This article was originally written as a term paper for an architectural theory course at Princeton University. It has been revised and updated for web publication.
An elaborate house of planes and pitched roofs emerges from a green hill in Wisconsin, while a house that resembles a spaceship stands apart in a field in France. The two houses, the first being Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate and studio, Taliesin, and the second, Le Corbusier’s seminal work, the Villa Savoye, could not be more different in their theoretical approaches to architecture. Yet both designs were conceived through the respective architect’s understanding of classical architecture and a desire to adhere to their respective architectural philosophies.
Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were two of the most influential figures of modern architecture, and both architects projected their influence on the profession through their extensive architectural theories and writings. Frank Lloyd Wright was a proponent of “organic” architecture that achieved a synthesis between natural forms and architecture, while Le Corbusier considered architecture a “machine for living” and his work laid the groundwork for much of the functionalist architecture of the 20th century. Le Corbusier’s “five points of architecture,” the characteristics essential to his buildings, included steel “pilotis,” supports that allowed for a “free plan,” an arrangement of rooms and spaces designed independently of each floor, and a “free façade,” where the face of the building was designed independently of structural considerations. Additionally, Le Corbusier considered outdoor patio “roof gardens” and horizontal windows part of his vision.
Wright and Le Corbusier’s design philosophies seem inherently different, but if we consider Sigfried Giedion’s three “space conceptions” of architecture, which serve as an analytical framework that codifies the evolution of classical architecture, we can analyze Taliesin and Villa Savoye and pinpoint the classical origins from which their architectural aspects derive, and which classical aspects have been combined to create innovative, modern effects.
According to Giedion, the first space conception was developed by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, whose pyramids and Doric Temples directly related the architecture to the landscape on which they were built. The Parthenon demonstrates this relationship through its strategic positioning on the Acropolis, while little attention is paid to the Parthenon’s interior.
The second space conception involved the development of vaults and domes by the Romans and their successors. In contrast to the first conception, the second space conception was more focused on the interior’s opening up of space to resemble the cosmos, rather than the exterior space’s relation to landscape. From the interior, the Pantheon’s dome attempted to relate the building’s space to the cosmos by representing the sky with a vaulted ceiling.
The third space conception, Giedion said, was the challenge of modern architecture, where new construction techniques allowed the exterior space to relate to nature and the interior to relate to the cosmos, creating a new synthesis between the first two conceptions. Because both Wright and Le Corbusier’s architecture derive in part from classical architecture, looking at Taliesin and the Villa Savoye through the space conception lens allows us to see that both architects adapted the historical narrative to support their own theories and designs, leading both architects to achieve different results from each other. Furthermore, when both their architectural theories were adapted to urbanism, they left legacies that were markedly different from classical architecture, creating forms that helped lead to the rise of suburban sprawl and ineffective housing projects, revealing the implications of arbitrary narrative-building in architectural theory. Thus, we should be suspicious of architects who claim to be the definitive part of a long line and tradition, as classical reinterpretation and architectural theories directly translated to urbanism lend themselves to a variety of problems.
Wright sought to establish an architectural style that was unique to America, one that he described as “Usonian,” a word for “American” he promoted that lacked external cultural influences. While denying the influence of classical precedents, his architectural style appears to rely on them, internalizing aspects of architectural styles as disparate as the Romans, Pre-Columbian peoples and Japanese. Wright’s relationship with classical architecture can be seen through his rationale for Taliesin’s relationship to the natural landscape.
In Wright’s essay, “Some Aspects of the Past and Present of Architecture,” Wright claims “the land is the simplest form of architecture” and “in ancient times [the land’s] limitations served to keep [man’s] buildings architecture. Splendid examples: Mayan, Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese.” In these broad strokes, Wright claims all classical architecture adhered to what Giedion called the first space conception—architecture’s relationship to surrounding nature. The sheer variety of examples, however, implies Wright conflated various cultures to support his design philosophy, suggesting he selected a particular narrative of architectural progress to support his theories.
When one considers the context in which Taliesin was built, the classical origin for Taliesin’s design becomes more precise. Wright built the first iteration of Taliesin following a visit to Fiesole, Italy, where he was inspired by Etruscan ruins built into the side of a hill, which commanded an impressive view of the surrounding valley. The Renaissance-era Villa Medici at Fiesole was incorporated into the peak of the hill, a phenomenon that Wright admired and called a “shining brow” for the hill, words he would translate into Welsh to create the name “Taliesin” for his estate.
