The great modernist designer Le Corbusier’s only architectural project in Africa was a seaside house for the Belgian industrialist Lucien Baizeau, who was based in Tunis. Villa Baizeau was built between 1928 and 1930 and is located 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 is located next to the presidential palace and is therefore not open to the public. It is also not well known outside Tunisia. The villa has never been featured in exhibitions celebrating Le Corbusier’s many architectural achievements and is not even included in Wikipedia’s list of works by Le Corbusier.
Villa Baizeau, Tunis by Le Corbusier
The good news is that Villa Baizeau has just been granted official protected status and thus recognized as an important heritage building, thanks to the courageous efforts of people from the local art community, such as 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 is an attractive place to visit for tourists and locals alike.
Exhibitions related to Villa Baizeau
Although it is only possible to view the villa from a distance, two excellent exhibitions related to the villa have recently opened in Tunis. Compiled by architectural historian Roberto Gargiani, Villa Baizeau Carthage, Le Corbusier & Jeanneret: the latest news about simple architecture is located at the new arts organization from Tunisia, 32Bis, in a 1950s building that was previously Phillips’s headquarters in Tunisia. The exhibition examines the historical aspect, the context and the relationship between Le Corbusier, his colleague Pierre Jeanneret and Lucien Baizeau.
The exhibition at 32bis includes Corbusier’s original drawings and models, plus projects by international architects related 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). An exhibition of contemporary art inspired by the villa, There are only ruins to be found, is located in Chapelle Sainte-Monique, Carthage and from the grounds you have a clear view of the villa on a nearby hill. Both exhibitions run until May 15, 2024.
Villa Baizeau is all the more fascinating because it was created almost entirely through 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 on, planning continued by letter and much of this correspondence can be seen in the exhibition. It is known that Le Corbusier did not agree with the ideas of his clients, because he had a clear idea of the form and function of a building. So it is intriguing to see that he gave in to Lucien Baizeau’s wishes with this project.
Overlooking the sea on Carthage’s Sainte-Monique Hill, Baizeau had a fairly precise idea of what he wanted. He sent Le Corbusier a detailed contract, with photographs of the site and plans to facilitate the design work. He wanted a modern house adapted to the Mediterranean climate and emphasized the need for protection from the sun and hot winds. While Le Corbusier usually sought to maximize sunlight, this was his first residential project in North Africa. To protect the interior from the bright sunlight, balconies overlap the large sliding windows and the sides of the building are completely closed off.
There are only ruins to be found is an exhibition of contemporary art in Chapelle Sainte-Monique, Carthage, a former Catholic church built in 1896 when Tunisia was part of the French colonial empire. The exhibition, curated by Myriam Ben Salah and Aziza Harmel, includes works by six contemporary artists who take the nearby Villa Baizeau as their theme.
The exhibition explores the particularities of the villa and the conceptual problems posed by this architectural object: the inaccessibility of the site; its nationalization after independence in 1956; the symbolism of a Carthaginian villa in a context of serious economic crisis, and its peculiarity in the career of Le Corbusier.
Polish artist Vlatka Horvat takes the villa’s inaccessibility into account 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 new sound installation by Niloufar Emamifar creates a haunting tapestry of correspondence between Le Corbusier and Baizeau. This immersive work of art invites you to explore the invisible threads that stitched together the creation of the iconic Villa Baizeau. The letters are enhanced by powerful audio composed by Jana Saleh and narrated by two experienced 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 stuck in a building for no apparent reason.
The artist collective El Warcha set up a platform for circus acts in the altar of the chapel. Often considered pure entertainment, a circus is actually an original synthesis of many types of art: architecture, theater, music, dance, literature, painting, applied arts and to quote Le Cobusier: “A house is a machine for living”. warcha’s circus is a spectacle machine in which the body defies gravity.
Yesmine Ben Khelil brings us back to the current context of the villa. In a country struggling with a serious economic and housing crisis, the ‘villa’ has a social and political context, especially in the wealthy neighborhood of Carthage. A luxury villa is a stark contrast to Tunisians who struggle to find affordable housing. Ben Khelil’s mural depicts the different socio-economic strata through a scene in a Carthage neighborhood full of bored police officers, surveillance equipment, wandering students, indifferent stray cats and villas.