Intentions, failures, and change over time in Le Corbusier’s Modernist Cité Frugès housing complex

Image source: HEI Alumni

Prepared by Gary Gerbrandt • CP 200/Professor Stephen Collier • October 14, 2018

Three years after presiding over a ribbon-cutting at his first big project from raw stock—ideas and concrete—Le Corbusier availed himself of the opportunity to look beyond the horizon. “Under the present conditions which govern our cities, everything is in confusion and at odds, nothing is really properly arranged. If things are once put into shape and order we shall be able to appreciate the calm joys of freedom.”1Le Corbusier, The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, 220. See Works Cited at end of post. This hopeful notion about the mass reconfiguration of our cities came as he described the liberating qualities of a new approach to housing. Corbusier’s idea was to build dense collections of “dwellings on the ‘honeycomb’ or cellular principle,”2Corbusier, 215. reshaping urban and suburban environments by concentrating their residents in thousands of units at a time. This conception was developed in a much smaller housing project, the 51-unit Quartiers Modernes Frugès at Pessac, France. At its official opening in 1926, the project was the fullest realization of Corbusier’s modernist approach to housing: offering a working class the freedom and order it craved, in an avant-garde garden suburb he hoped would civilize them.

But Pessac’s houses were soon widely panned as a failure—emblematic of the wilful blindness to quotidian realities which typified modernist design. Residents did not adapt to their homes; they adapted the homes to suit their own lives, inverting Corbusier’s purist approach. Some reconfigured the airy, open-plan layouts; some dramatically altered the stark concrete façades. Others moved away, not to be replaced, with their houses falling into states of disrepair in abandonment. The project later drew comparisons to the infamous Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis as an illustration of modernism’s inadequacies.3Ada Louise Huxtable, “A visit to the ‘Quartiers Modernes Frugès’ housing development designed by Le Corbusier in Pessac, Bordeaux,” Purple DIARY, April 14, 2016, http://purple.fr/diary/a-visit-to-the-quartiers-modernes-fruges-housing-development-designed-by-le-corbusier-in-pessac-bordeaux/ (accessed October 2, 2018). Yet, by reappropriating control over the spaces they occupied, residents truly realized the spirit of Corbusier’s ideas—building a modern city for themselves, grounded in the freedom that the designer sought for them. Today, in Pessac, one can find the truest representation of a modernist garden suburb.

The “garden suburb” was a decidedly extra-urban form, characterized by detached dwellings, open space, and planning that emphasized parks and the beauty of nature. Conceived as a response to the crowded, filthy chaos of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these proto-suburbs were positioned as remedies to the pathologies found in cities, to be built in the forests and farmland on their margins. Intellectually, they owe much to Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 “garden city” concept—a dense, worker-focused design, peopling the countryside with housing and industry in concentric circles, providing residents with the socioeconomic benefits of a city and the somatic and spiritual benefits of the outdoors. Later planners, like Richard Unwin, sought to extend Howard’s ideas into practice, and laid out the first garden suburbs. In much of what they built, there is a clear connection to nature through open space. However, large detached houses, set on winding streets, with a master-planned landscape, replaced Howard’s dense worker settlements. As built, garden suburbs—designed for wealthier residents escaping work outside the city—hew closer to the latter-day American suburbia of a John Hughes film.

Le Corbusier, developing a modernist philosophy on urban planning, drew on the garden suburb as a solution to housing in his imaginary cities. A belief in the power of technology, and the civilizing potential of mass mechanization, was fundamental for him; he was firm in his devotion to regimented, efficient planning, decrying the legacies of layouts that came before. Yet his belief in open space—to provide environmental benefits, and to wrap the human experience in the visual comforts of nature—conflicted with the drive for perfect efficiency, siting him more closely to Howard as an advocate for the exposure of city dwellers to the outdoors. “A simple phrase suffices to express the necessities of tomorrow,” he begins in his 1929 The City of To-Morrow, describing the core of his hybrid modernist-garden suburb ideal:

WE MUST BUILD IN THE OPEN. The lay-out must be of a purely geometrical kind…To build in the open would be to replace our present haphazard arrangements, which are all we have to-day, by a uniform lay-out. Unless we do this there is no salvation.4Corbusier, 175.

The blank slate of “the open” is key—unlocking an opportunity to develop linear streetscapes, characterizing his design by their rationalism. Describing a theoretical conurbation of three million residents, he draws a line in open space to set city and suburb apart:

Our first requirement will be an organ that is compact, rapid, lively and concentrated: this is the City with its well-organized centre. Our second requirement will be another organ, supple, extensive and elastic; this is the Garden City on the periphery. Lying between these two [is] that absolute necessity…a reserved zone of woods and fields, a fresh-air reserve.5Corbusier, 166.

