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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Le Corbusier: La Cité Frugès

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


Architect in France

After our visit to Royan, we went back to Bordeaux to visit ‘La Cité Frugès’, a housing development in the suburb of Pessac that was designed by Le Corbusier in the 1920s.

 

La Cité Frugès was funded by Henry Frugès, a wealthy industrialist based in Bordeaux who was interested in modern architecture and in social housing. Le Corbusier had already designed a small development of workers’ housing for Frugès in Lège close to Archachon and Frugès decided to entrust this second development to Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. Le Corbusier had expounded his ideas on the house as ‘a machine for living’ and on standardisation and production in ‘Vers une Architecture’ and Frugès instructed Corb to put his theories into practice and ‘achieve really conclusive results in the reform of cheap housing; Pessac must be a laboratory’.


The site for the houses was in a then forested area of the countryside outside of Bordeaux. The original intention was to construct 135 houses but, for a variety of reasons, only 53 were built and only 50 survive, 3 having been destroyed in WW2.


The house designs were based on a 5m x 5m module (and a half-module of 2.5m x 2.5m) that was used to achieve different configurations of designs and layouts. Six standard designs were developed of which only four were used:


  • Terrace: 2-storey houses that could be linked together in various ways. Each house had a living room, kitchen, a room that could be used as a bedroom or another living space, a wash-house and a wine cellar or store on the ground floor; and a large bedroom, a smaller bedroom, a dressing room, a bathroom and a roof terrace on the first floor.

  • Arcade: 2-storey houses that were linked to each other by curved ‘arcades’ at roof level. Each house had a living room, kitchen, a room that could be used as a bedroom or another living room, a wash-house and a wine cellar or store on the ground floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor.

  • Semi-Detached: 3-storey semi-detached houses joined together at a party wall. Each house had a covered area, a garage and a wash-house on the ground floor; a living room, a kitchen and another small room that could be a bedroom or another living space on the first floor; a large bedroom, a smaller bedroom, a bathroom and a covered terrace on the first floor; and a roof terrace on the second floor accessed by an open staircase from the first floor.

  • Detached: 2-storey detached houses that had a wash-house and wine cellar or store on the ground floor; a sitting room, kitchen, a large bedroom and a smaller bedroom and a bathroom on the first floor (accessed from a small first floor terrace accessed by an open staircase from the ground floor); and a roof terrace on the second floor accessed by an open staircase from the first floor terrace.


The houses were constructed of rendered hollow block walls, reinforced concrete columns, beams, floors and roofs with standard steel-framed windows mainly used in long, horizontal bands. Corb experimented with polychromy in the development; the buildings were mainly painted white but some walls were highlighted and painted pale green, burnt sienna or ultramarine blue. All of the houses had internal bathrooms with showers and toilets connected to septic tanks and very basic central heating systems; hot air was ducted from a boiler in the kitchen to the living rooms and bedrooms. Rainwater from the flat roofs was drained through internal drain pipes.


Frugès wanted to provide employment for local people and therefore employed a local building firm to construct the houses. This however did not go well (the firm did not understand the construction methods to be used) and a firm from Paris was then brought in to complete the houses. The houses were completed in 1926 but because of local opposition a water supply to the development was not provided until 1929 following pressure exerted on the local authorities by the Ministers of Public Works and of Labour and the houses were then occupied.


The most successful design seems to have been the ‘Terrace’ house. This made possible the linking together of the houses in a variety of ways; some take the form of a straight terrace with alternative houses facing to the front and to the rear to give privacy to the roof terraces and two groups of three houses are linked to form a ‘Z’. The density of these groupings is therefore quite high but each house has its own private external spaces at ground and at roof level.


The ‘Arcade’ design seems less successful. The houses have gardens in front and behind and a covered area between the houses. However, as the curved roof to these intermediate spaces is at the first floor roof level, they provide little cover from the sun or rain at ground level and serve little real purpose apart from providing a visual link.


The ‘Semi-Detached’ design is, it has to be said, rather strange. The double units are arranged perpendicular to the roads with one house at the front and one behind and therefore access to the house at the back is at the side of the house at the front, compromising its privacy. There are windows to all four sides of the combined unit and therefore the units have to be spaced at wide intervals to retain some privacy in each house.


The ‘Detached’ design also seems a little odd given that there is no living accommodation on the ground floor (and there is not even a garage) and that access to the entrance and then to the roof terrace is via external staircases open to the elements.


The houses are now in various states of repair. Some, mainly the Terrace and Semi-Detached designs, have been completely renovated and brought back to the condition that they were in, at least externally, when they were completed (possibly by architects?). Others seem to be more or less derelict. Many of the houses have been modified; some have had low-pitch roofs built over the original flat, concrete roofs (which have probably failed and leaked); some have been extended into either the ground floor or the first floor open terrace areas providing additional garages and living spaces and some have had their elevations modified by reducing the size of the horizontal windows and even in one case by adding a ‘Dutch’ gable! These changes detract, at least to an architect’s eye, from the clarity and simplicity of the original designs and their architectural character but prove the adaptability of the designs to the wishes of the various owners and as Corb said, ‘it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong’.


The development was declared a national monument in 1980 and one of the semi-detached houses is now a museum. This is at present unfurnished but it does contain a model of the development and gives some idea of how the houses looked when they were built.


 

Semi-Detached Houses




 

Terrace Houses




 

Arcade Houses





 

Detached Houses




Lastly, something slightly different. This is a typical ‘lean-to’ house that was built adjoining La Cité Frugès after the development was completed. Obviously its owner did not think that Corb’s models were worth following!


Architect in France

 


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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