Palladio and Le Corbusier: what can we learn from them about housing?

Posted on 01 March 2009 0 comments

There are two major architecture exhibitions on in London at the moment: Andrea Palladio: His life and Legacy (until 13 April 2009) at the Royal Academy of Arts; and Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture (until 24 May 2009) at the Barbican Centre.

What can we learn from the works of these two architects today, particularly in relation to housing?

Palladio

The Villa Rotunda by Palladio
The Villa Rotunda, Vincenza (1565-66) by Palladio. Photo from Flickr by Sebastia Giralt.

Grace, beauty, harmony – these are words often used to describe Palladio’s architecture. The Royal Academy exhibition guide states:

“…he asserted the primacy of domestic structures and democratised architecture, recognising that farms, barns and bridges were projects as worthy as churches and palaces, and that any building could be beautiful without the use of expensive materials.

His profound understanding of the classical world enabled him to devise a harmonious system of plans and elevations which delivered buildings that surprise and thrill in their inventiveness.”

At the end of the Palladio exhibition, a number of contemporary architects speak on film about his influence on their work and his relevance today. One of the architects, Roger Zogolovitch, speaks about how Palladio studied the architecture of the past but also helped define a new language of architecture that was contemporary for his time.

Palladio is often championed by architects who work in a traditional or classical style. Zogolovitch criticises Poundbury (a modern-built but traditionally-styled town in Dorchester) as an example of an architectural style that looks only to the past but offers nothing for today. As the exhibition guide says:

“Palladio created a new language of architecture. He reflected profoundly upon his art, its processes, its position in relation to the past and its potential for shaping the future.

…He embraced the need to democratise architecture, applying his abilities to the design of dovecotes and low-cost housing as well as bridges, churches, villas and palazzi. He made grand and beautiful effects but avoided using extravagant materials…”

When you look at the floor plans of Palladio’s villas, they are characterised by an elegant simplicity and (mostly) symmetrical design. The villas may have been considered plain in their time, but certainly to my eyes today they seem quite palatial and decorated with plenty of ornament.

Obviously, one doesn’t look to Palladio for examples of high-density housing but his ideas around proportion, symmetry and scale surely still hold value even for volume or mass housebuilding today.

The idea of harmonious or pleasing proportions is something that’s noticeably lacking in modern housing. But why shouldn’t the homes built today – from the smallest studio flat to the detached house – aspire to the same qualities of harmony, gracefulness and elegance? Do architects today think of how they might inspire feelings of joy and delight in the the homes they design (including the humble studio flat)?

BBC Four recently broadcast a documentary called The Perfect House: The Life and Work of Palladio. Howard Burns from the International Centre for the study of Palladio (Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio) had this to say about the architect

“He liked architecture to make you feel good, not to make you feel anxious, not to make you feel the world was an unsafe place as he knew very well that it was, but…to be a consolation.”

Does a similar sentiment cross the minds of those designing houses or apartment blocks today?

Le Corbusier and the Unité d'habitation in Marseille

The Unité d'habitation in Marseille by Le Corbusier
The Unité d'habitation in Marseille by Le Corbusier. Photo from Flickr by ADEUPa.

Le Corbuiser is arguably the most famous architect of the twentieth century and seems to be revered and reviled in equal measure. Part of the Barbican exhibition focuses on the apartment complex he designed in Marseille in France (and later other cities) called the Unité d’habitation (Housing Unit). The Barbican exhibition guide states:

“The post-war demand for inexpensive housing offered Le Corbusier the first opportunity to realise a large-scale residential complex – the Unité d’habitation.

In 1945, he was commissioned to plan the first Unité in Marseille. Based on a massive concrete framework, the dimensions defined with the aid of the Modulor (Le Corbusier’s system of proportion based on the human form), 337 units were arranged over 12 storeys and connected along internal ‘streets’.

The elevation of the building on piloti [supports lifting the building off the ground] conformed with his concept of a ‘vertical garden city’.Every inhabitant of the vertically layered apartment block had ready access to light and green space without disturbing the view or free circulation at ground level.

The distinctive facades are characterised by the rough exposed concrete and the pattern of brises-soleil (sunbreakers). Le Corbusier’s Unités were also built in Rezé-lès-Nantes, Briey-en-Forêt, Berlin and Firminy.

Though he gave careful consideration to the efficient concentration of space, the high density living provoked criticism. The controversy surrounding Le Corbusier’s mass housing was heightened in the post-war years by the fact that the Unité became a model for many similar buildings of poorer quality.”

