Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Radiant City

Entrance to the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France, with its dramatic portico. Photo ©Darren Bradley
"La Cité Radieuse" by Le Corbusier, in Marseille, France is the project which is often credited with (or blamed for, depending on your point of view) popularizing both brutalism and high density social housing. Most of the copies around the world became crime-ridden tenements, and many have since been labelled as errors in social engineering, and have been demolished. But the original still stands proudly, inhabited today by mostly upper-middle class, educated residents who are proud of their building and what it stands for. I finally had a chance to visit and understand what it was all about, first-hand. 

Le Corbusier frequently employed the idea of raising his buildings on pilotis or columns, suspended off the ground. He felt this disturbed the natural surrounds less, provided shade and usable space underneath, and raised the living quarters for better views. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Like everyone else, I'd seen plenty of photos and read lots of articles about this building prior to visiting. But seeing and experiencing it in person are quite different matters entirely. It is now a lot easier to understand - and also appreciate the details which made this such a successful project, and why so many others tried to copy it (and failed). 

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret - aka "Le Corbusier" - was a visionary, and already world famous in 1945 when France was turning to its architects for new and innovative solutions for housing the country's population in the years following the massively destructive World War II. The architect had already drawn up plans for his modern "Ville Radieuse" in 1924, and had even published a book on the topic in 1933. He had grandiose visions about housing millions of people in towers, and about demolishing both the buildings and the urban fabric of the past. 

Le Corbusier's 'Ville Radieuse' was conceived in 1924. He proposed to demolish the city center of Paris to construct a series of modern high-rise apartments and office towers, connected by freeways and airports. This was intended to provide clean, comfortable housing for the masses. It's also a bit scary. 
But until then, Le Corbusier had never built anything at that size or scale. The architect was mostly known for designing and building private villas for wealthy people. When he stepped forward after the war and expressed his desire to rebuild France's demolished city of Marseille (which had been destroyed by the Germans in 1943, and then subject to Allied bombing intermittently thereafter), the French government didn't quite trust that he would be up to the task. Besides, he wasn't even a licensed architect (it wasn't actually a requirement at the time). Instead, the job of overseeing the rebuilding France's cities went to Auguste Perret. Perret also used re-enforced concrete, but in a more neoclassical style that referenced historical styles of the past.  

The French port city of Le Havre, which was completely destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt by the architect Auguste Perret, using re-enforced concrete and neoclassical modernist design. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Le Corbusier once worked for Perret, but had far more radical views which made the government a bit wary. Instead of rebuilding the entire city, he was awarded the task of realizing a prototype building in Marseille that would emulate many of the points he had been making about his Ville Radieuse concept. Originally, this was intended to be social housing for the poor. 

The large wing-like portico was a deliberate attempt by Le Corbusier to give the building an air of being classy. He said he wanted the residents to be proud of where they lived, and that a dramatic entrance was an important part of that idea. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The only part of the building on ground level is the lobby, which includes these stained glass windows. Le Corbusier designed Notre Dame du Haut the year following this building's completion. I wonder if he wasn't testing some ideas here. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The building would be a vertical city, intended to house at least 1200 people in 337 apartments in 12 stories. Within the building would be not only residences, but also "city streets" with a school, a hotel, a restaurant, and other commerce (baker, butcher, market, and other small shops) that catered to the residents and were largely subsidized by them. 

View from the Winter Garden, where most of the shops are located in the building, about half-way up. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Every detail was designed specifically for the project, including these unique lamps. 

Hallway lamps by Le Corbusier. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Residents would be able to do their shopping within the building, and even call the shops from direct phone lines to order goods. Deliveries could be done without needing to be home, through specially built delivery boxes in the hallways that communicated directly with the kitchens of each unit. 

Hallway, or "interior street" of the Unité d'Habitation. Note the boxes outside each door, which are intended for delivery personnel to leave groceries or other packages in each unit, without the owner needing to be home. The boxes communicate directly with a door inside the kitchen. Why doesn't every apartment have this? Photo ©Darren Bradley

One of my favorite parts of the project is the rooftop. Each of the five Unités d'Habitation have a different configuration on the roof, I believe. It's really the most artistic and sculptural parts of the whole project. 

Rooftop structures on the Cité Radieuse. This area hosts modern art installations now. That glass circular structure is part of the temporary installation by Dan Graham. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Walking along the rooftop structure of what is now the MaMo modern art gallery. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Lounging in the shade. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Rooftop of the Cité Radieuse. Photo ©Darren Bradley

They wouldn't let me take any photos of the pool or this entire part of the rooftop because there were kids present. So you get this vintage photo, instead. 

The idea was to create Unités d'Habitation (Living Units), that were largely prefabricated and simply slotted into a steel frame. 
Early concept sectional view of one of the apartments. Note that there is no mezzanine in this version, as the bedroom continues to the window. 

Slotting the Unité into its frame... If only Le Corbusier had that giant hand to speed up construction... 

This would enable buildings to be produced quickly and cheaply. In fact, there were many of these buildings planned for the same site. 

