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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

A Visit To Firminy

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


A Visit To Firminy
A Visit To Firminy



A Visit To Firminy

In September 2021 after we had moved out of our house and before we moved back to England, we had a short holiday in the Puy-de-Dome and while there we visited the town of Firminy to see the buildings constructed there by Le Corbusier.


Firminy is a town in the Loire Department of central France not far from the city of Saint-Etienne.The town has a proud mining past which saw its population increase during the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to the growth of the metallurgy industry.


In 1953, the then mayor of Firminy, Eugene Claudius-Petit carried out a survey of the town in order to determine the needs of the population and this survey revealed the low quality of the area’s housing. With this in mind, the mayor envisaged the renovation of the town centre and the creation of a new district, Firminy-Vert. This new district was to be designed by four architects who based their proposals on the ‘Athens Charter’ drafted during the 4th International Congress of Modern Architecture in 1933 which drew heavily on the ideas of Le Corbusier.

The mayor of Firminy asked Le Corbusier, who was a close friend, to work on designs for a number of buildings for the civic centre and these included a cultural centre, a stadium and the church of Saint-Pierre. He was also asked to design three high-rise housing units.


The cultural centre was the first of Corbusier’s buildings in Firminy to be constructed (it was completed in 1965, the only building to be finished in his lifetime). It is situated on the edge of what was a coal-grit quarry and the ground on the west side slopes steeply down to the stadium and running track below. It is a long, narrow building with three levels and accommodation consists of a music room, an auditorium, a performance space, a plastic arts room, and a foyer bar. The reinforced concrete wall on the western side slopes steeply outwards as it rises and the mostly glazed wall on the eastern side also slopes outwards but much less steeply. The steep slope of the western wall is utilised internally for tiered seating. The roof is constructed of concrete slabs suspended on pairs of steel cables anchored to the tops of the external walls and forms a gentle catenary curve between the supports. The curve of the roof is followed by the concrete end walls. The glazing to the to the eastern façade was designed by Corbusier and the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis and the spacing of the vertical glazing bars is based upon musical notation.


The roof design was very innovative and was probably bound to fail eventually. The Sainte-Etienne Metropolitan council has recently renovated the building and repaired and renovated the roof. The building is still being used for its original purpose as a performance and artistic venue, a community music school and an arts interpretation centre and seems well suited for these purposes. The building was listed as a historical monument in 1984 and it is also a UNESCO monument.




The stadium was designed in 1954 but construction did not begin until 1966 and was completed in 1968. Fernand Gardien and André Wogenscky, who worked with Corbusier, supervised the completion of the project after his death in 1966.


Initially the stadium was intended to provide 5,000 seats, of which 1,000 were to be covered but, because of budget constraints, only 3,800 were provided, 500 of which were covered. It has however been extended by the city council to seat 4,180. It is a shame that the cantilevered roof over the covered stands was not completed as it is very dramatic and would have been even more so if it was complete.





Corbusier worked on the design for the church of Saint-Pierre from 1960 until his death in 1965 and it was to be his last major work. Construction did not start until 1973, was abandoned in 1978 and not re-started until 2003 when the local government declared the mouldering concrete ruin an "architectural heritage" and financed its completion. The building was completed by the French architect José Oubrerie, Corbusier's student for many years. The church takes the form of a square topped with a truncated 33-metre-high cone. The lower, square part of the building which is extensively glazed, was designed to house parish activities while the upper part (within the cone) is occupied by the nave and two small chapels and is much darker, lit mainly by light cannons.

The church has been used for many different purposes, for instance as a secondary school and as a shelter. As the secularist French state may not use public funds for religious buildings, Saint-Pierre is now used as a cultural venue. Corbusier’s sketches of the church show a very elegant cone but as constructed it seems shorter, wider and it has to be said, rather inelegant. All of the concrete-work is very well finished unlike that on most of Corbusier’s buildings; it is certainly not ‘beton-brut’.




In the 1950s, the city's demographic forecasts predicted a rapid increase in population to 50,000. Corbusier was asked therefore to design three housing units to be located on a hill above Firminy-Vert. One unit was constructed but the city's population did not grow above 25,000 and it decided therefore not to build the other two units.


The building is orientated on a north-south axis so that the main elevations face east and west. It has 17 floors served by seven access ‘streets’ and there were originally 414 duplex apartments, making the unit the largest of the five ‘Unite’ buildings that Corbusier designed. The design of the apartments follows that of the other Unite buildings with apartments extending the whole width of the building with each apartment having one level on one side of the building and two levels on the other side with an access street on every second level. The design of the building is based upon Corbusier’s modular system.


The budget for the building was much more limited that that for the Unite in Marseille and it was built at a cost a quarter of that of the Marseille building. This meant that the original underground car park was not constructed, the very expensive method of insulating the apartments against sound that was used in Marseille was not used here and the standard of finishes was greatly reduced.


The top two floors of the building were occupied by a primary school for the children of occupants of the three housing units that were initially planned. It was closed in 1999 because of insufficient numbers of children. The terrace on the roof (which is now not freely accessible) was occupied by solariums facing east and west, an open-air theatre and playgrounds. There were no shops in the unit as a separate shopping centre (which was not built) was planned to serve the three housing units.


Construction started in 1965 and was completed in 1967 under the supervision of André Wogenscky who had worked closely with Corbusier.


The building has had a somewhat chequered history. By the 1980s many of the occupants were unhappy with the apartments (the reason for this is not known but could possibly be down to lack of maintenance) and many moved out. Parts of the building were closed in order to reduce operating costs and in the early 2000s some of the apartments were sold. The building was renovated in 2005 and is now occupied by a mixture of council tenants, private owners and private tenants and there seems to be some confusion as to who is responsible for maintaining what and this is very evident. In 2012 the primary school was occupied by a department from Jean Monnet University.


The building at the time of our visit was looking rather sad. The drastic reduction in the original budget was apparent and this had been compounded by a lack of maintenance work. The original windows (which had been set in the concrete surrounds) had been replaced with single-glazed windows with pale and rather insubstantial looking timber frames that look very incongruous. Unfortunately it was not possible for us to gain entry to the building but I have been contacted by a resident who had a number of complaints about its condition which included: the poor state of the entrance hall which requires painting and repairs; the equally poor state of the elevators and staircases; the poor condition of some of the internal streets; the poor condition of the external elevations; broken windows; numerous places where there is water penetration; the lack of maintenance of the landscaping, etc, etc. There is also an evident disregard for the upkeep of the building by some of its residents. This is, all-in-all, a very sad state of affairs for a building that has been classified by the government as an historical monument.




 


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource


The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


 

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