21 August 2015
Le Corbusier in Bordeaux
Le Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 in Switzerland where he trained to be an architect. In his twenties he travelled in Europe visiting Vienna and working in Paris for Auguste Perret, the pioneer of reinforced concrete, and for the industrial designer Peter Behrens in Berlin. He returned to Switzerland for most of the 1914-18 period to teach and develop theories about modern architecture for domestic dwellings. After moving to Paris in 1917 his first commission in France was the design of a water tower (below top left) at Podensac, about 30km south west of Bordeaux. Jeanneret-Gris started to use the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920, going into architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, in 1922. In 1923 Le Corbusier’s influential book, Vers une architecture (below top right), was published and he designed the Villa La Roche at Auteuil (below lower), probably the first building to demonstrate his thinking about the nature of modern housing.
Impressed by the book and by Le Corbusier’s vision of low-cost housing as a means of heading off social revolution, Henri Frugès, a cultured and innovative Gironde industrialist, commissioned his practice to design a small workers’ community around a sawmill at Lège-Cap-Ferret and then a much larger garden suburb of 135 houses at Pessac. This was never completed but Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès, consisting of 51 units of seven types were constructed between 1924 and 1926 and can still be seen (less one, also the only one of its type, destroyed in 1942) in what is now called Le Cité Frugès Le Corbusier.
After a period of decline, the town of Pessac turned one of the houses into a museum (Maison Municipale, open most days) (above) in 1987 and many of the houses have been handsomely restored (below) in the original polychrome (burnt sienna, pale English green and clear oversea blue) used by Le Corbusier on exteriors only at Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès.
However, there are still some remarkable opportunities for restoration (below left and centre), and not all the inhabitants seem to have fully absorbed the modernist spirit (below right):
The “Five Points of a New Architecture” which would feature in Le Corbusier’s later work, particularly the Villa Savoye, arguably remain emergent in Pessac. The ribbon window is certainly there (below upper) but there seems to be limited use of supporting columns (below lower):
There are roof gardens:
but it seems difficult to identify much free use of the interior in the absence of supporting walls, or free design of the façades – but these are fairly small buildings as some interior views of the Maison Municipale below reveal. The extent of the wasted volume over the staircase between the first and second floors (below right) is surprising.
Even in 1924, Le Corbusier anticipated mass ownership of cars and the need for garage space on the ground floor with living spaces upstairs. The garage area of the Maison Municipale is now used to exhibit a model of the planned garden suburb:
The model plaque indicates just how advanced the scheme was in its time with central heating and showers. Unfortunately its cost probably contributed to Frugès’ bankruptcy a few years later.
Visitors to the Maison Municipale are given a booklet (in French) describing Le Cite Frugès Le Corbusier and its history (also available for download as a pdf). One example of each of the six surviving types of house has been classed as an historic monument. The types are:
Maison Gratte-ciel (“sky-scraper”) – see Maison Municipale image above
Maison Isolée (“detached” below left) and Maison Arcade (below right):
Maison Zig-Zag (below top) and Maison Quinconçe (below lower)
Maison Jumelle (“twinned”) no image available. (If there are any errors in attribution of images here, please comment!)
Should you wish to stay in a Le Corbusier house for a few days, apparently the only one available anywhere in the world is the HARG house, a Maison Gratte-ciel, in Pessac.