Founding work of architectural Brutalism, a major experiment of a new way of housing based on the balance between individual and collective needs. Component of the serial property inscribed on the world heritage list, 2016
An address from Le Corbusier to M. Claudius Petit, Minister of Reconstruction and Town Planning, on the occasion of the handing over of the Unité d'Habitation ait Marseilles on 14th Oct. 1952 :
"Monsieur le Ministre,
It is my pride, my honour and my joy to hand over to you the “Unité d'Habitation”, the first manifestation of an environment suited to modern life.
The State was the client, and there were no restrictions. The first stone was laid on the 14th Oct. 1947 and inauguration was on the 14 Oct. 1952, but it was entirely fortuitous that both should have occured on the same day of the year. I thank the State for having made this enterprise possible. I thank all the Ministers of Reconstruction (to the number of 7), who have helped us. I thank M. Claudius Petit who was Minister during these years, and who has been so courageous and single-minded, for his unfailing sympathy. I thank also all my co-workers and contractors, such of whom at least who have helped and not hindered us. I thank also my closer associates, all here present, my veritable spiritual family-the devoted members of my team, Wogenscky, my Adjutant; Ducret, my Administrator; my secretaries, my designers, architects and engineers, without whose probity such a work would never have come to function. They have all had that confidence, that faith, and that zeal which alone overcomes obstacles.
There is the finished work : “the Unité d'Habitation” built without restrictions, and built contrary to certain of the normal disastrous restrictions. Made for men, it is made to the human scale.
It has also the robustness which is inherent in modern technique, and it shows the new splendour of bare concrete. It brings into the home sensational modern resources." The first stone was laid in the presence of the authorities, on 14th Oct. 1947, before a meagre public who clearly doubted the validity of the enterprise. An icy and ironic atmosphere. In the background a pile-borer was making holes down to find ground at the depth of 15 meters.
The order had been given by M. Raoul Dautry, first French Minister of Reconstruction.
The theme of the Unité d'Habitation first came to mind during my first visit to the Chartreuse of Ema in Tuscany in 1907. It appeared in my plans at the Salon d'Automne in 1922: a contemporary town for 3 million inhabitants: “les Immeubles Villas” and again at the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau in 1925. It did not cease to haunt me throughout all the projects on which I worked so indefatigably during the next 30 years (town plans for large and small towns, etc.). After the Liberation there was an urgent need, and it became possible to put these studies into practice. Two plans were made (two very fine plans), one for St-Dié, the other for La Rochelle-Pallice.
Here the Unités d'Habitation are the key of the conception. Town Planning changes precisely because of resources of the Unité d'Habitation.
Miraculously the plan for St-Dié pleased everyone. It is full of advantages for the inhabitants, full of deference to the landscape and is sustained by a powerful plastic beauty, a symphony of nature combined with geometry, music of forms. Without my knowledge, the plan of St-Dié aroused much enthusiasm in the U. S. A. and was hailed there as a sign of the regeneration of France after the war. It was exhibited in the U. S. A. and Canada in the form of big photographic enlargements. During this time, those responsible at the Ministry of Reconstruction and the Town Hall, the upper, middle, and lower classes, the trade unions and the communists, after a period of being contented turned round and Rejected the Plan for St-Dié with horror. 'Do you expect u to live in these barracks?'
The plan contained eight Unités d'Habitation busing the 20 000 people whose houses were systematically destroyed in three days during the occupation.
These Unités d'Habitation will simply replace the town; their precise nature is not yet decided, but each will have 2500 inhabitants who will receive those benefits which Marseilles-Michelet affords to its inhabitants to-day.The inhabitants of the Marseilles-Unité, left to themselves in the flats which were inaugurated on the 14 Oct. 1952 have not been slow to form an association to defend their interests. The objects of the association are :
a) the creation and development of bands of friendship between the inhabitants;
b) the organization of collective activities (social, cultural, artistic and recreational);
c) the defense, in all spheres, of the interests of its members, on all occasions when the interests in question were linked with the standard of living in the Unité;
d) the participation of the inhabitants of the Unité in the determination of the material and moral administration of the Unité and its dependencies in an atmosphere of mutual understanding with all people who may be directly or indirectly interested.
At La Rochelle it was the same story, but it developed silently and extended over a longer period. I am still the chief Town Planner of La Rochelle-Pallice (at least I have not been dismissed) but since 1947, five years, (have never been consulted, and I know that my plans have not been followed.The plan contained ten Unités. To the west lay the charming old town, to the east the Port of La Pallice and in the middle the vertical Unités d'Habitation. The only difficulty was that the Unité at Marseilles had not then been commissioned. You can understand that imagination is not a strong characteristic of Ministries, Town Halls, Municipal Councils, Trade-Unions or Unions of any sort. imagination is a gift of the gods, which brings to the few who possess it, unceasing kicks in the points all their lives.