In his autobiography, Wright states “no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.” Indeed, Taliesin is constructed and incorporated into a hill in Spring Green, Wisconsin, overlooking Wright’s property, a scenic green valley. Just like the Pre-Columbian site of Machu Picchu and the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, the house emerges from the natural landscape, clinging to the “brow” of the hill, showcasing Wright’s embrace of the first space conception and continuity with classical architecture. The house wraps around the hill’s “brow” forming a landscaped courtyard at the hill’s natural summit. The house itself follows the hill’s natural contours: “the lines of the hills were the lines of the roofs, the slopes of the hills their slopes,” establishing a continuity between nature and architecture that is stronger than that of classical architecture, which crowned outcrops with more formalized, geometric forms, like in the case of the Acropolis.
Classical geometric forms were used as justifications for Le Corbusier’s design philosophy, especially in Villa Savoye, the house that is widely considered emblematic of his philosophy. Ironically, it was the approach of comparing classical forms that makes Villa Savoye aloof from the first space conception. In Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier wrote “Greek, Egyptian, and Roman architecture is an architecture of prisms, cubes, and cylinders, of trihedrons and spheres: the Pyramids, the Temple of Luxor, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Villa.” Rather than elevate the situational aspects of these ancient sites, as Giedion and Wright did, Le Corbusier focused on the elemental forms of the buildings, independent of their context.
As a result, Villa Savoye stands in a field, apart from nature, as it is composed of the elemental form of a box raised on pilotis. In terms of the first space conception, Villa Savoye is not integrated within in its environment and lacks the unity with nature that Wright’s Taliesin achieves. Even though both Wright and Le Corbusier’s theoretical work both reflects classical architecture, the fact that both take such different approaches toward the first space conception reveals how much of their respective historical narratives as arbitrary. As we shall see, Le Corbusier’s design much more effectively addresses the second space conception and has some similarities in this regard with Taliesin’s design.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Taliesin has certain characteristics that suggest an effort to address what Giedion called the second space conception, and when combined with the effects of the first, causes Taliesin to approach the third space conception. The interior of Taliesin is made up of a series of rooms and hallways, a collection of interlocking planes that again suggest the contours of the hill. The hallways’ low ceilings influence visitors to reach the next room and not dwell in the hallway. Additionally, the low hallways resemble tunnels in a cave—further relating to the concept that Taliesin is an outgrowth of the hill.
In Taliesin’s living room, however, the second space conception is directly addressed. A vaulted, pitched ceiling opens the space up and gives the sense of the cosmic, much like gothic architecture or Roman domes, a conceit Wright depicted as “tent-like,” emphasizing a subservience and allegiance to nature, giving the building a modest, integrative aspect, like camping under the stars. The drywall ceiling is also in conversation with the stonework, as the ceiling’s wooden lines are reminiscent of the sun’s rays. Skylights illuminate the room, while the stonework firmly grounds the building in nature.
The second space conception is firmly addressed by the arrangement of the windows in the living room, an arrangement that draws similarities to Le Corbusier’s work. A line of horizontal windows stretches around two walls of the living room, “windows that swung out above the treetops.” The windows frame the valley below in a landscape perspective that limits depth perception, framing a static, pastoral image very similar to what Le Corbusier codified as the horizontal window. Seating exists below the windows, much like in Le Corbusier’s Villa Le Lac on Lake Geneva, but uniquely there is a lower ceiling above the window to persuade visitors to sit underneath the ceiling and look out the window from their seat. The dialogue between the windows and the outside landscape further relates the building to its natural context—not only is it situated within the fabric of the hill, but it looks out on the hill and thereby participates in the landscape. The fact the window seating dictates how the view is observed parallels how the building’s form is dictated by the landscape. Through the interior and exterior’s relation to landscape and the cosmos, Taliesin’s living room transcends the second space conception and approaches the third, but does not quite achieve the extreme possibilities of the third space conception that Le Corbusier does in the Villa Savoye.
While Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye lacked a strong association with the first space conception, it has elements that lend themselves to the second and third space conceptions. The horizontal window, uniformly wrapped around the free façade on the second floor, reflects the dialogue between interior and exterior space. The horizontal window exists, even if there is no glass between the frame space on the second-floor patio, which is equated with the enclosed half of the house on the other side, giving the two spaces equal importance for living and suggesting that both have the potential to have a conversation with the surrounding nature.
Le Corbusier’s horizontal window’s ability to cultivate an interior-exterior dialogue is best demonstrated by the photo from the Villa Le Lac in Geneva, in which the long window frames the Swiss mountains and the lake and seating is below the window, a phenomenon similar to Taliesin’s long windows and seating. The effect is an immediate, two-dimensional landscape lacking depth perception, but one that draws the distant landscape in and makes it immediately present from within the building, giving it a sort of “omnipresence,” showcasing a form of the second space conception, but transcending it to deify the natural landscape as an unmovable, all-powerful force—like the sky. Le Corbusier develops this relationship and allows the visitor to ascend through this cosmic landscape, creating a stunning interpretation of the third space conception.
