Architecture: Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation – liner, hotel, hostel or worse?

Image: Rob Jung, Applied Works

For Le Corbusier, the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles was nothing less than an ideal architectural and urban form into which all of his research and principles about modern life, housing, and urbanism were distilled. Le Corbusier’s aim was to provide a quality of life and housing that was hotel-like and where residents would effectively becoming guests in their own homes.

Designed as a self-contained, self-sufficient community, the Unité was influenced by three design precedents in particular: the monastery, with its seclusion, privacy and sharp distinction between the life of the individual and that of the collective[i]; the Phalanstère[ii], an ideal building-type dreamt up by the 19th century utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and the ocean liner[iii].

To achieve the desired level of self-containment in the Unité, Le Corbusier included every facility deemed necessary for daily life. As well as 337 apartments, the roof housed a kindergarten, nursery, paddling pool, gymnasium and running track. A shopping centre was arranged along elevated ‘interior streets’ on the seventh and eighth floors as was a restaurant, snack bar and hotel. As far as Le Corbusier was concerned, the notion of self-sufficiency was not only central to his concept for the building, it provided the key to successful communal life.

Image: Rene Burri, 1958

Le Corbusier had started to conceive of the communal housing unit as a hotel long before the design of the Unité. The entrance to his 1922 immeuble-villas concept was hotel-like spatially and in terms of its operations, ‘The usual cramped building entrance with their inevitable concierge’s room is replaced by a large hall. Doormen on day and night duty admit visitors and show them to the elevators.’[iv] Thirty years later Le Corbusier delivered on his earlier plan, creating a lobby-like entrance that retained the materials, finishes, features, and functions more associated with elite affluence than mass housing. These included an elaborate porte-cochere, large plate-glass entrance doors, stained-glass feature walls, feature lighting, highly polished travertine floors and a concierge’s desk. The elision of home and hotel was accentuated further by the location of the hotel reception and accommodation on the same floors as residential apartments. Guests and residents would also share entrances, elevators, cafés, restaurants and shops.

Image: Frenck Disko

One of the main spatial effects was the creation of a transitional space imbued with all of the liminal, anonymous qualities of the hotel lobby that now extended all the way from the building’s entrance to the threshold of each and every private apartment[v]. It also served to accentuate the distinction between public spaces and private residences, or ‘cells’ as Le Corbusier called them, in a linguistic hangover from his monastic precedent[vi].

Image: James Burns

At the Unité roofs became playgrounds and corridors became streets in the sky. Le Corbusier had created a building that challenged accepted distinctions between the public and private, individual and collective, resident and guest. As Carsten Krohn has discussed[vii], the Unité has always aroused strong architectural and critical passions and this may have something to do with its subsequent influence on a whole generation of architects, and those engaged in the design of social housing in particular. In the UK alone, the Unité had a direct influence on the LCC’s Alton West estate, Roehampton (1958), Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961) and Chamberlain, Powell & Bon’s Barbican Estate in London (completed 1982) [viii].

‘In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king and Roehampton is just that.’ Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, Penguin (1966). Image: Steve Cadman

Architectural historians and critics have been equally divided. Critics have tended to focus on Le Corbusier’s unapologetic utopianism and on the building’s operations. For Peter Serenyi the influence of hotel metaphor was far too strong:

‘It seems to me that, ideally at least, each apartment…is designed for a single human being, living completely alone, while sharing the advantages of a larger collective order. Each…must be understood as a bachelor’s quarter and the whole building as a…hostel.’[ix]

Image: (c) FLC/DACS, 2009

Amongst Unité’ admirers however, the building is seen as nothing less than evidence of Le Corbusier’s towering genius. WJR Curtis is particularly lyrical:

‘The textured oblong broods like an Antique viaduct above the trees, its bold mass and mighty legs evoking the great wall behind the Roman theatre at Orange. In the tawdry imitations skill, philosophy and poetry are absent. The Unité takes a patiently worked out urban theorem and renders it in the terminology of a Mediterranean dream.’[x]

A version of this essay appeared in Hotel Lobbies and Lounges: The Architecture of Professional Hospitality (Interior Architecture), Routledge, 2012

[i] See Le Corbusier’s October 10, 1929 lecture A Dwelling at Human Scale quoted in , Precisions: On the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) pp.87-88

[ii] See Peter Serenyi, ‘Le Corbusier, Fourier and the Monastery of Ema’, The Art Bulletin, Vol.49, No.4 (Dec., 1967) for a detailed discussion of their influence.

[iii] Le Corbusier had personal experience of the style of life and luxuries offered by the modern liner and his books and lectures repeatedly cited them as object lessons in the rational allocation of services and space. See Stanislaus von Moos’s discussion of the ‘nautical metaphor’ in Le Corbusier’s work in , Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis (Cambridge: MIT Press,1979)

[iv] Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture (Paris: Editions Artaud, 1977) p.208, quoted in Margaret Guiton The Ideas of Le Corbusier on Architecture and Urban Planning (New York: George Braziller, 1981), p.90

[v] For the criticism of this and Le Corbusier’s response see Alfred Roth’s comments and Le Corbusier’s response in Janson, A & Krohn, C, Le Corbusier: Unité d’habitation, Marseilles (Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges, 2007) p.9

[vi] Le Corbusier described the effect of entering each apartment: ‘You will then be alone, you will meet no one, you will be in peace, sunlight and space, and the green world outside will stream through your windows.’ Le Corbusier Œuvre complète: 1946-1952 Vol 5(Basel: Birkhäuser Publishers, 1960) p.95 quoted in Serenyi (1967) p.286

[vii] See Carsten Krohn, ‘A building that is a town. About the impact made by the Unité d’Habitation.’ Janson, A & Krohn, C, (2007) pp.7-18

[viii] For contemporary British responses see Murray & Osley (Eds.) Le Corbusier and Britain: An Anthology (London: Routledge, 2008)

[ix] Peter Serenyi (1967), p.286

[x] WJR Curtis, ‘The Modulor, Marseilles and the Mediterranean Myth’, p.174 in WJR Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986)

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