Model demonstrating the concept behind the "unités d'habitation", with the frame on piloti, with duplex units that can be slotted inside. Photo ©Darren Bradley of a model provided by the Fondation Le Corbusier. 

The whole building would be scaled based on Le Modulor. This was Le Corbusier's own system of measurements, based on the human scale, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci number. He decided that the ideal human figure was 1m83 tall, or 2m26 with his arm raised. 

The famous Modulor system of measurement. There is frequently a wall sculpture of a Modulor on the Unités d'Habitation that were built. Courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier. 

Le Modulor system of measurement. Courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier. 

The units are very compact by today's standard. Even the scale of the doors and furnishings and ceilings is quite small. But the small size of the apartments is at least partially compensated by the ingenious design and high ceilings. 

Nautical themes are common in the Cité Radieuse, including this boat-like staircase leading to the mezzanine. Note the Charlotte Perriand-designed kitchen on the left. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Projet de cuisine-bar pour la cellule de l'Unité d'habitation - Marseille 1947
Vintage photo of Charlotte Perriand's kitchen for the Unités d'Habitation. 

The double-height ceilings and wall of glass are the main feature of the units. Note the subtle design touches, such as the wood bench in front of the window that hides  the heating element, and encourages one to sit there, against the window on a winter day. Le Corbusier even included arm rests on the window doors to encourage you to sit there. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Master bedroom in the mezzanine level, overlooking the living room. Note all the built-ins, and especially the baby diaper changing table on the left. After all, this is the post-war period and the baby boom was needed to repopulate France! Photo ©Darren Bradley

The children's bedrooms have the best views, of the Mediterranean. There is a sliding wall that can be opened, that divides the two rooms. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Apartment for "La Cité Radieuse"
There's a complete Unité mock-up at the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, furnished with authentic period furniture.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

Alas, the concept didn't quite turn out as planned in the execution phase. It took about two years to find a site that was acceptable to Le Corbusier's criteria. He wanted a large, park-like setting away from other buildings, and that would have views of both the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Once the site was located and provided in 1947, it would take another five years to construct. Even in 1947, steel was still hard to come by and was expensive. So instead, a concrete frame was used. It was still way over budget. Because this was an entirely innovative prototype - a "machine for living", Le Corbusier and the government decided to dispense with the standard permitting process, and other oversight. 

Characteristic piloti next to the entrance to the Cité Radieuse. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Even before the building was completed in 1952, it was very well hyped and anticipated around the world. Multiple newsreels and informational films about the building had been produced, featuring the media-savvy Le Corbusier himself, along with André Malraux and others. 

André Malraux with Le Corbusier.
The French government expressed their desire to sell the units in the building immediately, rather than keep it as government housing. Within a year of its completion, nearly all of the units had been sold and were occupied. The shops and other commerce within the building - intended by Le Corbusier to be communal - were privately owned. Today, only a few survive, including the hotel, restaurant, a bookstore, and a bakery. The other shops have now largely been converted to offices, including a real estate office and others. The supermarket, which was perhaps the first of its kind in France, including instructions on how to shop painted on the walls (until then, people never selected the merchandise themselves - they would simply go to the counter and tell the shopkeeper what they wanted). It closed in the 1990s, but the painted instructions about how to shop are still there. 

View of the Winter Garden area, on the shopping level. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Le Corbusier would go on to build another four Unités d'Habitation - three more in France, and one in Berlin. He built other buildings that also closely resemble them in design in concept, such as his Maison du Brésil at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. 

Maison du Brésil
Maison du Brésil at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Numerous other architects would copy his designs and concepts around the world, but rarely with the same level of care or detail, or holistic concept for living that Le Corbusier brought to this project. 

The Cité Radieuse can be visited with a guided tour, through this site here. 

The Fondation Le Corbusier has lots more information, as well. 


Colin said...

Thanks - a lovely piece. I was recently there and posted something about it on my own blog Like you, I was familiar with it through books but the experience is quite different. It's an astounding building!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Colin. Much enjoyed reading your blog, as well. Sounds like we had similar impressions and experiences there - both with Marseille and the UdH.

Boris said...

Your remarks about social engineering and projects reminded me of Lazdynai, an area in Vilnius where we lived in the late 70's. When designed, it was more of a minor revolt against the Soviet 3- and 5-story boxes and looked beautiful. Lazdynai was, actually, a well planned satellite city. Still, we lived in a ~350 sq ft apartment (four of us), one of 96 in the building. It was a prefab concrete building, which did not age gracefully at all. 20 years later when I took the kids to show my old apartment building, they were scared. The once nice looking building belonged to projects. Need to find some old photos now, your post started me thinking...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the note, Boris. I'm going to go google that project now. I wonder if there are any good photos...

Boris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Unknown said...

Stunning photos and fascinating comments Darren. Your blog is practically a history book.

I saw the Unite when I was 21 and had just finished my architectural history courses. I remember the incredible power of the building, the beauty of the rooftop but also being disappointed at the spacial quality of the actual living units. Strangely, given his other interiors, they seemed clumsy and a bit awkward. Did you have that impression? Your photos seem to back up my varied impressions all of those years ago.


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