Monday, July 28, 2008

Breathing. Part II

Just catching my breath again. Check back soon for more postings from Paris, London, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.....a bit too much to keep up with at the moment....

Friday, July 18, 2008

Paris: 17,19 Rue de Suisse (Herzog &DeMuron)

This project is most marked by its facades. I doubt anyone would really take that much notice if it wasn’t for the surface treatments. I was not totally clear on the overall organization of the project, but I found the two exterior facades of perforated metal shutters beautifully filling space around a corner building. I knew there was another part, but couldn’t find it, and realized it was on the inside of the block. I waited around until someone came out of the door, and snuck in to get a peak. It was a quiet and intimate space, with a very different language than the facades on the outside. The sounds of dinner were emanating from each unit, and since the open space was relatively small, I quickly began to feel out of place and like a voyeur. I snapped my pictures, made a few quick drawings, and went back outside to draw the outer façade. The façade was a fascinating approach, continually offering a different treatment to the street, depending on the mood of the inhabitant or the sun. The interior units, offered a more classical façade, reminiscent of old rollup desk tops.

While sitting outside drawing, a many came up to me and asked me if liked the building. I said, parts. He proceeded to use the opportunity unleash a diatribe of what the building did not do well. A few of my favorite quotes:

“When they were installing the street façade, the worker could not turn around inside the balcony, the head of construction is quoted as saying that.”
“Since I pay by the square foot, I lose so much on the outside, I can’t even use the outdoor space it is so narrow.”
“They spent all their fucking money on the façade.”
“I’d rather have a building that is practical than beautiful.”
“Is it justifiable to spend such money on trivial things in public housing?”
“You know they spent one month lackering up the wooden façade. Who is paying for that?”

He made the case that much more attention should have been spent on the inside, making sure the little things worked, like insulation, water protection, quality kitchen equipment. He was a litter bitter for sure, but his diatribe offered a nice change to the continual praises and beautiful pictures such a project always receives in publications. He agreed, it is beautiful, but at what cost? It would have been nice to talk to others. On the surface, it is a strong project, engaging in so many levels.

He then went on to complain that one hundred architects a week go inside, visit, and take all kinds of pictures. One day, even, a teacher brought a whole group of high school kids unannounced. They would all just wait for someone to come out and then walk right in. I guess he didn’t see me, I felt a little guilty. Ah yes, the architectural voyeur. We have all been there, but it is especially difficult in the realm of housing. In some ways, it is a curse to be living in a project that is famous, you will always get people trying to catch a glimpse. The common man ranting about the home designed by the world famous architect. The architects in this case, have the designed the Birdsnest (Olympic Stadium) in Beijing (see earlier post or watch the Olympics this summer). Who judges an architect to be famous, successful, or even good?

More Info: Housing

Pessac, France: Quartiers Modernes Fruges

“You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.”

-Le Corbusier

Facades showing variety of changes

Skyscraper units

Arcade units (the open part was once completely filled in)

Enough of this ribbon window....

Same design, different alterations

Original design and lived-in design (as of 10 years ago, many less now...)

In 1926, Les Quartiers Modernes Fruges were completed on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Commissioned by the eccentric industrialist Henry Fruges and designed by the famous modernist architect Le Corbusier, the project heralded a new era in modern housing that espoused Le Corbusier’s focus and interest in mass production, social housing, and artistic endeavors. Although the original project called for 150 houses, only 50 were actually built. There were four different kinds of units built: skyscraper, arcade, staggered, and zig-zag. Each offered their own unique formal characteristics, but all were based on a similar module (5x5 meters), access to light, ventilation, gardens, long open windows, and roof gardens. In fact, this project offered such new innovation because the architect designed one basic unit of module and then developed various urban patterns and adaptations from that module to create the entire project.

