Blog by Beebe Cline

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Openness, Privacy and Cool, Modern Design

In the 1920s architect Le Corbusier developed what would become known as The Five Points of Modern Architecture: 1) Supports, or pilotis; 2) Roof gardens; 3) Free design of ground plan; 4) Horizontal, or ribbon window, and 5) Free design of the facade.

These interrelated design considerations were responses to industrialization, the use of reinforced concrete and making a break with traditional buildings and are most evident in the architect's famous Villa Savoye outside Paris.

Of interest here is point number 4, the ribbon windows that are an expression of the facade being hung from the structural frame. This was a break from load-bearing exterior walls that were together structure and facade.

Because these long horizontal windows were impossible with traditional heavy enclosures, they became emblematic of a new direction in architecture. So then it was up to Le Corbusier and his followers to explore how ribbon windows function, besides as a polemical statement for modern architecture.

Decades later, ribbon windows are a fairly common element in modern and contemporary houses. To be considered as extensions of Le Corbusier's treatise, the windows should be part of a flat facade, an opening within a larger wall (not above it, as in a clerestory).

The examples that follow can be seen as neo-Corbusian, but some have divergent styles that still incorporate ribbon windows in some manner.
This house was designed by Steven Ehrlich, one of the most capable architects practicing in a neo-Corbusian manner. It includes many corner windows, but also ribbon windows. One visible on the left side of this photo doubles as a corner window. Note how the long window works in concert with the awning below it.
by Ehrlich Architects
The first floor of this house in Westlake, Texas features full-height glass walls, while upstairs the exterior walls are white with ribbon windows snaking around the perimeter. This approach gives more openness to the living spaces downstairs and privacy to the bedrooms upstairs, but it also reverses traditional notions of weight, by placing the apparently heavier walls above the lighter ones. Le Corbusier would be pleased with this design.
by Specht Harpman
Here is another ribbon window that extends to the corner. A look inside gives us some more information...
by Amitzi Architects
The horizontal window is actually composed with a vertical ribbon window. Together they make an L-shape as they turn the corner. Note that the eye-level horizontal window uses translucent glazing for privacy.
by Amitzi Architects
By the same architect is another whitewash house with a ribbon window. The window of note is in the center of the photo, extending to the left towards the pool. Next, see another view.
by Amitzi Architects
This angle is not ideal for looking at the ribbon window upstairs, but we can see how it extends across most of the facade, in line with a trellis awning that provides shade for the entrance walkway and pool deck. The integration of louvers with the sliding glass windows in the horizontal opening is a nice touch.
by Amitzi Architects
The ribbon window in this house by Kanner Architects is on the first floor, next to a door to the backyard. Unlike the Corbusian examples before that used whitewash walls, this one is made from stone. Next, see what's on the other side.
by Kanner Architects
It's the kitchen. This horizontal opening opens up the kitchen to the exterior and provides — one of my favorite things, partly because I don't have one — something to look at while doing the dishes.
by Kanner Architects
This last example shows that a ribbon window need not follow the other Five Points, resulting in a Corbusian-influenced house. This house, called Texas Hill House but actually in upstate New York, features a dramatic shed roof in metal. The low end is clad in wood, and the tall end is open, with lots of glass. Note the ribbon windows on the side wall. The next photo takes us inside.
by Incorporated
The louvered wall in the previous photo slides away to provide access to one of the bedrooms. (The plan is roughly symmetrical, so another bedroom with ribbon window is found at the other end of the house, with living spaces in between.) Here we see the start of the ribbon window, something that creates a strong datum for placing objects along and on the wall. Another view of the bedroom ...
by Incorporated
... shows the extent of the ribbon windows. What looked small on the exterior has a strong presence inside. The window seems appropriate for the bedroom, since the bed and other effects sit below it. It also brings in that much more light and serves to define the length of the room much better than a blank wall or traditional punched windows would have done.