On the margins of his economically powerful urban centres, Corbusier conceived of these garden suburbs as unsubtly classed repositories for the workers in the city. They were a means of civilization, striking the right balances to serve the proletarian need for family stability:

Great men and our leaders install themselves in the city’s centre. There too we find their subordinates of every grade, whose presence there at certain hours is essential, though their destinies are circumscribed within the narrower bounds of family life. The family is badly housed in the city. Garden cities satisfy these needs better.6Corbusier, 100.

Modernist cities are thus class-segregated: elites should live in the city proper, while the working classes abide in garden suburbs, commuting either into the commercial core of the city or to industrial centres on the periphery.7Corbusier, 100. Corbusier notes that garden suburbs would house two-thirds of the population in his urban ideal.8Corbusier, 172. His math: two million residents in the garden cities, six hundred thousand in city apartment blocks, and four to six hundred thousand more in the city core. These suburbs would be composed of a “cellular” or “honeycomb” format of efficient, low-cost, minimalistic housing, each unit with its own small outdoor space stacked atop other units, repeated ad infinitum to achieve economies of scale and adequate density without overcrowding.9Corbusier, 175-176. While Unwin proposed winding streets and detached houses, Corbusier saw linear and built uniformity as essential components of a modernist suburb, suited to the needs of its working-class residents. In siting these suburbs in the open hinterland, and granting each family both shared and discrete outdoor spaces, Corbusier devises a syncretic perspective that updates Howard’s early visions for his absolutist framework.

Mirroring his belief in the advancing powers of the modern machine, Corbusier ascribes a machine-like nature to housing, giving it a critical role in his vision for the development of humanity. Applying a pseudo-scientific term, he describes each housing unit as a “cell”. As they had been built, Corbusier saw these cells as inefficiently grouped, leading to endless suburban sprawl. He saw great potential in improving the organization of these “cells”. Doing so could provide a means for social orientation, giving workers a place for rest and recreation, to improve their productivity. Doing so could evade the pathologies of the city, where pollution poisons the residents and a lack of open space hinders their pursuits of exercise and sport. Doing so could even democratize agricultural production, with Corbusier suggesting an organized system of cultivation on shared gardens to provide food for residents.10Corbusier, 202-206.

Most importantly, he saw a rational, straightforward alignment of the housing “cells” in a garden suburb as a way to “attain freedom through order.”11Corbusier, 212. Perhaps that’s why he chose the word “honeycomb” to describe these cells arrayed together—reflecting on the complex social organization of bees, and the efficient construction of their hives, managed by a productive underclass. A honeycomb is eminently functional. It is a brilliantly space-efficient granary, where food is stored in the service of a greater good: the rearing of a future class of workers, by a current class of workers, at the behest of a benevolent totalitarian leader. It is the beginning and end of the working class—the factory that produces them, which they dedicate their lives to operating. It grants its workers their freedom, provided their strain preserves its quotidian order.

Henry Frugès, the heir to a sugar concern (and a self-styled creative renaissance man12Philippe Boudon, Lived-In Architecture, 12. The full quote speaks to the qualities of a multifaceted creator: “Frugès…once described himself as ‘a seeker, multivalent artist, architect (without a diploma), painter (working in every genre from fresco to miniatures on ivory grounds), sculptor, pianist and composer…author, art critic, and so on’”.), had this indelible link between work and home on his mind when he first contacted Le Corbusier. Near the port town of Arcachon, about an hour west of Bordeaux in the woodlands of Gascony, his father’s company produced wooden cases for its sugar. Every summer, between April and September, they dealt with absenteeism.13Boudon, 7. The Gascon woodworkers would make trips into the pine forests, in the regional tradition of harvesting arcanson—a term in the local Occitan dialect that describes the golden-orange gobs of pine sap you find on your clothes when you’ve brushed against the wrong tree. There was an economic incentive to sell the pine resin for processing into rosin (an upstream component of glue, soap, and numerous other chemical products) and turpentine; workers would probably only have missed their shifts once a week, when the trees they had cut gashes into were ready to be de-gunked.14Wikipédia contributors, “Gemmage,” Wikipédia, l’encyclopédie libre, https://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gemmage&oldid=148268201 (accessed October 10, 2018).

Still, the resulting interruptions to sugar case production were frustrating to Frugès’ father. In 1920, he figured he’d try to lock his workers in by building a more concrete connection to their work at the factory, and tasked his son to deliver a set of 10 workers’ houses. Always excited by art, architecture, and innovation, but inexperienced as a general contractor, Henry Frugès soon found his eyebrows lifting at the radical opinions of a young architect writing in L’esprit nouveau. The author, ruminating on the housing crisis facing France in the wake of the Great War’s immense destruction, advocated that builders marshal the mechanized construction practices which had their roots in wartime trench-digging and military advancement. Excited by his innovative perspective, the younger Frugès immediately addressed a letter to a then-unknown Le Corbusier, offering him the chance to put his ideas into practice and build 10 houses. A year later, the project was done, and Frugès had his eyes on a much more ambitious program.15Boudon, 7-8.

