Berlin Unité section and plans

The Things Architects Do #1: Compromise

As an architecture student, I remember reading or being told about the planning of the apartments in Corbusier’s 1945 Unité d’Habitations in Marseilles and how they had windows on both sides ensuring a healthy cross-ventilation. I forgot about this for years and never really thought about it much more.

Having all the main windows facing east or west meant that half of the apartments had living rooms facing the ocean view and other half had the kids’ bedrooms facing the ocean view. There is no way around this. The only other way you can have double-sided apartments is to have one core for every two apartments – which is wasteful. Here’s an example of Niemeyer’s. It’s less wasteful if elevators aren’t involved.

Anyway, in Marseilles, the long sides of the building face east and west so, in hot weather, there was probably a land breeze in the mornings and a sea-breeze in the afternoon. GoogleEarth “Unité d’Habitations Marseilles” 43°15’25.07″N 5°23’56.49″E. There’s also a 3D model you can look around, get a feel for the site, etc.

Here’s a very nicely drawn and coloured cross-section. It tells us what we already knew about the apartments interlocking around the access corridors to ensure said cross-ventilation – for the bedrooms at least. The kitchens and the guest toilet need ventilation the most and are located precisely where the airflow is worst.

Now let’s have a look at these famous interlocking apartment plans of the grand Corbster. The plans and photographs of apartments that you might have seen, are of the apartments shaded darker in the plans and section below. With these, you enter into the kitchen/dining living room that has a double-height space overlooked by the main bedroom. This is a good arrangement and is often repeated in single-aspect one-bedroom apartments.

However, look at the apartment that’s shaded lighter. You enter into the kitchen dining area which overlooks the double height space which is the bedroom and living area. This is rather rubbish. Especially for an apartment that appears to have two children’s bedrooms. Corbusier’s desire to have the double-height space has compromised how people live in half of the apartments. It seems strange that Corbusier’s invention of this arrangement is always praised when at least half the apartments it produces are clearly crap. Perhaps this is why it is the “living rooms” of these apartments that have the sea view. I know that architects occasionally do things like this but I can’t be the first person to have noticed. Surely? Moving on.

The south facade is the one on the right. Here, the famous “brise-soleil” shading elements are facing the only direction where they will have any great benefit. The evening sun will pass straight through them on the west side, as will whatever low-angle morning sun the east side receives.  Now, these apartments on the south side don’t have have windows on any other side, obviously. They are, as we say, single aspect. The side walls of the end apartments could have windows, but they don’t. That wall, as well as the one on the other side, are left blank for compositional reasons. Architects do things like this.

Let’s look at the floor plan. Now, we know that south is to the right. The west facade faces down. This is the side with the ocean view. We would know this anyway because the stairwells and elevators are on the other side.

The main corridor branches to become a T-shaped corridor accessing these south-facing apartments. At the south end of this branch corridor, it looks like there might be a garbage chute, which might explain the corridor not having a window on its end wall. This corridor also has no window at its eastern end.

And neither, for that matter does the main corridor have a window at its northern end where it could quite easily have one. Instead, this north facade is blank apart from the fire escape exit and stair from the “supermarket”.

There is much about this building that we don’t know. We can see that there are elevators and a stairwell in the middle of the building. This stairwell is as large as the main rooms of the apartments. As you would expect, there are two more stairwells at opposite ends of the building. It is safe to assume that the stairwell numbered 3 in the floor plan above goes vertically up and down through the building. As do the other two, and the elevators of course.

Question: What is on the other side of the corridor from these stairwells and the elevator lobby? It can’t be the typical one-and-a-half level apartment as there won’t be a full width storey above or below the entry level.  We don’t know. These apartments could be triple-level, single aspect apartments. Or possibly double-level, one-bedroom apartments, and the remaining half floor that can be accessed, used to enlarge an adjacent apartment.

A similar problem exists for the south facing apartments. These are most likely to be two-storey single bedroom apartments described above but, if so, there is the problem of not being able to access the third level in the same way. Perhaps on these levels, the stairwell links to the branch corridor directly from the side whenever required, rather than from the main corridor.

Corbusier’s peers must have been pointed out these basic flaws in this design because they were all corrected in later versions of the same building. Here is a link to a blog that shows these flaws corrected one by one in successive iterations. The 1952 Unité d’Habitation Nantes-Rezé has small windows lighting the branch corridors and so does the 1956 Briey-en-Foret Unité but the windows revert back to these apologetic trios for the 1957 Berlin Unite, and then back to proper windows for the 1960 Firminy Unité.

With the 1957 Unité d’Habitation in Berlin. Here, the top six levels are the “classic” interlocking Unité plans (in blue). The next two levels down have two-storey, one-bedroom apartments (the same as the ones further down, in red). The next three levels down have single-aspect studio apartments (in green), and below this are six more levels of two-storey, one-bedroom apartments (red).

