Friday, July 18, 2008

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?

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