Tag Archives: Le Corbusier Plan Obus

Modest Megastructures

Le Corbusier’s 1922 Freehold Maisonettes were stacked and repeated within a column and slab structure. In 1923 the same apartment layout was marketed as a suburban house in Almanach d’Architecture Moderne. In 1925 it reappeared as the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. 

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Le Corbusier’s 1933 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers had a highway along the roof, suggesting a double-loaded corridor with deep plan, single-aspect apartments on both sides.

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Limited daylighting and cross ventilation are just two problems of such a configuration but one virtue that’s never mentioned is the amount of variation in the facade treatments of individual dwellings [and thanks Julius for making me look at it again]. Plan Obus is a megastructure that in principle allows an owner-occupant the same amount of architectural freedom as a detached house along a street would.

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Le Corbusier’s depiction of French and Algerians living side by side

Le Corbusier never developed Plan Obus into anything else or used this idea elsewhere. He was to later partially solve the problem of sun penetration and cross ventilation with the double-aspect apartments of the Unités d’Habitation, beginning with the 1949 one in Marseilles that wasn’t a megastructure despite having some serious concrete and a few shops that hinted at self-containment but were never going concerns.

This famous illustration of obscure provenance has forever associated the Unité d’Habitations with the idea of living units lifted into a structure despite this having no basis in fact.

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The idea of a habitable megastructure was kept alive by buildings such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s Block A of the Pedregulho Neighborhood Redevelopment in Rio de Janeiro circa 1960.

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The building’s external configuration has similarities with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus and an internal configuration similar to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1930 Narkomfin. Reidy’s Block A isn’t a megastructure as things are held up rather than structured. It’s the same with Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1974 Pasadena Heights in Mishima, Japan.

Like the Reidy building, Pasadena Heights also offers no scope for occupants to change, exchange, extend or otherwise alter their living space in accordance with their needs or their desires. How the building is going to be and how it’s going to be lived in have already been 100% designedPasadena Heights was an attempt to bring megastructures down to earth, to make them liveable rather than visionary, to make them useful.

Kikutake deserves credit for this for, in the 1960’s, he’d been one of The Metabolists who, along with Archigram, took the idea of living units attached to a megastructure and ran with it. Living units were called pods or capsules because it suggested plastic and everything modern and in the future was plastic. The thinking went that pods could be upgraded or replaced much like apartments, cars, sofas and mobile phones have come to be today.

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City In The Air, Arata Isoaki, 1961

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Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968

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Archigram, Plug-In City, 1960–1974

Kurokawa’s 1973 Nakagin Capsule Tower is said to be the only built example of such a mega-megastructure and it’s this image we’re encouraged to remember as it articulates the notion, popular in both the UK and Japan at the time, that design for change was A Good Thing. By not being clear about what kind of change or why, these magastructure proposals opened the door for today’s commodification of housing and nowhere is this more true than in the UK and Japan. In contrast, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti megastructures dating from the same period were all crust and no filling. They had no lasting impact. They are ‘not taught’. Remembering change is encouraged, remembering permanence is not.

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Images of Arcosanti have long disappeared from history books whereas Plug-In City, Ocean City and City In The Sky continue to be presented as essential knowledge in architecture schools. At the time though, some people did wonder what kind of government would administer such megastructures but Superstudio were in no doubt. Their 1971 Megaton City imagined a homogenized society where even dissenting thought was crushed (quite literally). Their Megaton City was social commentary.

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Bjarke Ingels’ megastructures however are a comment on our society in that they regard human beings as infill. Portentiously, the megastructure no longer even exists for the sake of the people that support it. The history of contemporary architecture may as well be called the neoliberalist’s history of architecture for if it doesn’t further its agenda, it gets unremembered pretty quickly.

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This is how the flow of the history of things thought to be important has gone. Le Corbusier continues to be vilified for the uniformity represented by his 1922 Ville Contemporaine proposal for Paris but to my knowledge has never been credited with the possibilities for diversity represented by his 1942 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers.

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Never one to refrain from blowing his own trumpet, he can’t have wanted it to be remembered. This may be because the “diversity” of French Algiers wasn’t one the Algerians actually cared for or wanted. Alternatively, it could be because architects responding to people’s subjective needs to express themselves or their cultures was still an idea ahead of its time. In the end, Algerians did express themselves and it was called the The Algerian War of Independence. Until November 1942 when Algeria was to cease being under Vichy control, it would have been on-message for Le Corbusier to represent diversity and people of different cultures living side by side. It’s an early case of an architect wanting to be responsible only for the form of the built environment and not its content.

Given Le Corbusier’s propensity to repackage and re-present aspects of earlier work, we would surely have seen Plan Obus again if he’d thought or wanted to take it any further.

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Going by what he did do later, it’s likely he let it die because it was a consequence of those specific (political) circumstances and he saw in it no possibility for application elsewhere. It’s also likely he simply didn’t believe in it architecturally. Nevertheless, we can look at this sketch today and see a useful idea in the content of the proposal if not its form.

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The story that Post Modernism began with the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe has been repeated so often it’s futile saying it didn’t. [It didn’t.] What really began was Charles Jencks’ career of saying it did and that Modernism hadn’t paid sufficient attention to people’s subjective needs. Post Modern architects assumed everyone’s subjective needs were for more ornament and decoration on buildings that ‘spoke’ of what they did and where they were or of some place in the history of something. Nobody cared if this was a correct assumption or not. What was important was that buildings were suddenly able to speak, and not only speak but speaking with ambiguity and irony, and telling jokes too.