The free plan and free façade allow each level of the house to dematerialize through a series of stairs and ramps as part of what Corbusier called the “promenade architectural”. As a result, the experience of ascending through the house to the roof garden is celebrated, and, much like the ascent of the Panathaneic Way to the ancient Acropolis that leads to the Parthenon, the ascent through the house leads inexorably to the sky and cosmos. When one ascends the ramp from the second floor to the roof garden, one approaches a “window” in the roof garden that opens up to a view of the lawn. Like Taliesin’s windows, the roof garden’s “window” is in dialogue with the landscape, and the implicit coaxing of the ramp is similar to Taliesin’s low ceilings in that they conspire to move the visitor. The roof garden’s enclosing walls and open ceiling makes the visitor turn their head to the sky. Thus, a form of the second space conception is transformed into the third—interior space has become transformed into exterior space, the very ceiling of the roof garden being the sky. The roof of the building is a place to be inhabited, a place to be closer to the cosmos. Like the Parthenon’s crowning of the Acropolis, the roof garden is the elemental form that transcends the rest of the building.
Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier both incorporated classical architectural narratives into their work, and both used those narratives to justify designs that fulfill different aspects of Giedion’s space conceptions. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin can be related to Giedion’s first two space conceptions and approaches the third, while Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye eschews the first in favor of the second and an innovative approach to the third space conception. However, when they applied their theoretical, architectural theories to the logical end point of urban planning, the true arbitrary nature of the narrative they established is revealed, leaving severe implications for 20th century urbanism.
Frank Lloyd Wright translated his ideal of organic architecture to his plan for Broadacre City, a vision in which each house was granted one acre to itself, which urban historian Tom Martinson considers more of an “enabling methodology than an actual plan.” In Broadacre City, the city is so decentralized by dispersed residential lots and highways that “the [service] station that happens to be naturally located will as naturally grow into a neighborhood distribution center, meeting-place, restaurant, rest room or whatever else is needed.” What Wright is describing resembles the suburbanization of the United States—a process, even if conducted with each house achieving harmony with its one-acre plot, does not entail the sustainable unity with nature for which he argued. Modern urban planners understand the environmental costs and unsustainability of the suburban model created by dispersal, long commutes, and automobile dependency.
Interestingly, Le Corbusier’s plan for the “Radiant City” also envisioned a suburban landscape, but one that centered around monolithic towers in gigantic park divided by superhighways. The towers are coordinated in relation to each other, but not to a natural landscape.
Le Corbusier’s philosophy of forms and his plan itself is contrary to Le Corbusier’s attention to classical plan, because in Vers une Architecture, he describes how the Acropolis of Athens is “determined by the famous landscape that extends from Peiraeus [sic] to Mount Pentalikon… the plan is conceived for distant views: the axes line up with the valley…” With the Radiant City, his towers are independent of natural context, leaving harsh implications for society.
At odds with the natural landscape, the extrapolation of Le Corbusier’s design philosophy to urbanism inspired “cités” in the suburban Banlieue districts outside central Paris, giant housing projects that had no relation to the landscape and surrounding urbanism and lacked the inspirational public spaces that would have helped build community. In the U.S., similar housing projects inspired by Le Corbusier’s design were also notoriously unsuccessful, leading to demolitions of many of the projects just decades after their construction.
The major thrust of this article has been to show how two major architects of the 20th century aligned their theories with a classical narrative, shown through the examples of two of their most famous buildings. The problematic translations of their design philosophies to urbanism simultaneously suggests that some of this narrative-building is arbitrary and suspect, while also cautioning that one level of design magnitude, the building, should be thought of as much different from the greater magnitude of urbanism. It also suggests that even though the two greats developed aspects of what became known as Giedion’s third space conception, both were unable to create a vision of the third space conception that could be successfully translated to urban scale, a task that remains for future architects. As Giedion states, “How the third space conception will proceed cannot be foreseen, but its general directions are apparent.”
 Franklin K. Toker, Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 25.
 Le Corbusier, “Five Points to a New Architecture,” in Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads, trans. Michael Bullock (London: Lund Humphries, 1970), 99-100, accessed January 7, 2015.
 Le Corbusier, “Five Points to a New Architecture,” in Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th, 99-100.
 Siegfried Giedion, “Three Architectural Space Conceptions,” in The Beginnings of Architecture, by S. Giedion, Bollingen Series 35 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 521.
 Giedion, “Three Architectural Space Conceptions,” in The Beginnings of Architecture, 522-523.
