Les vacances, summer 2016

During the summer, we drove to Denmark to stay with architect friends there.  En-route we stayed one night in eastern France and one night in Germany and I noticed that we would be passing very close to Ronchamp on the second day.  For those that do not know, Ronchamp is the site of a pilgrimage chapel that was reconstructed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s.  The chapel is situated in a superb location on top of a hill in wooded country overlooking the village of Ronchamp in the Haute-Saone and looking out over the Saone valley plain to the west and the Belfort Gap to the east.

In 1950 Le Corbusier was asked, by the Archbishop of Bésancon, to design a new chapel at Ronchamp to replace the one destroyed during the war and unusually, the church authorities wanted to break with tradition and commission a truly modern building.  Le Corbusier, after first refusing the commission agreed to it after visiting and being inspired by the site.  While differing from the majority of his other ‘International Style’ buildings in its irregular and sculptural shape (apart from sharing some of the sculptural shapes found on the roof of the Unite building), it is a truly modern building in its use of materials and its handling of form and space.

I last visited the chapel in the early 1960s when I was a student and I was keen to re-visit it.  Since my last visit, a bell tower designed by Jean Prouvé has been constructed adjacent to the chapel and a new entrance building, visitors’ centre and a convent for the ‘Poor Clares’ a mendicant order of contemplative nuns all designed by Renzo Piano have been constructed below the chapel.  There has also been extensive landscaping of the area around the site.

We arrived there early one morning before many other tourists had arrived and had the chapel more or less to ourselves.  The new buildings by Renzo Piano sit below the chapel and are built into the hillside with ‘green’ roofs so that, from above and from the chapel itself they are not visible.  They are very simply but very nicely detailed.  I particularly liked the profiled steel sheets that project out over the windows to protect them from direct sunlight which is similar to a detail I have used many times in buildings in the tropics.

The chapel itself consists of the main space the floor of which slopes down to the altar and which is mainly lit by small windows punched through the south wall, and two small side altars that are lit by clerestory windows.  The roof to the main space appears to float above the walls as there is a 10 cm gap between the top of the walls and the underside of the dramatically curved roof.  The interiors are quite dark with subtle lighting from the small windows in the south wall and from the clerestories making for a very dramatic space.  The main ‘pilgrims’ door is also on the south side and is very large and covered inside and out with coloured enamel designs by Le Corbusier.

On the eastern side the roof over-sails an external altar and pulpit that face onto a large space between the chapel and the ‘pyramid of peace’ (a memorial to the fighting that took place in 1944), that can accommodate 10,000 pilgrims.

All-in-all a very special place that impressed even a weary old cynic like myself!

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While in Denmark we stayed at our friend’s summer house at Marielyst on Lolland, Denmark’s most southerly island.  While there, we visited the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum which is a purpose-built regional art museum designed by Tony Fretton Architects (they won the commission in a competition) to house the Storstrom Art Museum’s permanent collection of Danish fine art from the period 1780 – 1980.  The building also houses galleries for temporary exhibitions, a shop, a café, a learning centre and admin and storage spaces.

The museum is located deep in the Danish countryside, which in Lolland is very flat and open, and very close to the sea.  It is surrounded by farmland and a lot of sheep which can wander right up to the walls of the building.

The museum is a low-key, low-rise building set in a loose assembly of existing rural buildings including a large, long barn and a manor house.  It is constructed of brick, painted white with high roof-lights (to stop direct penetration of sunlight) over the main gallery spaces.

At the entrance end are the café and shop with views of the long, central gallery and at the other end of this gallery is a rather strange space, off-set from the main axis of the building and having full-height windows giving views of the surrounding countryside, the sea and the sheep.  The other galleries lead off the central galleries and all of the galleries are very well lit for the display of paintings (unlike many galleries that I have visited recently.  Altogether a very nice building, if somewhat unexpected given the location, and the antithesis of Ronchamp.

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On our way back to Sérignac we stopped off in Utrecht and visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  I also wanted to visit the Zonnestraal Sanitorium in Hilversum designed by Jan Duiker which I made a study of when I was a student but unfortunately we did not have time.  The Rijkmuseum has been completely renovated and extended (by Spanish firm Cruz y Ortiz) and it is an amazing building beautifully renovated (though I felt that some of the detailing let it down) and has some wonderful paintings.  Best not visited in August though; too many tourists only interested in taking snaps of themselves and of the paintings!

We then stopped in Paris in Poissy outside Paris in order to visit the Villa Savoye which I had never visited but we also had time to visit the Picasso Museum in Paris itself.  Another renovation and extension of a beautiful existing building (the Hotel Salé) and the result is quite stunning.  Beautiful materials and exquisite detailing (that cost a fortune) by the architect Jean-Francois Bodin and of course the contents are extraordinary (there was an exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture on when we visited); well worth a visit at any time.