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Arata Isozaki, Team Disney Building, Orlando, Florida, 1990 / Photo by Xinai Liang, tweeted by Adam Nathaniel Furman

When SITE proposed Highrise of Homes in 1981 it was understood as a joke but it’s really Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus on less land with no view of the Med, and serviced by roads on the ground.

The visual expression of the building is the sum of how its individual owners choose to live. The diversity and, by the same token, the uniformity of a suburban street have been replicated in an urban high rise. The surrealness of its appearance results from it looking different from the surrounding buildings, from it being outside our experience and from it not being we expect the appearance of a building to be.

Highrise of Houses should not have seemed so novel and so weird when Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus had represented much the same thing fifty years earlier. My issue isn’t with authorship but about the need to continually revisit history and scan it for ideas that, taken out of context, have relevance for us now for the idea of a modest megastructure allowing individual dwellings and individuality is a recurrent one and a useful one.

The Next21 Building in Osaka was built in 1994 as a project conceived by Osaka Gas Corporation. It uses the Open Building principles as articulated by Dutch architect John Habraken.

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“The NEXT21 Construction Committee developed the basic plan and design. Its objectives were:

• using resources more effectively through systemized construction
• creating a variety of residential units to accommodate varying households
• introducing substantial natural greenery throughout a high-rise structure
• creating a wildlife habitat within urban multi-family housing
• treating everyday waste and drainage onsite within the building
• minimizing the building’s compound burden on the environment
• using energy efficiently by means including fuel cells
• making a more comfortable life possible without increasing energy consumption” [ref.]

“Units were designed by 13 different architects. Each unit’s interior and exterior layout was freely designed within a system of coordinating rules for positioning various elements.”[ref.] 

The project seems like a sincere attempt to simulate real diversity in a prototype building even though there’s a conceptual flaw in using thirteen “different” architects to simulate actual conditions of user choice for, as noted in Open Building case studies such as this, apartment layouts aren’t necessarily rational when real occupants are allowed to design them according to what they perceive to be their needs.

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These are the plans that were submitted for approval.

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The upper plan is the plan given to the contractor, and the lower is what was built according to the occupants’ wishes.

Having an apartment entrance fixed at the corner was never going to produce great plans but the most rational are those most similar to the approval plans. On the other hand, we can’t say the ‘irrational’ plans are wrong for we generally accept that how people choose to live is their business.

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Thanks to Tiago for tweeting this.

We encourage Open Buildings and other forms of diversity for the internal arrangements of a building and appreciate a controlled degree of diversity along suburban streets but we still expect the outsides of buildings to show the unifying hand of the architect. Even the Next21 building in Osaka had a uniformity of colour, cladding and window frames. Our architectural culture is loathe to relinquish control over the outsides of buildings. Post Modernism left us preferring fake diversity to organic similarity. Design for real diversity was never on the cards. 

Architecture is better at subjective solutions to subjective needs than it is at real solutions to real ones. However, if subjective needs remain valid even if false, then supposedly the architecture that satisfies them can be so too. The problem is when the satisfaction of subjective needs not only replaces but excludes the satisfaction of real ones as a subject of architecture. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty calories. Another huge problem is that subjective needs don’t need to be satisfied in any real way – it’s sufficient to represent them being satisfied. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty promises.

Herzog de Meuron’s 2010 Beirut Terraces gives us the representation of difference rather than any meaningful reality of it. Its contrived randomness is the sellable appearance of diversity rather than a real diversity or the visual consequence of one.

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Architecture has two problems with real diversity. One is that it’s visually messy. That’s bad but it’s not as bad as the other which is that real diversity can’t be generated by architects. Architects can only represent it or, more accurately, the absence of it. By way of proof, the representation of apparent diversity within a revealed structure of columns and slabs is a modern meme. Contriving the appearance of natural processes at work is a skill valued in proportion to how convincing the approximation is. You’ll remember these two buildings from the previous post.

Slabs on load bearing columns are one of mankind’s better inventions and rather than just representing diversity, can actually allow for a real one – if given the chance. Aravena repackaged the problem rather well by designing a modest megastructure in which people could satisfy their real and subjective needs through some weekend DIY and at the same time satisfy our need to believe in an architecture that does that. It worked for them. It worked for him.

But what about us?  If people everywhere started to expect less of architects and to self-build then architecture as we know it will no longer exist. After having come to the same conclusion around Feb. 23 this year, Aravena backpedalled in Western media.

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The cat was out of the bag though for, as seen at the 15th Venice Biennale, “The urban developments designed by German architects BEL (Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser) are based upon the concept of incremental urbanization. 

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“Compared to past cases, such as those developed in the 1960s in Latin America, the approach by BEL envisages the creation of multistory structures, composed of a simple array of columns and slabs, which can be “completed” and adapted to different functional and cultural schemes, thus fulfilling the specific characteristics and requirements of their inhabitants.” [ref.]

It’s the same combination of self-build within a modest megastructure. It’s using columns and slabs as land multiplied, and letting its purchasers do what they like with it although presumably with restrictions on cantilevering and projections. What’s innovative for us is that it does so without concern for how the end result looks. It has to be this way. The choice is to either suppress diversity by its representation, or to allow diversity and accept the visual consequences of letting it happen. Eighty three years on, we’re almost back to where we could have been.

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This post evolved from a 28 Nov 2016 Twitter exchange between Julius JääskeläinenTiago Baptista and myself.
Further reading 1: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/66/60768/the-dispersal-of-architecture/
Further reading 2: http://bidoun.org/articles/le-corbusier-s-algerian-fantasy
Featured image: BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Allotment House, Hamburg, Germany, 2013, Base and Settlers©BeL, as found at https://www.inexhibit.com/case-studies/15th-venice-biennale-aravenas-core-exhibition-part-2-arsenale/