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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Le Corbusier: l’Unité d’habitation in Marseilles

Updated: Apr 19, 2019


Nigel Wakeham: Consultant Architect

Since moving to France, I have made the most of my opportunities to visit significant buildings in the country such as the buildings of Le Corbusier. While I recognised, when I was a student that he was an important architect, I was then more interested in the work of Frank Llloyd Wright. However, having now visited a few of his buildings, it has to be said that individually they are rather stunning.

 

In 2015 I spent a weekend in Marseilles, staying in the small hotel located on the third floor of Le Corbusier’s building, l’Unite d’habitation or La Ville Radieuse. This fulfilled (rather late in life) a student ambition to visit the building (it should be remembered that when I started at the AA, the building was less than 10 years old and its design was then probably at the height of its influence).

L’Unite d’habitation was the culmination of the work that Le Corbusier (Corb) had been doing for many years on high-density social housing: a high-rise building raised off the ground, set in a landscaped garden, orientated to face east-west in order to obtain maximum sunlight and containing compact family apartments and communal spaces. It was a vertical ‘city’ containing many of the facilities associated with cities such as dwellings, shops, offices, schools, hotels, restaurants and sports facilities.

The building was designed immediately after the end of World War II and was intended for the use of residents of the city who had been displaced by the war. It was completed in 1952 and is constructed largely of reinforced concrete (the cheapest material then available) which is mostly exposed and finished ‘off-the-shutter’, Corb making a virtue of the often very rough concrete finish.

The building is large: 137 metres long x 56 metres (18 stories) high x 24 metres wide and has 337 apartments designed to accommodate around 1,600 inhabitants. The apartments are mainly arranged as 2-storey units with a double-height living room at one end and one level of each apartment occupying the full width of the building. The apartments interlock with access to one apartment on the lower level and to the other at the higher level (see sketch section below). Access to the apartments is from wide, internal ‘streets’ and because of the interlocking design these streets are only necessary at every third floor giving a total of five streets.

Although the apartments were comparatively small, they give the impression of being larger because of the use of large areas of glazing and the provision of double-height living spaces and external balconies and even though the building contained a large number of inhabitants, the individual units were very well soundproofed through the use of a sophisticated acoustic separation system (and double-glazed windows; in the late 40s!) giving the residents a high degree of privacy.

There were also shopping streets with when the building was completed, a fishmonger, butcher, greengrocer, bakery café, laundry, post-office and a barbers together with offices and a small hotel. On the 8th floor there was (and still is) a kindergarten and on the roof terrace there were a variety of communal spaces including a running track, a solarium an open space for gymnastics, a sauna and a children’s paddling pool that is still in use. There was also a centralised heating system serving all of the apartments.

A great deal of thought was given to the detail design of the apartments and Corb brought in two other well-known architects to assist him; Jean Prouve who designed the acoustic separation system and the steel staircases and Charlotte Perriand who designed the kitchens and other interior fittings.

There are two basic apartment types: the first type (supérieur) has access at the lower level with a kitchen and dining area and a double-height living space at that level and a staircase up to the higher level which contains the main bedroom on a balcony overlooking the living space and two further bedrooms on the other side of the building. The second type (inférieur) has the entrance on the upper level with a kitchen and dining area at that level overlooking the double-height living area below. Access to the lower level is via a staircase down to the sitting area which is combined with the main bedroom with again two further bedrooms on the other side of the building. See sketch plans below.

The apartments are well designed and detailed and very well serviced. The kitchens have built-in cupboards and appliances; the main bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms, there are separate WCs and shower rooms for the use of children and visitors and the two subsidiary bedrooms have their own wash-basins (and this was at a time when nearly 50% of houses in Marseilles did not even have toilets). There are also lots of built-in cupboards and shelving units. Central heating is provided by large, square radiators that run the full width of the apartments below the full-height windows and form a step at the bottom of the windows with a timber top to protect them.


The design of the apartments, with every unit having one floor that occupies the full width of the building, means that all apartments have views of the gardens, mountains and the Mediterranean and all have sun in some rooms in the morning and the afternoons.

So how has the design and the actual building stood up to the passage of time? The concrete finishes have in the main worn well, they are not badly stained and look good especially in contrast with the coloured panels to the balconies. There are some problems especially on the roof terrace with spalling of areas of concrete over the reinforcement and some fairly minor elements on the roof terrace have also had to be (discretely) reinforced with steelwork. The building is heavily modelled with massive pilotis on the ground floor, inset balconies and horizontal and vertical brise-soleil and the effect of the movement of the sun over the building during the day is very pronounced and quite dramatic.

I managed to get into one of the apartments (type inférieur) with the entrance and kitchen/dining area on the top floor and wonderful views out over the city through the full height glazing. The interior seemed to have worn very well especially the kitchen where the original sink worktops and fittings are still in use. The bathroom has however had new sanitary-ware and the lining to the shower was looking a little sad! There was plenty of storage space for a small apartment and some ingenious storage ideas such as a cupboard door with built-in shelves and storage compartments. The two children’s bedrooms also seem to work very well although they are very narrow and quite dark at the entrances. The large sliding door between the bedrooms transforms the rooms when open.

The problem with this apartment type is the lack of a division between the sitting space and the main bedroom on the lower floor. A previous owner of the apartment had got over this by constructing a floor across the double-height space creating a separate living area on the top floor and a private bedroom on the lower floor. It has solved the privacy problem but at the cost of losing the double-height space! A number of owners of this type of apartment have apparently done this. The other type of apartment does not of course have this problem. My only other major criticism of the building is that the access streets do not have any natural lighting and are rather dark and gloomy even with Corb’s the use of bright colours.


The building does deal very well with Marseilles’ hot climate which has temperatures in summer that range from 17 to 29°C and in winter from 2 to 12°C. The building is orientated to face east-west to obtain maximum sunlight into rooms when required but the brise-soleil protects rooms from much of the sun during the summer but allows low-level sun into the rooms during the winter. The design of the apartments with one floor occupying the full width of the building together with the double-height space on one side and the full height windows/doors to both sides allows a good deal of cross-ventilation through the apartments to keep them cool when it is very hot.

It is interesting to contrast the design of this building in terms of climate control with a similar building in the tropics, my main area of concern. If I was designing a similar building in the tropics, I would orientate the building to face north-south in order to reduce solar penetration to a minimum all the year round but keep the brise-soleil to keep the sum off the windows and the face of the building. The provision of cross-ventilation to rooms in the tropics is very important to improve comfort levels and the design of these apartments would work very well. In fact there is still a lot to be learned from a study of the building and I was very glad to have been able to visit it.

 

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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