The great Modernist designer Le Corbusier’s only architectural project in Africa was a seaside home for Belgian industrialist Lucien Baizeau who was based in Tunis. Built between 1928-1930, Villa Baizeau is on the ancient Roman site of Carthage. No one has lived there since the family left in 1961. The villa is currently in the hands of the Tunisian intelligence service and beside the Presidential palace so it is not open to the public. It’s also not well known outside of Tunisia. The villa has never been featured in exhibitions about Le Corbusier’s many architectural accomplishments and it’s not even in Le Corbusier’s list of works on Wikipedia.
Villa Baizeau, Tunis by Le Corbusier
The good news is that Villa Baizeau has just been awarded Official Protected status so it has been recognised as an important heritage building, thanks to the valiant efforts of people in the local arts community like architect Chacha Atallah and Fatma Kilani, founder of contemporary art gallery La Boîte in Tunis. The next step is to open the building to the public as it would be an appealing site to visit for both tourists and locals.
Exhibitions Related to Villa Baizeau
Although it is only possible to see the villa from a distance, there are two excellent exhibitions that have just opened in Tunis, related to the villa. Curated by architectural historian Roberto Gargiani, Villa Baizeau Carthage, Le Corbusier & Jeanneret: The latest on simple architecture is at new Tunis arts organisation, 32Bis, located in a 1950s building that was formerly Phillips’s headquarters in Tunisia. The show explores the historical aspect, and the context and the relationship between Le Corbusier, his colleague Pierre Jeanneret and Lucien Baizeau.
The exhibition at 32bis includes the original drawings made by Corbusier and models, plus projects by international architects relating to the villa. Participating architects include Sophie Delhay, Martino Tattara (Dogma), Kersten Geers and David Van Severen (OFFICE), Éric Lapierre, Tristant Chadney and Laurent Esmilaire (Experience), Adrien Verschuere (Baukunst), André Kempe (Atelier Kempe Thill), Konstantinos Pantazis and Marianna Rentzou (Point Supreme), and Ahmed Belkhodja (fala). A contemporary art exhibition inspired by the villa, Only Ruins To Be Found, is at Chapelle Sainte-Monique, Carthage and from the grounds you can get a clear view of the villa on a hill nearby. Both exhibitions run until 15 May 2024.
Villa Baizeau is all the more fascinating as it was created almost entirely by correspondence. Le Corbusier never visited the site in Carthage. While Tunisia was under French protectorate (1881-1956), Lucien Baizeau met Le Corbusier in Stuttgart and convinced him to design his Tunisian residence. From then, the planning continued by letter and much of this correspondence is on show at the exhibition. Le Corbusier was famously not agreeable to clients’ ideas as he had a clear idea of a building’s form and function. So it’s intriguing to see that with this project, he yielded to Lucien Baizeau’s wishes.
Facing the sea on the Sainte-Monique hill in Carthage, Baizeau had a fairly precise idea of what he wanted. He sent Le Corbusier a detailed contract, with photos of the terrain and plans to facilitate design work. He wanted a modern house adapted to the Mediterranean climate and insisted on the need for protection against the sun and hot winds. While Le Corbusier usually attempted to maximize sunlight, this was his first residential project in North Africa. Thus, in order to protect the interior from the harsh sunlight, balconies overlap the large sliding windows and the sides of the building are entirely closed off.
Only Ruins To Be Found is a contemporary art exhibition at Chapelle Sainte-Monique, Carthage, a former Catholic church built in 1896 when Tunisia was part of the French Colonial Empire. The show, curated by Myriam Ben Salah and Aziza Harmel, includes works by six contemporary artists who have taken the nearby Villa Baizeau as their theme.
The show examines the particularities of the villa and the conceptual issues that this architectural object poses: the inaccessibility of the site; its nationalization after independence in 1956; the symbolism of a Carthaginian villa in a context of severe economic crisis, and its peculiarity in the career of Le Corbusier.
Polish artist Vlatka Horvat considers the inaccessibility of the villa by creating obstacles in the form of oil barrels. The wave-shaped metal plates are a dramatic presence in the center of the chapel.
A newly commissioned sound installation by Niloufar Emamifar creates a haunting tapestry of correspondence between Le Corbusier and Baizeau. This immersive art piece invites you to explore the unseen threads that stitched together the creation of the iconic Villa Baizeau. The letters are enhanced by a powerful audio composed by Jana Saleh and narrated by two accomplished voice actors from Tunisia.
Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Judith Hopf present an adaptation of a scene from Luis Buñuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel with a group of people trapped in a building for no obvious reason.
The artists collective El Warcha erected a platform for circus acts in the altar of the chapel. Often considered as mere entertainment, a circus is actually an original synthesis of many kinds of art: architecture, theater, music, dance, literature, painting, applied arts and to quote le Cobusier: “A house is a machine for living”. El warcha’s circus is a machine for spectacle where the body defies gravity.
Yesmine Ben Khelil brings us back to the current context of the villa. In a country grappling with a severe economic and housing crisis, the “villa” carries a social and political context, especially in the wealthy neighborhood of Carthage. A luxurious villa provides a stark contrast to Tunisians struggling to find affordable housing. Ben Khelil’s mural shows the different socio-economic layers through a scene in a Carthage neighborhood filled with bored policemen, surveillance equipment, students wandering around, indifferent stray cats and villas.