The position of the building provides residents with distant views out to the sea on one side and to mountains in the other:

“Built on the grass in the middle of an extensive park covering 3.5 hectares, bathed in sunlight, the Unité d’Habitation faces east-west and has no openings towards the north, the side exposed to the Mistral [wind]. Measurements: 165 metres in length, 24 metres in depth, 56 metres in height.”
From: Le Corbusier, The Complete Architectural Works, Volume 5 1946-1952

There are 23 different apartment types in the Unité d’habitation in Marseille ranging from flats for single persons to flats for families with children. Apartments for families are arranged in an interlocking pattern with a central access corridor that runs through every third floor.

Cross-section of flats in the Unité d'habitation in Marseille

There is a short video at the exhibition in which Le Corbusier talks about the Unité d’habitation in Marseille. The pilotis, he says, allow pedestrian space to be recovered by lifting the building off the ground.

The flats are open-plan with a combined kitchen/dining/living room. The one shown in the video is a two-level duplex unit with two ceiling heights.

Floor plan of a flat in the Unité d'habitation in Marseille
The layout of the kitchen/living area in one of the flats at the Unité d'habitation in Marseille.

As you enter the flat, the first ceiling height is 2.26 metres which Le Corbusier describes as “intimate”. This leads into the the double-height space of the living room (i.e. the second ceiling height). The windows in this double-height space are 15 square metres. Light floods in to the apartment in winter and summer and, according to Le Corbusier, can penetrate to a depth of 20 metres.

Whatever you think of Le Corbusier (and I confess I am not a great fan of many of his buidlings), a double-height living room in a high-density housing development (designed for low-cost construction) is a generous architectural feature that you’re unlikely to find in many high-density housing developments today.

Plans and sections for the Unité d’habitation in Marseille
Plans and sections for the Unité d’habitation in Marseille. Click image for larger view.

The width of the main living room is 3.66 metres. Some of the rooms are incredibly narrow and deep. Le Corbusier gives dimensions of 1.83 width by 9 metres deep (1.83 x 2 = 3.66). The video shows these rooms being used as bedrooms.

Room size for a bedroom in the Unité d’habitation in Marseille

The kitchen in the apartment sits at the back of the living space. Unlike many modern open plan apartments where the kitchen is simply thrown against the back wall of the living room, Le Corbusier’s kitchen is enclosed by a shoulder-height ‘bar’. This gives the kitchen both a connection with the living room and yet also a feeling of separateness. In fact, a full size reproduction of the kitchen is on display in the exhibition and – apart from the lack of windows and the low ceiling height – it’s actually very nice: small but pleasantly proportioned.

Plans and sections for the Unité d’habitation in Marseille
A kitchen designed by Corbusier for the Unité d'habitation, Marseille. This is a reproduction from the Barbican exhibition (photo taken from a BBC audio slideshow on Le Corbusier).

I must admit that I was impressed by the amount of thinking and detail that went into the design of Unité d’habitation in Marseille even though there were aspects of the apartments I didn’t like. Obviously, the level of maintenance and upkeep of the building has also contributed to its success. It’s fair to say, Unité d’habitation in Marseille has a level of thinking behind it that far exceeds the generic low- and high-rise apartment blocks being built today (and which come in for far less criticism).

The Unité d’habitation in Marseille is apparently a popular and desirable place to live, occupied mainly by middle-class professionals. You can find many pictures of the building on Flickr.

Le Corbusier had a strong influence on post-war high density housing in Britain. One of the Barbican galleries looking at his British legacy states:

“It is in the area of large-scale housing, however, that Le Corbusier’s British legacy has been most controversial.

The demolition in 1993 of Basil Spence’s 20-storey residential block in Glasgow, which was expensive to maintain and subjected to vandalism, was a vivid symbol that marked the decline of Le Corbusier’s reputation in Britain.

The Unite-inspired Alton West Estate in Roehampton and the Barbican Estate in London have been acknowledged in recent years as sensitive responses to Le Corbusier’s ideas about mass housing.”


Of the two exhibitions, I enjoyed the Le Corbusier more than the Palladio. The Palladio exhibition was a little too dry and academic. It felt like a missed opportunity to look afresh at an enormously influential architect. The exhibition failed to illuminate his ideas about harmony and proportion in an accessible way or to connect his ideas with the practice of architecture today in a way that could be understood with practical examples. I wish too that more had been made of Palladio’s influence on later generations of architects. Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, is itself a Palladian building, but there’s no mention of this at the exhibition (unless I missed it!).

Ultimately, I suppose the most honest way to appreciate or assess a building is to visit and experience it in real life.

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