In 1940’s, Europe was still feeling the heavy burden than was cast on it as a result of World War II. The bombings in France destroyed several buildings rendering many people homeless and most residents of Marseilles were also dislocated. Consequently, there was an urgent need for an efficient housing system that would deal with the crisis which was at hand. This high demand necessitated the construction of a large scale public housing in order to deliver radical solutions. There was little land available for construction of residential houses for the numerous homeless residents. Therefore, there was a need of having a housing design that would optimize the available space to provide accommodation. In addition, most building materials in post-war Europe were quite expensive and because of the financial constraint, the French government was facing, there was a need of using relatively cheap building materials (Kroll 2010, p.1).
The French minister of Reconstruction called Le Corbusier, a French architect, in 1941 and asked him to design a building that would solve the housing problem of the French. The Minister in turn freed Corbusier from all building regulations that were in operation within the country. It took several years, from 1922, for Corbusier to develop a concept that later culminated into the building of Unite d’habitation in Marseilles (1947-1952). Unite d’habitation which translates into, ‘a new housing unit’, is an evidence of Le Corbusier’s utopian design for a self sufficient community. The architect thought of ideal life in terms of technology, community, time, nature and order. He viewed this design as an architectural and urban form that provided modern housing and urbanism distilled in a unit. The design of the building was majorly influenced by 3-design precedents; the monastery, seclusion, and privacy which took into consideration the sharp distinction between individual and communal life (Shimmin 2008, p.1).
Fascinated by ocean liners, the building he referred to as the perfect living machine. Le Corbusier’s utopian design makes Unite d’habitation resemble a steamship. The structure of Unite leaned on a five points design: pilotis, a flat roof terrace, ribbon windows, an open plan and free facade. The building’s large volume was to be supported on massive pilotis, 17 pairs of concrete stilts and in order to allow for circulation, there were gathering spaces right below the structure and garden space provisions. The building’s massive body would appear to be floating as it is supported by pillars above the garden. The pillars are as well painted green so as to match green colour of the garden. The structure had an open plan where rooms and promenades could be designed around the windows, thereby maximizing daylight reception. With long access corridors in the centre of the structure, socializing and living rooms could be placed away from noisy bars and restaurants. In the structure, thin exterior walls are enabled by the free facade, a design widely used in ships. Unite ribbon windows were designed to run along the hull. The horizontality of the building’s fenestration resembles the ship’s portholes and gallery windows. Finally, a flat rooftop and sculptural ventilation stacks resemble the top of a deck with smoke stacks (Shimmin 2008, p.1).
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In 1947, Le Corbusier was commissioned to have the multi-family housing, Unite d’habitation project constructed. The original Unite d’habitation in Marseilles was named “La Ville Radieuse” meaning Radiant City in order to distinguish it from buildings of the same name that were built across Europe (Moffett et al. 2003, p. 86). The construction of the building was originally planned to last for 12 months. However, it took a longer time than expected as the constructors were only able to accomplish the task in 1952, five years after it was commissioned. The delay was majorly caused by budget constraint.
Unite d’habitation in Marseille was the first of the new housing series designed by Le Corbusier across Europe to alleviate the problems that faced those who lost their homes during the WWII. The building’s architectural design was to influence the subsequent generation of architects and designers of social housing (Kroll 2010, p.1). In the UK alone, Le Corbusier’s design influenced directly the design of several estates, among them: LCC’s Alton West Estate, Powell and Bon’s Barbican Estate in London which were completed in 1982.
Unite D’habitation, Marseille structure, was designed to bring together up to 1600 people to live in a single slab, and the complex that is largely known as “vertical garden city”. Usually, structures meant to hold large numbers of people are designed horizontally in order to spread over the landscape. On the contrary, Le Corbusier designed a modernist, high rise communal housing. The design focused on housing many people in the least space possible while leaving room for green and open places. This would enable the residents to find accommodation and secure own private spaces as well. It included every facility that is considered to be necessary for daily life. Le Corbusier believed that Unite d’habitation would provide occupants with hotel-like life in which the residents would effectively become guests in their own homes. He believed that it was possible to create a perfect life by building a perfect house in which occupants would not have to move outside the building but have their entire lives confined within the small city. Le Corbusier claimed that his utopian design of living in the small city would curb the problems of the living masses within urban set up (Weston 2004, p.98).