Further variation is still possible within the building because it is still possible to enter the one bedroom apartments and go upstairs to the bedroom or downstairs to the bedroom but this has no practical value other than creating patterns on the facade. However, the long corridor is still without a window and so the end wall remains “beautifully” “uninterrupted”.

In the 1960 Unité d’Habitation Firminy we can see “proper” windows on every other floor, suggesting that all of the end apartments other than the uppermost ones, are two level one-bedroom apartments.

However, these windows are not always on every third floor, as you would expect, but mostly on every other floor which suggests an internal configuration not unlike the 1957 Unité d’Habitation in Berlin. For the first time, there are windows at the end of the long corridor at last. All this fuss about a few windows may seem excessive, but for an architect who sang of the beauties of space and light, it can’t be dismissed as an oversight. Le Corbusier’s main selling point was composition and form. Pleasantness to live in was secondary.

SUMMARY:

Despite windows having light- and air-giving properties in private space, Le Corbusier ignored the benefits they could bring to the communal space of corridors – any communal joy was to be had on the roof

In all of the unités, there are some apartments end-on to the main building. This has been done for the compositional reason of having blank walls at the end of the long sides, even though the apartments immediately behind those walls could have benefited from even more light and air.

Although the same is true for the apartments behind the blank wall at the other end of the building, the only compromise that was finally permitted was windows to the corridors.

Both ends of the building would have been the obvious place for fire escape stairs. The decision to not have them there (for the above reasons) meant that internal planning had to be seriously compromised and the number of apartments reduced to allow space for these stairs. Given that the purpose of the Unités d’Habitations was ostensibly social housing, this was not a socially responsible decision.

Graham McKay

5 thoughts on “The Things Architects Do #1: Compromise

  1. Philipp Eichhoff

    Thank you for your answer! It’s nice to see my critisicm appreciated for what it was meant to be. Many thanks also for pointing out the Rotterdam building and the one in London, I didn’t know about them. There are two things that I most want to say in response to your post.
    When it comes to Le Corbusier, I’m not sure it’s too accurate to speak of universal acclaim. I think his work was misrepresented in both ways. Some see him as the great artist architect who was the precursor of today’s starchitects, others see him as the terrible inventor of machines for living who was the sole cause for all those oh so dreadful tower blocks of the 50s to 70s. What rarely happens, and here I very much agree with you, is seeing him for what he really was, just another architect with an honest desire to contribute to the progress of mankind and varying success in his actual contributions. As I indicated in my last comment, I think it would be a very wise thing to just forget about architects’ names and look at every individual buildings for what it really is, always taking into account, of course, the time and place they were built in. Nowhere in today’s theory of architecture do I see anything of the kind. It’s always just hero worship or the opposite thereof. Your blog sometimes seems to me to be an example of the latter but given what you’re up against, I believe that’s rather a good thing. I do agree, we’re in a much more dire situation today than Teige and Corbusier were in the early Thirties.
    The second thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since finding your blog is how very little connected the world really is. We really don’t know a lot about each other. When it comes to architecture, we’re left with what at some point was decided by someone who wrote some influential book to be a canon. About the few buildings in those books, you can find an endless amount of information on the internet and anywhere. But anything apart from that, you’ll have a very hard time to find anything at allabout. I can’t even count the times I’ve walked the streets of some city and seen a building that just struck me as special and beautiful and then, back home, being depressed by just not finding anything about it on the internet. There are other aspects to that, too. Even if there is information out there, it might be in languages you can’t read, so it’s worthless to you. Believe me, if you could read Czech, you would love Teige even more than you do now. Or if you could read German, you might be interested in some of the things I’m planning to publish on my blog, once I’ll get around to that, or elsewhere. It seems to have been somewhat different in the thirties. Or could you imagine a Czech critic and a French architect having an argument about what architecture should be nowadays? Well, or any kind of argument about architecture, for that matter. But the main problem is that the people who write histories of architecture just don’t seem to care about actual buildings at all. They just copy what someone before them has said, never going beyond it, never, well, never looking at the world around them. I remember when at few years ago there was a book about Soviet architecture by some French guy. A year later, all of a sudden, a Phaidon picture book on architecture, one of the kind that had never taken into account the very existence of architecture east of Western Germany and west of Japan, had some pictures from this book in it. That’s, of course, just another kind of limitation, just another way of keeping people from seeing actual buildings. A good book on architecture, I think, shouldn’t have any examples of buildings in it but just teach people to pay attention to the built environment around them.
    Those are just some thoughts for tonight. Keep up the good work with your blog, believe me, I appreciate its existence, even if I might not always agree with everything.