However, immediately after being built, the project was received with intense hostility due to its new style and look. The original tenants did not want to live there, and consequently poorer tenants moved in. Very quickly, they started adapting and changing the housing to better suit their needs. For about 40-50 years, the residents basically ruled over the architecture, altering, changing, cutting, building, demolishing, etc. until the project basically became unrecognizable. Some of the many changes made were;

  • Side extensions and enclosures provided more living space
  • Ribbon windows were removed and replaced by smaller windows because of poor insulating value
  • Sloped roofs were added because flat concrete roofs were new technology and resulted in numerous leaks
  • In the arcade houses, entire modules were filled in for more space.
  • Fake stone was added on the facades

Eventually, these continuous alterations and lack of upkeep left most to feel that the project had become a disaster. For some, it was not an issue of architecture, but of the people living in it. In fact, a publication recently produced by the Le Corbusier Foundation states that the dwellings had been “acquired with no effort of saving, by low income families, by unqualified workers.” It goes on to say that “it is hence not the architecture that should be questioned, but rather the sales methods of 1928.” (It doesn’t say anything about the initial refusal of people to live in the project).

On the other hand, many saw the project as just one more failure and disconnect of modernism, trying to address social issues, but relinquishing way too much power to the architect, thereby creating disasters, much in the vein of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis. Regardless of the reasons for the modifications, it is clear that the people living in the housing did not or were not able to accept the design provided for them, so they took it into their own hands.

I had read that the project had been restored, so I was anxious to see what this meant and its implications. For anyone visiting this project, there is actually a museum on site. While I did once again feel very much like a voyeur, the presence of the museum did somewhat legitimize my presence, and offered lots of helpful information.

The first house was restored by its owner in 1980 and was given special historical designation, thereby requiring everything within 500 meters be monitored by a more set of controls and rigors. At this time, people who were living were not particularly interested in restoring, because, as the museum guide told me, “They did not buy the houses because of Le Corbusier.” Eventually, though, more people saw the benefits of restoration, some of them were fans of Corb, while others, such as the state, saw a way to finally bring more control and aesthetic rigor to the neighborhood.

In 1981, the town of Pessac bought a ‘skyscraper’ unit and restored it to serve as a museum and as a demonstration of what they hoped and expected other people to do to their houses. With it, they produced a 200 page document outlining a new series of measures by which people had to respect when making any changes to units. It was all exterior based. On the inside, it didn’t matter, as long as it didn’t affect the exterior. Any new changes on the exterior had to restore the unit to its original design. Architects were brought in to ensure changes were in line with the original designs. People could keep their additions and such as long as they didn’t touch them. But if they made any new additions or alterations, they could be demolished.

Somehow, in the last ten years, much of the rampant customization has disappeared. I am still not clear how exactly all of this has taken place. People were not offered help with subsidies or anything, it was with their own money, and many or the units were in bad shape. It is my suspicion that many of them have been purchased by Corb fans. In fact, the first house to be restored was all closed up when I visited. All of its windows shuttered and a high, unkempt lawn, suggested it was actually a second residence. Yet, some of the alterations still exist, albeit in a much more subtle manner. I do find the variety and shifts they bring to the project quite wonderful.

From a technical architectural point of view, the project works. The inside of the skyscraper is really nice, the spaces well proportioned, with ribbon windows providing much beautiful views and wonderful natural light. Each street offers a variety and diversity of rhythm and texture among the buildings and massings. It is not too dense, and the use of gardens and negative space in between buildings brings a very rich quality of space and life. The arcade houses, especially bring a beautiful formal exchange with positive and negative, as well as the curved roof. It is especially incredible that this project even got built in the 20’s and has survived for this long. Even today, new life is being breathed into the project. This is in no doubt due to Corb’s brilliance as a designer and forward thinker, and he certainly valued Les Quartiers Modernes for its adaptibilty and resilience over time.

