Le Corbusier: 5 x Unités d’habitation

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Unité d’habitation was a concept of integrated housing developed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso. The concept was intended to provide a unified solution to the challenges of modern life by providing for inhabitants by making a single building for vertical living. It was intended as an advance in urban planning by centralising various services and facilities within the residential area, creating a mixed function building. Although initially conceived in 1920, the Unités d’habitation, as they came to be called, were designed over the period 1945 to 1965. Five blocks were constructed in Marseille (1947-52), Nantes-Rezé (1955), Berlin (1957), Briey-en-Forêt (1963) and Firminy-Vert (1965). Although the plan was intended to have universal application, the Berlin block was the only one built outside France.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Marseille, 2018]

The creation of different zones (including private living spaces, hotel, common passages, a shopping area and a roof with kindergarten, gymnasium, running track, paddling pool, open space and amphitheatre) was intended to provide inhabitants with a wide range of facilities within a single building, making it a convenient and efficient location within which to live. The independence of the design meant that this building could be reproduced in multiple locations, theoretically obviating the need to the costs and time of producing unique architectural plans. The Marseille building was the first. It was the most complex and expensive. Later buildings were cheaper and had lower specifications. It is the Marseille building which has become iconic, with the other Unités overshadowed by the ground-breaking pioneer project. The Berlin iteration was noticeably different, partly due to climatic reasons. There was no open roof space and the shopping area was omitted. The relative isolation of the Berlin Unité – which is twice the size of the Marseille one, and therefore the largest of the Unités – and the absence of shops has made it a somewhat inconvenient and unappealing place to live, apparently. Briey-en-Forêt is on the periphery of a suburban area and residents rely on public transport and private cars to travel outside of the grounds. This seems to be a fault of the situation rather than of the building.  

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Briey, 2018]

The apartments are appealing. The balconies have grand views (particularly in the upper storeys), sense of privacy and good soundproofing gave residents a living experience previously enjoyed by only a few. Unlike other high-rise designs, the Unités tended to foster frequent contact with neighbours in communal areas and did not (automatically) engender alienation. For everyday needs, the buildings (with the exception of the Berlin one) are relatively convenient and self-contained.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Berlin, 2018]

There is a case to be made that the Marseille Unité d’habitation was perhaps the single most influential Modernist residential structure. The ideas, appearance and materials of the Unités d’habitation influenced the nascent Brutalist movement. The buildings are largely unadorned, much of the structure of shutter-cast unpainted concrete (béton brut). The roofs are flat and the apartments are modular in nature. The internal designs, fittings and even furniture was designed specifically for the buildings. There were no architectural references to past styles and no concessions to local materials. Every part of the building displayed its function in its appearance. The architect attempted to shun the limitations of its surroundings; there was a refusal to compromise to existing architecture. The buildings are not orientated to align with the streets around them. This is in part to permit the buildings to be placed to the maximum advance to residents in terms of views and light, but it is also an act of defiant independence on the part of Le Corbusier.

Artist and photographer Arthur Zalewski has visited all of the buildings multiple times in recent years and photographed them as they are, with inhabitants and current conditions included. The photographs, curated by Peter Ottmann, are currently being exhibited at C834, Corbusierhaus, Berlin (April-November 2019). The photographs in five changing displays will be of each Unité in turn: Marseille, April-June 2019; Revé, June-July; Berlin, July-August; Briey-en-Forêt, August-October; Firminy, October-November.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski,  Unité d’habitation Firminy, 2018]

Zalewski eschewed photographing portraits of the residents, realising that this would make the body of photographs very distinct in character. Instead we get medium-distance shots of figures within the spaces, giving us atmosphere and showing everyday functioning of the buildings. The photographs are distant views of the building, the situation of the Unités within the streets and the landscape more broadly, close views, interiors of different parts of the building and certain sample apartment interiors. The photographs are a mixture of black and white and colour. The shots show the conditions of the buildings today. Compared to many Modernist buildings by less prominent architects, the Unités are in an adequate state of preservation and maintenance, with few alterations and no apparent graffiti. The materials have aged in a largely sympathetic manner, with lichen spotting the stairwell walls in Nantes-Rezé (a block built partially over water, which in these shots is algae covered). The climatic conditions are distinct and contribute to the impressions of the buildings and how they have aged. The sheltered parapets of Briey-en-Forêt have acquired a rich patina of lichens and moss on the untreated concrete. The Firminy’s mountainous wooded location is in contrast with the situation of the Marseille’s Cité radieuse in its arid sunny setting. Briey-en-Forêt’s foggy climate and tree surrounding give the large building an incongruous impression of being hidden and protected.

The only substantial text in this large-format book is the transcript of a three-person discussion between Arthur Zalewski, architect Peter Ottmann and author Anne König. This is published in French, German and English versions. The interview is very enlightening about the varying histories and characters of the five Unités, including information about how the residents view their buildings. This book is suitable for any fan of Modernist architecture, Brutalism and Le Corbusier; it would also appeal to anyone studying social history.

 

Arthur Zalewski, Peter Ottmann (ed.), Le Corbusier: 5 x Unité. Marseille, Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, Firminy, Spector Books, 2019, paperback, 384pp, 300 illus., English/French/German text, €34, ISBN 978 39 59 05301 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

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