The size of Unite d’habitation is quite enormous. The high rise communal housing is 56 metres high, 24 metres wide, and has a length of 140 metres. It is an 18 level reinforced concrete building that was designed to have 337 apartments to accommodate a large number of people. Within the building, the apartments crisscross each other in the vast network of reinforced concrete. Save for the entrance, the entire first floor is an open sheltered plaza and the living quarters set on huge concrete piers begin on the second floor. Most of the apartments are structured into double height units woven vertically around horizontally oriented streets that only occur on levels two, five, ten, thirteen, and sixteen. The streets are designed to give an impression of streets in a vertical city. The entrance of the building has an elaborate porte-cochere, stained-glass feature walls, large plate - glass doors, highly polished travertine floors as well as a concierge’s desk. The reception of the hotel and accommodation is located on the same floors, thus the elision of home and hotel. The design allows residents and guests to share entrances, elevators, shops, restaurants, as well as cafes (Weston 2004, p.98).
The building’s innovative design was organized to accommodate public and communal places in addition to the living spaces. Unite d’habitation provides an internal operation that offers more than 26 separate services. The services within the building provide a healthy balance of private and public spaces; community interaction and personal life; man and machine. The seventh and eighth floors, at half the building’s height, were designed to house a 24 unit hotel that has a restaurant, bar and a variety of shops as well. Such shops include; pharmacy, butcher, laundry, salon, barbers, bakery, real estate as well as commercial offices. The two floors are easily accessed from a double height gallery situated on the building to the west side. However, most communal aspects are placed on the roof rather than within the building (Moos 2009, p.163).
The roof of Unite d’habitation is one of the areas of great vitality in the set up. The architect designed it to create a place where all occupants, class notwithstanding, experienced the “joys of light, greenery and space”. The rooftop is flat and designed as a communal terrace that has a number of features including; sculptural ventilation stacks, covered and open gymnasium, and athletics track of 300 metres in length. Other features include a kindergarten with a swimming pool and a play area for children. The roof also has an open air mini-amphitheatre, a social space, a cinema, a nursery, as well as a solarium (Weston 2004, p.98). The terrace on the roof was to provide citizens with a place to eat, gather together, relax and even exercise. Out of the 1,600 people housed at Unite, 900 of them were children; Le Corbusier’s design to have a school within the building was skilful. The school with a playground was to serve children aged between two and seven. The school curriculum encompassed drawing and painting, climbing rocks, playing in the pool, and protecting the garden as well going to the gym (Kinchin, 2012, P.166). Since Unite roof is situated far away from the commotion of the city it is a cool and refreshing area. The residents, more frequently the children, are attracted to the pool to sunbathe giving them nearly an equivalent of a coastal beach. The Unite roof resembles a ship’s deck. Other than being a recreation area for the residents, the roof also serves as an architectural sightseeing for tourists (Hertzberger 2010, p.80). One can move to enjoy the eye-catching view of Marseille just between the sea and the hills. The building gives a clear view of the Mediterranean as its sparkling water dances along the actual beaches of the deeply indented coast of Marseille.
According to Corbusier, there is no city or community that lacks the services as well as functions that accompany normal housing. The cinema and the bar among other social amenities housed within Unite are to provide entertainment as well as quality life to the residents. The intention was planned to allow people interact and share lives. Essentially, Unite d’habitation which is, a “city within a city”, is spatially and functionally optimized for the dwellers. One of the notable spatial effects in the design was supposed to be the provision of transitional space imbued with luminal as well as anonymous qualities of the hotel lobby. This feature extends right from the building’s entrance to the entrances of all private apartments. The design serves to give a clear distinction between private residences and public spaces. In addition, to support facilities, Le Corbusier’s reasoned that the stability of a family lay in efficiently planned as well as serviced home to ensure the privacy. He designed the apartments in such a way that each unit was separated from the rest of the noisy neighbourhood. To achieve this, the double-storey apartments were designed to lock together in a cross-over manner which gives each unit a frontage and a balcony on either side of the building and giving a rise to one corridor (Kroll 2010, p.1).
The design of the apartments enabled Le Corbusier to optimize the usage of the space, an ideal that was a part of his utopian plan. He referred to this corridor as to an “interior street” and it was meant to serve three storeys. This minimized the waste of space so as to allow the accommodation for more people. The layout of each dwelling unit is valid and logical. The long, narrow bedrooms are combined with the bright double-height sittings at the same level and on the other side. The double height living rooms were designed to open into a kitchen. The kitchen is either to be situated under or on the mezzanine floor. This provides a flexible use of the family space. In each unit, parents have access to their own bathroom and children their own shower. The set up allowed light to reach the lowest positions and the plan was protected from overheating by concrete sun-screen (Weston 2004, p.98). This skilful architectural work makes Unite d’habitation valuable in the eyes of many people from all over the world.