 Ibid., 523.
 Ibid., 523-524.
 Ibid., 523.
 Ibid., 523-524.
 Ibid., 526.
 Jackie Craven, “What is a Usonian? Frank Lloyd Wright’s Answer to the Great Depression,” About, last modified 2015, accessed January 11, 2015, http://architecture.about.com/od/franklloydwright/g/usonian.htm.
 Ruth Anne Philipps, “Stone, Water, and Mortarless Constructions: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Pre-Columbian Inca,” The Latin Americanist 57, no. 4 (December 2013): 97, accessed January 5, 2015, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/
 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture (New York: Horizon Press, 1953), 34.
 Ron McCrea, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2012), 15, 18, 27, accessed January 4, 2015, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/princeton/reader.action?docID=10899628.
 McCrea, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd, 15, 27.
 Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, an Autobiography, 5th ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), 167.
 Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, an Autobiography, 168.
 Ibid., 171.
 Panayotis Tournikiotis, “Le Corbusier, Giedion, and the Villa Savoye: From Consecration to Preservation of Architecture,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 4, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 4, accessed January 12, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25835008?seq=5#page_scan_tab_contents.
 Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 102-105, originally published as Vers une Architecture (Paris: G. Cres, 1924), accessed January 11, 2015, https://libweb10.princeton.edu/ereserves/
 Kevin D. Murphy, “Villa Savoye and the Modernist Historic Movement,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 61, no. 1 (March 2002): 69, accessed January 12, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/991812?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents.
 Taliesin Preservation, “House Tour” (lecture, Taliesin, Spring Green, WI, August 2012).
 Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, an Autobiography, 173.
 Ibid., 173.
 Le Corbusier, “Five Points to a New Architecture,” in Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th, 100.
 Bruno Reichlin, “The Pros and Cons of the Horizontal Window: The Perret – Le Corbusier Controversy,” Daidalos, September 1984, 72, accessed January 4, 2015, https://libweb10.princeton.edu/ereserves/ereserves.aspx?file=arc\Authors_RS\REICHLINbruno/ProsAndConsOfTheHorizontalWindow.pdf&auth=1.
 Taliesin Preservation, “House Tour.”
 Murphy, “Villa Savoye and the Modernist,” 69.
 Reichlin, “The Pros and Cons,” 77.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., “The Pros and Cons,” 77.
 Reyner Banham, “Conclusion: Functionalism and Technology,” in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 2nd ed. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960), 322-324, accessed January 4, 2015, https://libweb10.princeton.edu/ereserves/ereserves.aspx?file=arc/Authors_AB/BANHAMreyner/TheoryAndDesignInTheFirstMachineAge/Conclusion_FunctionalismandTechnology_p320.pdf&auth=1.
 Flora Samuel and Peter Blundell Jones, “The Making of an Architectural Promenade: Villa Savoye and the Schminke House,” Architectural Research Quarterly 16, no. 2 (June 2012): 114, accessed January 12, 2015, http://media.proquest.com/.
 Samuel and Jones, “The Making of an Architectural,” 114.
 Tom Martinson, American Dreamscape: The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000), 152.
 Wright, The Future of Architecture, 176.
 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, tenth anniversary ed. (2000; repr., New York: North Point Press, 2010), 4.
 James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Touchstone, 1993), 78-80.
 Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, 121.
 Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, 79.
 Giedion, “Three Architectural Space Conceptions,” in The Beginnings of Architecture, 526.
Banham, Reyner. “Conclusion: Functionalism and Technology.” In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 320-30. 2nd ed. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960. Accessed January 4, 2015.
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Le Corbusier. “Five Points to a New Architecture.” In Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, edited by Ulrich Conrads, 99-101. Translated by Michael Bullock. London: Lund Humphries, 1970.
———. Toward an Architecture. Translated by John Goodman. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007. Originally published as Vers une Architecture (Paris: G. Cres, 1924). Accessed January 11, 2015.
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Philipps, Ruth Anne. “Stone, Water, and Mortarless Constructions: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Pre-Columbian Inca.” The Latin Americanist 57, no. 4 (December 2013): 97-130. Accessed January 5, 2015.
Reichlin, Bruno. “The Pros and Cons of the Horizontal Window: The Perret – Le Corbusier Controversy.” Daidalos, September 1984, 65-78. Accessed January 4, 2015.
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Toker, Franklin K. Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.\
Tournikiotis, Panayotis. “Le Corbusier, Giedion, and the Villa Savoye: From Consecration to Preservation of Architecture.” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 4, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 1-11. Accessed January 12, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25835008?seq=5#page_scan_tab_contents.
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———. The Future of Architecture. New York: Horizon Press, 1953.