For Frugès, the (small-scale) success he achieved with Le Corbusier was a sign that his ideas really did have the potential to solve the intractable housing shortage—so he went for it:

Since I possessed the necessary machines—which, incidentally, were extremely expensive…and wanted to make my contribution to the national task of helping the homeless, I decided to build a garden city…comprising about 150 to 200 villas. I chose Pessac, which was famous for the pure air of its pine trees, as the site for this settlement.16Boudon, 8.

Meanwhile, Le Corbusier was focused on developing his modernist ideas into the more comprehensive urban framework explored previously. With Pierre Jeanneret, his cousin and collaborator, Corbusier had been focused on the machine à habiter, the machine to live in, which would leverage the efficiencies of standardized design and construction to rapidly build housing. The larger scale of the project at Pessac represented “a testing ground…a doctrinal manifesto to which [Corbusier] would unceasingly refer” years later.17Ferrand, Feugas, Le Roy, Veyret, Le Corbusier: Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès, 7. What slowly came together as the Quartiers Modernes Frugès would be the first real-world modernist garden suburb.

Corbusier’s plan was straightforward. While Frugès’ ambition was greater, financial difficulties meant that only 51 houses were built, from a few different templates. Each was a stark concrete structure, recognizably modernist—rectangular, with wide windows. Inside, Corbusier minimized decorative flourishes, laying out open-plan units with careful allocations of functional space: cooking, living, sleeping, bathing. Terraces on roofs supplied residents with the open-air garden spaces Corbusier would so forcefully espouse in his later writing. Outside, one found yard space and trees, and—anecdotally, thanks to Frugès—façades painted in a variety of colours grounded in the natural environment. Sky blues, earthy brick reds, leafy greens. The project was intended as a kind of social housing, as Frugès wished, but without the directed economic transactionality of the earlier project outside Arcachon.

It’s worth noting that Le Corbusier’s description of his cellular/honeycomb housing includes a sketch of what was built in Pessac, alongside the immense buildings he proposed. Corbusier’s opportunity there was to triage the realities of workers’ housing, and develop his early notions into something robust enough that he thought it could scale to hold millions of people in an entirely new kind of city. His intent was to build housing that was truly functional—its design spoke volumes on the matter—which would meet the fundamental needs of the working-class people who would make their lives there. Again, the notion of attaining freedom through order became salient: these houses would scaffold their residents’ lives in an orderly, planned way, unlocking their individual freedoms and encouraging them to become more contributory members of French society. Given the absolutism of Corbusier’s breathless writing, it seems that anything less than the total acceptance of his formal dictates by residents would be a failure—and call into question the modernist project more generally.

The designs Corbusier executed were revolutionary by anyone’s standard for the late 1920s; unsurprisingly, the occupants who moved into the airy modern spaces didn’t suddenly change the way they lived to fill their containers. Instead, they lived in the houses. There is an instinct to make a new space—particularly one starkly different from the familiar—into one’s own. Indeed, residents quickly chipped away at the exactitudes of Corbusier’s design. In 1931, Corbusier wrote to the project’s engineer, decrying the “truly horrendous and utterly tasteless” changes made by the houses’ inhabitants—mostly the reconfiguration of some outdoor spaces to provide more indoor space and the repainting of some façades.18Ferrand et al., 112. Others, “tampering with [this design] and degrading it through their fatal incompetence,”19Ferrand et al., 112. had allowed some of the houses to fall into disrepair. As noted by later writers, World War II also subjected the neighbourhood to bombings and meant that the “low-income families who scarcely had the resources to carry out even the most basic repairs” turned to cheap materials and leaky, failure-prone construction.20Ferrand et al., 113.

For observers, Corbusier included, the most alarming fact was that residents changed things. When people started subdividing their open-concept rooms with walls, tiling and roofing over their terraces, and refacing the fronts of their homes, his project was interpreted as a failure—and this failure called into question the rest of Corbusier’s design philosophy. However, these changes were more of a reflection of the occupants’ interpretation of just what it would take to make these buildings into houses that would suit them. Architect Philippe Boudon sought to re-evaluate the work Corbusier had accomplished in Pessac by interviewing residents for his 1969 book, Lived-In Architecture. One owner purchased his house with the express intent to change it: “I didn’t like the outside at all, but I saw its potential at once…you could introduce all manner of combinations.”21Boudon, 114. Another saw the flexibility of the spaces as essential to the nature of family living: “People will always make changes…any house, no matter how well designed it may be, will never completely suit the family that goes to live in it.”22Boudon, 117. And, critically, another resident noted the unintentional way Corbusier’s design facilitated these alterations: “There is a certain…flexibility which makes it possible to…introduce new elements into a framework that was not really designed to receive them.”23Boudon, 116.