Le Corbusier constructed Unite d’habitation at a relatively low cost by using reinforced beton-brut concrete which is a rough cast concrete. The material was less costly in Europe after World War II. Otherwise, the choice of material could be interpreted as a materialistic implementation that was actually aimed at depicting the condition of life in post-war Europe described as a rough warn and unforgiving life. Despite the fact that Unite d’habitation differs from most works of Le Corbusier in terms of its materialistic qualities, the building still has a sense of mechanistic influence in addition to his Five Points that were developed in 1920’s, Unite d’habitation in Marseille is considered to be an architectural masterpiece (Hetrzberger 2010, p. 80). The building achieved majority of what the architect intended to accomplish. Unite was successful in providing the dwelling units in real demand at the time it was built. The complex and high rise structure ensured a substantial amount of space remaining in the surrounding area as park land that gave the essence of a Garden City.
Although Unite d’habitation was largely successful in the implementation of Le Corbusier’s vision, the architectural design recorded a number of failures. The construction faced the constraints of budget, site, available material, and ‘actual’ user among other factors. Such kind of constraints watered down the initial ideals even if they were carefully considered, hypothesized, and thoroughly tested. The garden in the unit, an ideal of the Garden City is an example of a feature missing from the actual building, the Unite. An ideal urban garden is easy to keep up and allows the sun to get everywhere just as the air can do. Such garden is paved with red tiles and its walls covered with clematis and ivy. The garden has laurels as well as other shrubs growing healthily in large cement pots and the place is gay with flowers. The garden should also have a table that is sheltered from the rain and provides a cool environment where the family can gather and eat. Finally, there should be a provision of an open place where an individual can rest or converse (Karrick 2008, p.1).
On the contrary, within Unite, these ideals are not in place except the red tiles that pave the terrace. The design has little room that cannot allow a rest in the open. The streets of Unite d’habitation are just hallways. In fact, visitors described them as gloomy, dark, and occasionally scary. The building’s internal streets are windowless corridors, described by the occupants as oppressive. In addition, they are wide and essentially lack typical features of a street. The lack of natural light within the building’s corridors describes the project as a failed or weak architectural design. The residents complain that by no means can they avoid being funnelled through while they walked between their apartments and the ground floor. In addition, Le Corbusier had an idea of a roof garden that he described as “essential joys”. The design that rooted for sun, space, and vegetation seemed not to be unveiled. As opposed to the original design, the rooftop terrace of Unite d’ habitation has communal spaces which appear more or less like a barren concrete rooftop (Weston 2004, p.98). The plan to reclaim the lost land beneath Unite in order to avail more space for recreation seems to have been lost during the translation of the paper work into the actual building (Karrick 2008, p.1).
The preliminary proposals provided for more buildings had the public space designed to be located at the ground level. According to the initial plan, shops, pools, restaurants, clubs as well as community space should be accessible to the public without necessity to get into the building. Conversely, the final structures with the amenities are inaccessible to the public at large as the spaces became integrated into the building. In order to access them, one has to go through the building and ascend to the seventh and eighth floor where the premises are housed. As a result of this complexity, business premises suffer as potential customers from outside the building have found it too difficult to ascend to the higher floors within the premise where the business premises are. Unfortunately, the total number of inhabitants of Unite was in adequate to sustain the enterprises that were within the building (Moos 2009, p.167). This is evidence that has proved the failure of Le Corbusier’s design. Consequently, the stores had to close one after another, thereby leaving behind an empty hallway of semi public area that was rather considered to be no man’s property. This waste of space contradicted the purpose for which the building had been designed (Karrick 2008, p.1).
Marseilles Unite d’habitation has been in existence for about 60 years. The building has continually kindled the interest of many and is currently ranked as one of the world’s greatest architectural works. Perhaps, this proves Le Corbusier’s strong assertion that housing is in actual sense an essential ingredient of architecture. The construction of the building came handy in 1940’s when most people in France were rendered homeless following bombings that destroyed Europe during World War II. Le Corbusier was commissioned to construct the building that resembled a steamship both in design and functionality. In order to manage collective gatherings in urban areas, the building was designed to provide social amenities. The building housed places where the residents could socialize, worship, exercise, relax and even to trade both within and on the roof terrace. Le Corbusier managed to translate most of the ideals of his utopian design into the actual building. He achieved most of his dreams for providing housing problems in the post-war Europe. Consequently, he has been regarded as the most admired, most influential as well as most maligned architect of the 20th century.
In architectural works, it is usually hard to obtain an actual structure that is absolutely an unadulterated utopian design. Despite Le Corbusier’s achievement of his vision for housing, several originally planned ideals were lost during the translation of the paper work into the actual premise. Such failures are visible in several features of Unite such as the dark corridors, deserted semi-public places, enterprises that are inaccessible to the public. Otherwise, Le Corbusier’s design for Unite d’habitation convincingly provided a solution to post-war Europe and has continued to be the main player in modern history.
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