Monday, July 2, 2012

Le Corbusier - Unité d'Habitation

Bréton brut had as a style been established for a short while prior to this buildings inception, but it was its somewhat trend setting architect that gave widespread acceptability and validity to the movement. It captured the imagination of architects reacting against the recoil of New Humanism and restricted by the economics of the time.

The Unité d'Habitation built in Marseille, France in 1952 is absolutely of its time. Every tower block in the immediate vacinity appears to pay homage to the Unité, They are unashamed of their debt, aesthetic or otherwise, and yet even with benefit hindsight do not appear to be 'better buildings', mere pale imitations.

Steel being consumed in the war effort and the lack of skilled labour in France lead to the choice of concrete, with a more honest and rough finish. Banham says it is ever the more successful due to Corbusiers abandonment of the “pre-war fiction that reinforced concrete was a precise, ‘machine-age’ material”. This notion which had been maintained by extravagant and un-necessary means, such as “lavishing on it skilled labour and specialised equipment beyond anything the economics of the building industry normally permitted”. That is equipment that would give rise to the exacting edges and if these were not achieved then the “roughness and inaccuracies” were plastered over to give a more crisp image, hardly accepting the ‘realities of the situation’. The situation was firmly one of a “messy soup” with “dust, grits and slumpy aggregates, mixed and poured under conditions subject to the vagaries of weather and human fallibility”, hardly an image of high-technology.

The war had also changed Corbusiers perspective of technology’s place in architecture, compare for example the machine for living in, the Ville Savoye (Paris, 1929), compared with schemes such as (although later than the Unité) Notre Dame du Haut built at Ronchamp in 1954. The Unité had been described as “the first modern building that has room for cockroaches”, retort to Le Corbusier stating in a letter to Madame Savoye that “‘Home life today is being paralysed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture” and that “This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment”. Banham in his book ‘The New Brutalism’ notes the Unité’s “originalities in sectional organisation”, with its rue Intérieure, apartments with double height spaces all of which in section span the entire width of the block. He also suggests “few buildings anywhere in the world had such a hold on the imagination of young architects especially in England”. Corbusier described his rough concrete style as béton brut, words which (rightly or wrongly) would come to be misinterpreted as representing the New Brutalist style as well as that of béton brut. The solidity of the Unité is furthered from mere concrete security by the setting back of “user-scale elements such as windows and doors” into the concrete frame of the building, giving a sense of a secondary boundary further to the superstructure of the building. As Banham describes it, a building where “word and building stand together in the psychological history of post-war architecture” . He attributes further its success to the “hard glare of the Mediterranean sun” . Something which does not quite translate so well in the greyer skies of Britain, something of the disappointment of driving a new car out of a showroom and home, notwithstanding your home being an equally apt setting.

by James Woodward

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