    Reply
  2. Philipp Eichhoff

    I’ve been reading a lot of your blog this evening and finally feel I have to comment on something. I found it when searching for some more specific information on the argument between Karel Teige and Le Corbusier around 1930 (there isn’t any), as I’ve been reading a lot of texts by the former. So needless to say I agree with quite a lot of the things you critizise about architecture, especially contemporay architecture. But when it comes to something like this post, well, I can’t help but say you’re being unfair. That’s not to say you’re wrong, mind you. But don’t you think you’ve also got to look at a building in the context of it’s own time? It might be as hard for you to realize as it is for me but: there just wasn’t anything like the Unité d’Habitation in the late 40s. Never before had anyone built a social housing building (or any kind of housing building) on that scale, please correct me if I’m wrong. The only thing that comes to my mind is this great collective building in what was then Czechoslovakia: http://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolektivn%C3%AD_d%C5%AFm_v_Litv%C3%ADnov%C4%9B . But while begun in 1947 it was finished only in 1958 and it could probably be said that it was influenced by the Unité d’Habitation. So, why not be fair to Le Corbusier? Or, at least, if like me you happen to believe that architecture has more to do with its time than its creator, to his buildings. However flawed they might be (and of course the Unité d’Habitation was, how could it not have been?), they were important for being such a radical departure from what had come before in architecture. In your post on Teige, you show some pictures of what 19th century cities were like. Don’t you think that even the most flawed try to change it for the better is somehow a good thing? Don’t you thing having a social space on the roof is better than having one in a miserable lightless yard? Sure, it’s easy to look back now and say what was wrong. Teige’s criticism, while not shying away from strong words, was always based on a basic appreciation of just how new and important Le Corbusier’s contributions to architecture and, which I think is more important, urbanism were. That’s something I fail to find in some of your posts. Again, of course Le Corbusier made mistakes and many of the things he believed were just plain wrong but that does in no way diminish his importance. In one very nice post, you pointed out that others than him improved on the work he begun with the Unité d’Habitation. And isn’t that great? Isn’t that what it’s all about? Someone begun something, someone carried it on and arguably, it didn’t get carried on far enough. You praise repetition in architecture, so why not also leave behind the belief in important names and just look at the buildings and the built environment instead? Not everything Le Corbusier did was great just because he was Le Corbusier but neither was everything he did bad just because he was Le Corbusier. It’s just a name, just a person. Don’t let your view of architecture be obscured by that.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Dear Philipp,

      Thanks very much for your constructive criticism. I hope it’ll make mine more constructive. Since you asked about pre-Unité collective housing, the only example I can think of was the Rotterdam Bergpolder flats of 1934. This had 72 units with gallery access.

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      It’s still being used.

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      Buildings such as these were a very useful prototype. Le Corbsuier himself designed something similar in 1934. Immeuble Dubois et Lepeu

      apartments 1

      I think my problem is not so much with Le Corbusier but with the generally uncritical appraisal of his work. I think I’d be more accepting of his contributions if there was more discussion of the failings of some of his projects – the interlocking apartment thing at Ud’H, for example. It solved one problem but created others.

      I see the Roehampton estate buildings as as much of a development of the Rotterdam Bergpolder flats as Unité d’Habitations. There’s bits of both. I think the Le Corbusier’s main contribution via Ud’H was to bring slab blocks back into the post-war architectural domain as architecture, leaving it for other architects to return them to the public domain as housing that was less ‘architectural’ but perhaps (and perhaps because of that) less flawed.

      The things that disturb me most are where Le Corbusier made decisions for compositional reasons rather than any concern for the amenity or even the pleasure of the occupants of Ud’H. Why deny those south facing apartments a view of the sea in order to create Golden Rectangles on the west façade?

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      When it was a choice between giving the corridors a single window or leaving the north elevation blank, he chose the latter. It’s things like this I’d like to see more acknowledgment of, a recognition of the price one pays for ‘architecture’. The roof ‘garden’ at Ud’H I do like. It makes far more sense than at Villa Savoye which has some quite nice garden anyway. But speaking of garden, here’s a building you might enjoy. It’s the Corringham apartments – by Kenneth Frampton, apparently.

      They’re a curious and complex arrangement of central corridors and split levels but they definitely improve upon the simple gallery access slab block because access is closed and (because of that) all habitable rooms are on the outside. It’s also an improvement on U’dH in that all living rooms are the same size and on the sunny side of the building. The section seems contrived to give everybody glimpses of the tiny garden and was probably too complex for the building to ever have been a useful prototype.

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      But I take your point about Teige and on what his criticism was based and I’m sure you’re right in failing to find a similar balance in a lot of mine. My only excuse is that I think our current situation is more dire. Today’s ‘innovators’ aren’t even engaged in projects with any degree of social utility. There’s no hope of them ever creating even flawed prototypes. I know what Teige would have to say about that.

      Thanks again Philipp and please don’t hesitate to jump on me if you think I’m out of order.

      Cheers
      Graham McKay

      Reply

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