What if the most radical modernist proposals for the museum were simultaneously projects for a new kind of house? What if the most public buildings of the last century were first incubated in the most private commissions? What if domesticity is the real source of modernity in museums? Take Villa Savoye of 1929-31, perhaps the best known building of Le Corbusier if not of all modern architecture, and his Tokyo National Museum of Western Art of 1957-59. What do these two buildings have in common? One is a relatively early work, the other is one of his very last. One is small and lightweight, the other is large and heavy. One is a house, the other is a museum. But the basic concept is the same. They are both square boxes suspended off the ground. You enter both by passing underneath through a field of columns and rising up to the core of the building on a ramp. The big difference is the obvious one. In the house you keep moving up the ramp until your view explodes out in all directions through the horizontal windows. In the museum, the ramp turns into a spiral folded in on itself. There are no windows. You cannot see the outside. There is no simple relationship between inside and outside. Indeed, the central space from which all of the galleries spiral has become a kind of exterior space, with sunlight pouring in from above.
The Tokyo museum came at the end of a long line of museum projects that Le Corbusier had been working on since 1929 - variations on one obsessive theme, starting with his controversial project for the Mundaneum in 1929, to be built in Geneva, Switzerland. That project was the result of Le Corbusier's involvement with Paul Otlet, a Belgian industrialist, who wanted to establish an international organization of intellectuals with a center that he called the Mundaneum, which included an airport, a university, a stadium, botanical and mineral gardens, exhibition spaces, a world library, and a world museum: "Our desire is that in one place on the globe the total image and significance of the world should be visible and understood; that this place should become a holy place." The central element of the Mundaneum was the museum: a pyramid made out of a square spiral, a continuous gallery that would show the various stages of civilization in continuous development. Visitors would take an elevator to the top of the pyramid (the beginning of civilization) and walk down the spiral ramp until reaching the ground: the present day.