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.
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.