the building above the ground plane), the roof garden, the free plan, the long window, and the free façade. A key innovation of the building was the transformable open living space that could be subdivided into multiple sleeping compartments with sliding partitions; similarly, beds would slide out of large built-in closets. For the exhibition, the fact that there were two units with similar plans presented the opportunity to set up one living space for daytime use, and the other living space for nighttime use. Ironically, this intention was forgotten and not included at the opening of Die Wohnung, which Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret were not present for.
Three levels comprise the two-family structure. The layouts of both units are nearly symmetrical and are each serviced by a central extruded staircase. One enters on the lower level, under the piloti-supported mass. Inside is an entrance lobby with cloakroom, furnace room, coal cellar, laundry room, maid's room, and storage. The next level is the primary living story. Here, there is an eating space behind the stairs, and a kitchen and bathroom at the far edge. Filling the majority of the plan is the large, flexible living and sleeping space, utilizing an abundance of daylight from long band of windows along the front façade. The roof level features an outdoor garden and sunbathing terrace. Also noteworthy are the library and study concealed behind the stairs; the location of this room meant that residents could work late into the night without disturbing others on the floor below.
Of the 21 structures designed by 17 architects, it was Houses 14 and 15 that drew the most interest, receiving both positive and negative critiques. While the architects managed to create a truly progressive model of domestic living, many critics recognized that there were some impractical details. The notably-narrow 27.5 inch corridor on the living story, for example, was considered awkward and uncomfortable by visitors. In addition, the maid’s room was so small that is was deemed unusable, a problem that occurred in many of the other houses. During the exhibition, Erna Meyer, a consultant for home economics and kitchen design felt that the work of Le Corbusier and Jeanneret was the worst of the Estate, disappointedly asking, "is this what he means by engineer's architecture?" Other criticism was more general, suggesting that the large windows were more appropriate for a Mediterranean climate than for Stuttgart.
As a result of the Second World War the Weissenhof-Siedlung fell into decay. Today, however, after extensive restoration efforts, the structures are protected as historic monuments. Houses 14 and 15 specifically have become a public museum for visitors to learn about the development and to view the interior as it would have been built.
A true “machine for living," Le Corbusier envisioned architecture that was designed with the same precision and logic of automobiles and airplanes. Houses 14 and 15 demonstrate this principle to the extreme, producing what many considered to be efficiency and pragmatism to the point of impracticality. Die Wohnung exhibition was both a valuable learning experience for Modernists and an essential moment in the formalization of the International Style. Built between the 1923 manifesto Vers une Architecture and the 1931 completion of Villa Savoye, his magnum opus, Le Corbusier designed Houses 14 and 15 as an early manifestation of his revolutionary vision for the future of architecture.