The realization of the Unité at Marseilles has shown the splendour which is possible by the use of reinforced concrete as a natural material of the same rank as stone, wood or terra cotta. It seems to be really possible b consider concrete as a reconstructed stone, worthy of being exposed in its natural state. It has been said that the appearance of cement is dreary, that is to say that its color is dreary. This is just as false as to say that a color coin be dreary per se, when in fact colors have value only in relation to their surroundings.The Unité at Marseilles was constructed during five difficult years and was constantly upset by a variety of circumstances; co-ordination was lacking, and indifferent workmen, even within the trade, were maladjusted to one another. For example the concretors and the carpenters who made the shuttering, did their work under the impression that the defects (as is usual) would be made good with the trowel, plastered or painted over when the shuttering was struck. The defects shout at one from all parts of the structure !
Luckily we have no money !
But even with money the problem of setting the defects right would appear to be insoluble. Plaster or trowelled cement would only spoil the surface of the building without correcting the faults. Exposed concrete shows the least incidents of the shuttering, the joints of the planks, the fibres and knots of the wood, etc. But these are magnificent to look at, they are interesting to observe, to those who have a little imagination they add a certain richness.
How often visitors (particularly the Swiss, the Dutch and the Swedes) have said to me : “Your building is very beautiful, but how badly it has been executed”, but I replied'Have you never noticed in the cathedrals and the chateaux how the stones are roughly shaped, the faults being admitted or even cleverly exploited ? Perhaps you do not notice these things when you are looking at architecture ? But in men and women do you not see the wrinkles and the birthmarks, the crooked noses, the innumerable peculiarities ? Have you come expecting to meet the Venus de Medici in flesh and blood-the Apollon of the Belvedere ?”
Faults are human; they are ourselves, our daily lives. What matters is to go further, to live, to be intense, to aim high, and to be loyal!
A way of dealing with the worst blemish of the Unité at Marseilles, which is the handrail of the ramp which runs up to the children's rest room on the roof, has occurred to me. I have decided to make beauty by contrast. I will find its complement and establish a play between crudity and finesse, between the dull and the intense, between precision and accident. I will make people think and reflect, this is the reason for the violent, clamorous, triumphant polychromy of the façades of Marseille-thanks to considerable courage and to a new and magnificent product “matroil”.
I have succeeded in getting a small sum from the Ministry to pay a concretor, a Sardinian who understands his craft. Concrete is spoilt only by stupidity and not through its inherent faults. There is bad taste in workmanship and there are workmen with bad taste. In a similar case it took an indefatigable energy for me to ensure that the State would employ a concretor in whom I have confidence, who can take his orders directly from me and who can understand them. I designed certain parts of the building in a manner which required them to be modelled with the trowel-the workmen is then working like a sculptor, directly shaping the material. By the arrangement of color and the use of the trowel the contrasts were created and the splendour of boire concrete realized !
The site :
The “Unité d'Habitation” is situated in a large park, its main elevations facing East and West. The North elevation is completely closed due to the cold winds from that side. The building is 165 m long, 24 m deep and 56 m high.
The plan :
The building stands on pillars, leaving the space underneath for car and bicycle parking and pedestrian circulation, except for the entrance hall with janitor's box and elevators.
The plenum underneath the first floor contains the air-conditioning plant, elevator machineries and diesel generators. The building holds 337 apartments of 23 types, varying from bachelor apartments to such for families with 8 children.
The apartments, being distributed in pairs on three floors, need only 5 corridors, called interior roads, one on every third floor. They run in the longitudinal axis of the building,
Each apartment contains two floors connected with an interior stair case. The day room with a height of 4.80 m extends over 2 floors. A large window of 3.66 x 4.80 m allows a full view of the beautiful surrounding landscape. The kitchen equipment contains a four plate electric range with oven, a double sink with automatic garbage disposal, refrigerator and working table. The kitchen unit is air conditioned by the central system. The sound insulation consists of lead sheets put in between the separating walls of the apartments. Along the interior road on level 7 and 8 lies a shopping centre, containing a fish, butcher, milk, fruit and vegetable shop as well as a bakery, a liquor and drugstore. Furthermore there is a laundry and cleaning service, pharmacy, barbershop and a post office. Along the same corridor lies the hotel accommodation and a restaurant snackbar with special service to the apartments. The 17th and last floor contains a kindergarten and a nursery, from where a ramp leads to a roofgarden and a small swimming pool far children.
Besides the garden and the terrace, the roof contains a gymnasium, an open space for gymnastics, a 300 m sprinters' track and a solarium with a snackbar.
Extract from Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète, volume 7, 1957-1965