But from a social architectural standpoint, it leaves me with many questions. To leave this discussion at a technical discourse would not do the project, nor the architect justice, as the social component was deeply important in the design. In fact, the architecture lends itself to such changes. Roof terraces are closed in, voids are filled, and openings changed. All of the houses have remained (except for two next to the railroad tracks destroyed by bombing in WWII), which is very different from Charles Correa’s Belapur project (where at least a third of the original houses had been torn down and completely rebuilt). It is the filling of the void, the customization, the individualization that gives much life to the project, and complements Corb’s original vision to a great extent. In fact, it is one of the most human and lively of all of Corb’s projects, precisely because of the presence or such alterations.

Yet, by bringing in the rigid controls of design to eventually bring each house to its original condition seems precisely to ignore the social context and the potential lessons learned from this project. There is the very real possibility that someday soon, this project will (for the first time ever!) achieve the original design (at least from what the museum guide told me). This is reversal after years and years of drastic adjustments. Is this okay? How are we to ignore the lives and decisions of everyday people? It is something that architects seem to be able to do very well. But, in the realm of housing?

This project reminded me of the historic neighborhood my mother lives in Asheville, NC. The old houses are incredible and maintaining this character is critically important. Any changes and additions have to be subject to strict controls and rules. In Les Quartiers Modernes, in direct response to this action in the past, additions are no longer allowed.

In Pessac, the battle of the architect versus the inhabitant will be won by the architect, for now. Maybe this is simplifying things, but such projects are now deemed to be more like open air museums, than actually inhabited homes. The product of the architect is fixed, especially if he is world famous. To me, the most successful and beneficial products are those in which the architect leaves room for negotiation, for people to stake their claim, to make it their own. This is not to say that people should have unregulated freedom over their spaces. The disaster is clear enough in the developing world, but there should be more freedom to negotiate than is currently offered in most cases. These changes shouldn’t be accidental or intolerable, they should be expected, planned, and embraced….

(There is a book called Lived-In Architecture by Phillipe Bourdon that chronicles much of the changes by the residents. I have not been able to get my hands on it yet, but will post some more original images when I can.)

Just because it looks better on the outside, will it be a better neighborhood? What effect does control have on the overall well being of the neighborhood. If you change the way something looks like, can you then change the behavior of the people, etc? Will changing the look change the actual makeup of people (gentrification), who will then behave differently?


Taking quick break from architecture, I have had the unfortunate coincidence of being in Europe during EURO2008, only the third largest sporting even in the world. My last night in Instanbul, I watched on TV Turkey stage one of the greatest comebacks ever, scoring three goals in the last 15 minutes to beat the Czech Republic, then listened to chaos in the streets. While in Switzerland, (one of the host countries), I was actually able to get tickets (thanks Claire, Jessica, et al) to see France and Italy play (sorry France). And then in Zurich, I watched numerous others games out on the streets with tens of thousands of other people. I think the ending of the Croatia-Turkey match was one of the most incredible ever. With two minutes to go in extra time, Croatia scored, sending the mass of Croatian fans in hysteria. In fact, right next to us, someone lit a massive flare and as the police and firemen busted in to try and control it. Watching all this madness, I missed Turkey scoring one minute later on the absolute last play of the match, as I am sure the rest of the 10,000 Croatian fans did. Turkey won it in penalty kicks. The last match ended with Spain proving a glorious winner. The streets of Paris were overrun with fans celebrating in the fountains…

Zurich: Wohnurbauung Paul- Clairmont Strasse (Gmur & Stein)

This newly completed project offered the most visually interesting exterior. In essence, each unit has a large enclosed outdoor room. In many ways, the form is created by ensuring that each unit can have such a large outdoor space while still ensuring good access to natural light and ensuring a good bit of privacy. I arrived just before sunset and many people were having dinner out on their balconies. It looks quite dynamic, but in reality is pretty simple. It is pretty high end living, though. I do wonder what would happen if people were allowed to build in or enclose the balconies like they do in Cairo….

More Info: Gmur and Steib Architekten

Zurich: Kraftwerk1 (Stuecheli Architekten)

The overall project leaves the space in between as active and effective public zones. The tightest area between buildings is a café, another area a small football field, on the other side, a playground, then a garden, etc. The facades are rich in their formal approaches, and varieties they offer the building and surrounding areas. They give a hint of the variety inside, but do somewhat mask the complexities of the three dimensional jockeying going on inside the building. There is a range of unit sizes as well as heights and three dimensional spaces within the building. Solid project.

