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House Plan: Keith Williams on Le Corbusier's Unité

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In the latest of the AJ’s ongoing series looking at influential housing plans, Keith Williams chooses Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles

Corb’s sectional sketch of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, summarises with extraordinary eloquence, the essence of a truly visionary concept for mass housing.

Built between 1947 and 1952, the Unité has the normal bits of architecture, a base, a middle section and a top. That is about as far as its link with architectural tradition goes.

Parkland and communal space occupy the ground plane running up to the building which is itself propped on enormous canted piloti. Immediately above, the ravitaillement, (replenishment) of food and supplies is placed at the first main internal level, so you can shop on your way home.

In the middle, the interlocking L shaped duplex sections, which remove the normal need for a corridor at every level, offer spatially distinctive dwellings with dramatic double height spaces within otherwise rather narrow but well planned apartments.

At the top the celebrated health and fitness facilities with running track and pool are set amongst an abstract arrangement of communal rooms and sculptural ventilation towers.

This section which encapsulated the idea that a single building could become a complete community, was always likely to be more successful on mainland Europe where apartment dwelling was more traditionally commonplace than in England.

What is nevertheless so powerful in Corb’s extreme notion of social living is that it contains most of the things we need such as shopping, fitness and healthcare, outside amenity space both communal, and private with each flat having at least one balcony and in these examples two.

Corb’s sketches seem as pertinent in 2015 as they did when I was a student

Urban housing has traditionally provided the secondary or tertiary fine grain within the city that gave shape and context, setting up the great citadels of political power, religion, and the arts to be the showy monuments that define a city’s image. The Unité project challenged that notion and proposed a second powerful idea; that of social housing as monumental form.

The fact that the idea when translated into myriad government funded mass housing projects, often executed in less complete versions in many cities, did produce very mixed results, does not gainsay the power of the concept.

In the UK, we have little vision of what high quality dense urban mass housing should be, and unsurprisingly government policy has repeatedly failed to find a suitable delivery mechanism to deliver an appropriate outcome to such uncertainty.

Whether or not you are personally excited by the rediscovery of the qualitative aspects of brutalism as an aesthetic, seems to me beside the point. The overarching vision for a complete way of living inherent in Corb’s sketches seem as pertinent in 2015 as it did to me when I first discovered the project as a student many years ago.

Keith Williams isfounder and director of design of Keith Williams Architects

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