The Multiple Lives of the Unité d'habitation


Franz Graf


newsletter august 2019
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by Franz Graf
Edited by Theodore Prudon and Eduarte Duarte Ruas

The Unités d’habitation designed by Le Corbusier and André Wogenscky represent an exceptional moment in the development of the culture of housing in the 20th century. Five examples of them were built – Marseille (1945-1952), Rezé (1948-1955), Berlin (1957-1958), Briey-en-Forêt (1953-1961) and Firminy (1959-1967) – and they embodied a remarkable number of technical, constructional, typological, architectural and urbanistic inventions (pilotis, roof terraces, duplex apartments, fitted kitchens, rubbish chutes, brise soleils, béton brut, etc.). They were the culmination of a long and patient reflection on housing and the outcome of a skillful combination of the individual and collective dimensions of dwelling. While the commission for this new type of building continued for only fifteen years, they do not constitute a series of replicas of a prototype, but constructional systems specific to each development.

The Unité d’habitation in Marseille was built between 1947 and 1952, the first one of the series. It was favored by exceptional building conditions because the construction was state assisted with an open budget and without any planning constraints. Initially envisaged as a rental building, it was changed to commonhold tenure in May 1954 and from the early 1960s it began to be occupied by middle-class residents with a relatively high educational level. 

The load-bearing structure has a point-loaded framework: it is a three-dimensional grid made of reinforced concrete cast in situ, which constitutes the body of the building. This famous “bottle rack” was intended to hold the industrial components, designed by Jean Prouvé in the form of three-dimensional metal cells, given material form by wooden frames rest on massive, powerful pilotis at intervals of every second module. The façades consist of elements prefabricated in situ – dividing walls and parapets. The highest level of comfort was sought, and this involved the development of the kitchen entrusted to Charlotte Perriand, bathroom equipment and built-in furniture throughout each apartment. Apart from the use of technology that was quite disproportionate to the commonly used technology, the architects enhanced it with highly expressive architectural features, such as the monumental rooftop air extraction chimneys or the household rubbish collection point.

The Unité at Rezé-les-Nantes marked the transition from the model built outside compliance with the standards to the highly regulated status of low-budget social housing, supported, through the difficulties of planning and then its construction, which was exemplary, by a cooperative of residents who collaborated on an equal footing, described as “authentic inhabitants”. It was, in a way, a test of the prototype that would provide spacious home units, amenities and distributional qualities of housing for occupants who were leaving dwellings where the conditions of comfort were largely dire, and they appreciated its benefits. 

The Unité d’habitation at Briey-en-Forêt was built in the forest two kilometres away from the small city, at the center of a never-built satellite town. The structure was built using an industrialised system, the Outilnord process, ensuring extreme rapidity and simplicity of execution. It entailed an optimization between the architectural and structural type, but it was the latter that was at best identified with the geometry of the former. The radicality of the means of production and the simplicity of the construction are evident in the whole building, as are the technical systems.

The Berlin Unité d’habitation was built in 1957 and 1958 on the Olympic hill of Charlottenburg. It was part of the international building exhibition, Interbau 1957. While this Unité d’habitation is already far from a classic german social housing project, its upgrading to building standards from Berlin and the project management under the responsibility of a Berlin office, led to divergences between the model and its subsequent construction: the abandonment of the Modulor and adaptation of the rooms to the required dimensions, suppression of the brise-soleils, construction of a room for utilities between the pilotis, modification of the windows, elimination of the collective amenities on the roof, and much else. It was largely prefabricated, including all the shear walls with one-storey high elements grouted by keying to cement, as well as balconies and their vertical dividers. 

The Unité d’habitation at Firminy-Vert was built in 1953-1961. The body of the building containing 414 home units was completely cast in situ with metal formwork. The furnishing of the dwelling cells would be an object of particular care, with the client, Eugène Claudius-Petit reworking Charlotte Perriand’s plans for Marseille. The pilotis were poured when Le Corbusier died, and Wogenscky continued the project respectfully. With the completion of the construction of the Unité, he received a mandate to develop a second Unité – and a third was even envisaged in 1968. But an economic crisis in the region brought the work to an abrupt halt at the level of the foundations. 

The short time span of the construction and life of these iconic works contrasts with the permanence of the image suspended out of the time of the Unité d’habitation and the differences, on the one hand, between the buildings made to the same model, above all in their constructional system, and on the other hand the alterations and deterioration of their material forms, as well as the strategies of intervention, which, though applied to a recognized and protected set of buildings, are nevertheless very different from each other, not to say strongly contrasting. It is from the discussion of their first fifty years that the history of contemporary architecture and the material history of building, mingling the social history of the work and its reception, the history of construction techniques – from the structural framework to the fittings – the history of housing and of comfort, the history of preservation, whether dealing with a basic resource or a work of monumental value, will reveal the structuring elements of the future of the architectural project for these built utopias, tragic yet somehow familiar, even domestic, in comparison to the architectural carbuncles produced locally by the brutal expansion of the economy on a planetary scale.




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A graduate in architecture of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Franz Graf has worked as a freelance architect in Geneva since 1989. A lecturer in architecture and construction at the University of Geneva (1989-2006), he became a Full Professor of Technology at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio in 2005 and Associate Professor of Architectural Theory and Design at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 2007, as head of Laboratory of Techniques and Preservation of Modern Architecture. Since 2010 he has been President of Docomomo Switzerland and a member of the International Specialist Committee on Technology.


This is the last article in the August Special Edition series, "Preserving Modern beyond the US Border." CLICK HERE to return to the series Introduction.