Seeing this through a narrative of failure, Corbusier and his later critics seem to have missed the nature of functionalism. Corbusier’s intent was to build houses that would help order the lives of the working class, and serve as templates for the mass construction he felt was needed to address pressing urban problems in interwar Europe. Functionality was paramount—in the division and allocation of space, in the efficiency and frugality of construction, in the mass-producibility of a standardized housing product, and in the interaction between occupant and environment. Reconciling this conception of functionality with the fact that occupants must manage their environments in order to fit into them is essential to thinking about Pessac.

Such is the argument furthered by Philippe Boudon, who cites the Bordelais history of constant alteration to one’s home and the general need to change the spaces we inhabit,24Boudon, 114. as why one should see these changes as positive and in keeping with Corbusier’s core goals for a modernist garden suburb. For Boudon—and, indeed, for Corbusier—the lack of perfect preservation of the original buildings does not fundamentally upend the program Corbusier sought to execute.  Indeed, it bolsters his vision, translating it into one grounded in the lived experience of an individual in the working class, the functionalization of housing space to the necessary ends of each of us. We each change, challenge, and adapt the spaces we live in. That people had the optionality, and felt empowered to create spaces which met their daily needs, was a sign of victory.

For families in the working class, finding housing adequate to meet differing needs has been a salient concern since the advent of capitalism. Adapting housing to meet one’s needs is an expression of power and a constructive act, one fully compatible with the aesthetic and design motivations of an architect. It also serves a broader social purpose: ensuring that the working class has the housing necessary to support their contributions to society, through the work they do. Corbusier, thinking much later about the ways people had used the buildings he designed in Pessac, is quoted to have said “It is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” Reflecting on this statement, Ada Louise Huxtable, an influential architecture critic who visited Pessac in 1981 and found a resilient, self-sustaining community, argued:

This was not a confession of error. It was the recognition of the validity of process over the sanctity of ideology. Few architects are capable of making that observation, because it speaks not to some fixed ideal, but to the complexity and incompleteness of architecture, to how life and art accommodate to each other. And that is what Pessac is really about.25Huxtable, http://purple.fr/diary/a-visit-to-the-quartiers-modernes-fruges-housing-development-designed-by-le-corbusier-in-pessac-bordeaux/.

Indeed, from the first days of the project, this aim was clear. In a piece of marketing material for the houses sold, the agents of Corbusier and Frugès acknowledge the controversial departure from historical design in their project at Pessac:

The external appearance is not always pleasing at first sight; but experience has shown that the eye very soon grows accustomed to these simple and pure forms…are not the simplest forms those with the most flair, the most bearing—in a word, the most beauty? And why should this not apply to our houses as well? All you have to do is ask the people who live in our villas how they feel about them and what it feels like to be living in them.26Boudon, 17-18.

This conceptual bridge the marketers build—that the importance of the design of this garden suburb lies in the lived experience of its residents—is critical to seeing the success of Corbusier’s visions at Pessac. While their inhabitants never quite fulfilled what Corbusier might have imagined the transformative potential of his designs, in the way they modified the houses to suit their day-to-day lives, they lived in the spirit of his design. These changes were the manifestation of “how they feel about [the houses]…and what it feels like to be living in them”: they had an opportunity to live the lives they wanted, to use the simple forms as a means of reordering space around their families’ daily needs. Providing the working class its freedom to accept those necessities was Corbusier’s real project in the garden suburbs—and his honeycombs at Pessac are abuzz even today with residents making the best spaces to facilitate their lives.

Works Cited

Boudon, Philippe. Lived-In Architecture: Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979.

Ferrand, Marylène, Jean-Pierre Feugas, Bernard Le Roy, and Jean-Luc Veyret. Le Corbusier: Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 1998.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. “A visit to the ‘Quartiers Modernes Frugès’ housing development designed by Le Corbusier in Pessac, Bordeaux.” Purple DIARY. April 14, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2018. http://purple.fr/diary/a-visit-to-the-quartiers-modernes-fruges-housing-development-designed-by-le-corbusier-in-pessac-bordeaux/.

Le Corbusier. The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning. New York: Dover, 1987.

Wikipédia contributors. “Gemmage.” Wikipédia, l’encyclopédie libre. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gemmage&oldid=148268201.

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