More Info: Stuecheli Architecten

Zurich: Seidlung Brombeerweg (EM2N)

Construction allows for variety on each floor (much like commercial office buildings)

Variability of each floor and building unit

One of the strengths of this project is the public hardscape which fills in most of the negative space between the buildings, which house many units that look directly onto the plaza. While I was there, numerous kids were out riding their bikes and playing, while their mother or father occasionally would come to the window or balcony and look out. The interspersed gardens, lawns, and playgrounds offer much softer edges.

The variety of the massing and siting give effective views of movement, and the balconies and awnings give the project a strong flare with a sense of variety. The construction method (long timber planks connected to a concrete core) ensured a lot of flexibility within each floor. In fact, each floor of each building has a completely different layout or units. It was a test case to show how future changes can take place, but I don’t know if any have really materialized.

More Info: EM2N Architects

Zurich: Uberbauung Hellmutstrasse (ADP Architektur und Planung)

Floor plans showing variety of possible layouts.

This is a nice and very sophisticated project, and the architect made time to meet with me (unlike many of the others). He was proud of this project, almost like a grandparent telling me about all the accomplishments of his grandchildren. There are many beautiful moments in this project. The one that interested me most was the flexibility in which the units can be designed and arranged. By using indeterminacy as a design approach, this project successfully met the needs of a housing cooperative seeking a variety of possible housing options within the same building.

There can be large groups of people living together or even self contained one room studio apartments, depending on the make up of the residents at that point. There have been about 5 or 6 changes of sizes of the residences, but they all depend on a collective decision. From a design standpoint, it is very easy for a household to expand and add space, but it depends on the there being space available next door.

All the units are very open and there is little designation between public and private within the entire complex (doors remain open, stairways look directly in dining rooms, etc) and this works because it is a cooperative where everyone knows each other. While the top floor units are small and less flexible, it frees up open wonderful collective space. And, there were even clothes hanging between buildings. Hadn’t seen that in a while…

More Info: ADP Architektur und Planung

Bern: Weberhaus (Bauart Architekten)

A prefabricated modular house option. This was a quick introduction into the extraordinary standards or craft and excellence within the Swiss built environment. This particular unit had three modules. The spaces were really nice, large windows (very common) and variation within each module. It was cheap and had to be erected quickly (within 6 months). The owner complained that it was cheap (built by the Germans) and only really made to last 20-30 years, like most of the houses in the US…..overall nice project, but very difficult to do much with it in the future. It is a mobile and versatile project until it is actually built, then it is finished…

More Info: Bauart Architecten or Weberhaus

Friday, July 11, 2008


On the way to Grabunden

Nice Housing. Everywhere

Bike Shelter

Amazing mountains you can't get lost in

Attention to detail

Meticulous Piping and Insulation

Tram Signage: Saws. Crampons. Bananas. Guitars.

Wow, what a change from two weeks ago. The Swiss know how to do things right. The craft, level of detail, and attention to getting things right in the built environment is quite extraordinary. And, oh how I love the public transportation system. It is clear, easy, and gets me within two block of anywhere I need to go. No hassling with the rickshaw driver here. The quality of life here is amazing, I think the highest in the world (Zurich and Geneva). It is clean, there is cold, fresh, drinking water flowing out of the most beautiful fountains, you can swim in the lakes in the middle of the city, there are ping pong tables everywhere, and the mountains……wow. The train system is unreal, punctual, taking you to the most amazing places, and everyone takes advantage of the outdoors, especially the old folks. I was almost so amazed by all of it, I lost track of the limited diversity and deep controls on immigration and naturalization. It’s a pretty predictable and constant place, except for the signage, of course. Regardless, I did find some wonderful housing and a peaceful change from the chaos or earlier places.