Home Improvements

by Hannah Fenton

November 22, 2017

Peter Womersley Modernist house, Valley Spring

Built in the Sixties and nestled in a wooden dell, Valley Spring is a Modernist masterpiece with the majority of its original features intact. South…

Our editor-at-large discusses the meaning of the Latin word villa and looks at how diff erent architects have interpreted its signifi cance throughout history.

 Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 1

One of the four programmes making up thisyear’s House of the Year TV series on Channel4 is devoted to the modern villa in Britain. And there are plenty of them: single contemporary dwellings of a certain size (medium to large homes) set very consciously within an organised landscape. There will be at least one in the pages of this magazine every month or two; often beautiful to admire and usually outside the reach of the rest of us.

The word itself is a little clouded in meaning these days, but it comes directly from the Latin villa, which meant country house or farm. In Roman antiquity a villarepresented a Virgilian ideal, a rural abode with an estate to which men of letters or arms would retire. In the sixteenth century, architect Palladio sought to re-establish the nobility of that idea in the villas he built for clients, writing: “The ancient sages commonly used to retire to such places, where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends and relations, having houses, gardens, fountains and such like pleasant places, and above all their virtue, they could easily attain to as much happiness as can be attained.” Today we might head off, Virtue under our arm, to a boho country hotel with spa for such bucolic attractions where we can find some rare-breed pigs artfully placed in the landscape.

Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 2

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, in Poissy, France, reinterpreted classical ideals tocreate a modern design


Palladio had the Roman architect Vitruvius to thank for laying out a guide to designing the perfect villa in his Ten Books on Architecture. It involved choosing the correct site, orienting the building, organising the agricultural activities in secondary structures and arranging the rooms for climate and sun. Every piece of practical advice that Vitruvius gives is still good to the extent that the practicability of the villa he describes has, over the centuries, combined with Virgil’s more poetic and nostalgic concept of the villa in its landscape, and hardened into something of an architectural ideal. Fuelled by the potency of these classical ideas – reinforced by Palladio’s books – architects from every century and country have attempted their own versions of the villa, as though they were chefs and the villa werea particular kind of perfect syllabub.

Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 5

This ideal hasn’t got any less distracting with the passage of time. Le Corbusier obsessed about the relationship between the elevated detached home and the productive, domesticated landscape. He reinterpreted both Vitruvius and Palladio, reinventing the whole insideoutside thing a century before we all went out shopping for bi-fold doors, and translating the classical geometry of the Golden Section to his Villa Savoye at Poissy near Paris. Colin Rowe, in his seminal essay of 1947 The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, wrote: “The Savoye House has been given afair number of interpretations: it may be a machine for living in, an arrangement of interpenetrating volume and external space, another emanation of space, time and architecture. It is probably all these things; but the suggestive reference to the dreams of Virgil, and a certain similarity of site, solution and feeling put one in mind of the passage in which Palladio describes the (Villa) Rotonda. The landscape there is more agrarian and bucolic, there is less of the untamed pastoral, the scale is larger, but the effect is somehow the same.”

Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 3

Villa Capra, or LaRotonda, was designed by Andrea Palladio in the fourteenth century, and adheres to the principles set out in Vitruvius’s text


So is this 2,000-year-old idea worth pursuing? In the House of the Year 2016 programme, which follows swiftly on the heels of Grand Designs, there are, for example, two villas by John Pardey, whose single stated aim with his buildings is to achieve some kind of longevity. Frank Gehry said thatall architecture should speak of its era and place, butitshould yearn for timelessness, a quality that Rowe identifies as inherent in all the opportunities that Palladio laid out for a client: “Its owner, from within the fragment ofcreated order, will watch the maturing of his possessions, and savour the piquancy of contrast between his fields andhis gardens; reflecting on mutability, he will contemplate through the years the antique virtues of asimpler race, the harmonious ordering of his life andestatewill be an analogy of paradise.” Quote that backtoyourself when you see the programme.

 Kevin McCloud on the meaning of the Latin word villa 4

Credit: Marco Amaru; Matt Chisnall; Adam Gimpert; James Morris; traveljunction.com

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