The Villa Savoie, the weekend home of the Savoye family was constructed between 1928 and 1931 and was the culmination of the architect’s research and the first implementation of his ‘Five Points of New Architecture’: the use of piloti to raise the main part of the building off the ground; the provision of flat roofs and roof gardens; the separation of structure and internal walls to facilitate open-planning; the separation of structure and façade so that windows can be freely placed and the provision of long, horizontal windows.

The house is set in the middle of a large, flat lawn across which a gravelled road leads to the entrance of the house (which is at the rear) around a curved, glazed wall the diameter of which was based on the turning circles of the cars of the day.

On the ground floor are the main entrance and the service rooms: a servants’ room, a laundry and a large garage.  From the entrance a dog-leg staircase and a ramp lead up to the first floor where are located the main living areas: the living room that opens onto a large terrace; a kitchen and pantry; the main bedroom with its own bathroom and a dressing room that opens on to the terrace and two other bedrooms that share a bathroom.  The staircase and another ramp lead up to a roof terrace and a ‘solarium’ protected by a curved wall. When the house was built there would have been views of the Seine from both terraces but these are now obscured by trees.  Le Corbusier based the design of the house on the ramps that link the ground floor to the first floor and the first floor to the roof terrace and all of the communal spaces revolve around these ramps which also open up the centre of the building.

With the ground floor set back from the first floor on three sides, the house appears to float above the ground on its slender pilotis and the continuous ribbon windows to three sides on the first floor (and a similar opening on the fourth elevation to the first floor terrace) do away with any idea of front and back while the stark white walls with the ribbon windows set almost flush give reality to the architect’s idea of a house as a ‘machine for living’.  In actuality, even today, it seems to me that the house would make a very useable and enjoyable home (even though the Savoyes did not seem to enjoy it very much!).

At the entrance to the site is the caretaker/gardener’s house which is delightful and is apparently the only built example of Le Corbusier’s minimum one-family house.

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Le Corbusier in Marseilles

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I recently spent a weekend in Marseilles, staying in the small hotel located on the third floor of Le Corbusier’s building, l’Unite d’habitation or La Ville Radieuse.  This fulfilled (rather late in life) a student ambition to visit the building (it should be remembered that when I started at the AA, the building was less than 10 years old and its design was then probably at the height of its influence).  I was not then a great Corb fan being more under the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright although I did visit and admire the chapel at Ronchamp.

L’Unite d’habitation was the culmination of the work that Corb had been doing for many years on high-density social housing: a high-rise building raised off the ground, set in a landscaped garden, orientated to face east-west in order to obtain maximum sunlight and containing compact family apartments and communal spaces.  It was a vertical ‘city’ containing many of the facilities associated with cities such as dwellings, shops, offices, schools, hotels, restaurants and sports facilities.

The building was designed immediately after the end of World War II and was intended for the use of residents of the city who had been displaced by the war.  It was completed in 1952 and is constructed largely of reinforced concrete (the cheapest material then available) which is mostly exposed and finished ‘off-the-shutter’, Corb making a virtue of the often very rough concrete finish.

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The building is large: 137 metres long x 56 metres (18 stories) high x 24 metres wide and has 337 apartments designed to accommodate around 1,600 inhabitants.  The apartments are mainly arranged as 2-storey units with a double-height living room at one end and one level of each apartment occupying the full width of the building.  The apartments interlock with access to one apartment on the lower level and to the other at the higher level (see sketch section below).  Access to the apartments is from wide, internal ‘streets’ and because of the interlocking design these streets are only necessary at every third floor giving a total of five streets.

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Although the apartments were comparatively small, they gave the impression of being larger because of the use of large areas of glazing and the provision of double-height living spaces and external balconies and even though the building contained a large number of inhabitants, the individual units were very well soundproofed through the use of a sophisticated acoustic separation system (and double-glazed windows; in the late 40s!) giving the residents a high degree of privacy.

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There were also shopping streets with when the building was completed, a fishmonger, butcher, greengrocer, bakery café, laundry, post-office and a barbers together with offices and a small hotel.  On the 8th floor there was (and still is) a kindergarten and on the roof terrace there were a variety of communal spaces including a running track, a solarium an open space for gymnastics, a sauna and a children’s paddling pool that is still in use.  There was also a centralised heating system serving all of the apartments.

A great deal of thought was given to the detail design of the apartments and Corb brought in two other well-known architects to assist him; Jean Prouve who designed the acoustic separation system and the steel staircases and Charlotte Perriand who designed the kitchens and other interior fittings.

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There are two basic apartment types: the first type (supérieur) has access at the lower level with a kitchen and dining area and a double-height living space at that level and a staircase up to the higher level which contains the main bedroom on a balcony overlooking the living space and two further bedrooms on the other side of the building.  The second type (inférieur) has the entrance on the upper level with a kitchen and dining area at that level overlooking the double-height living area below.  Access to the lower level is via a staircase down to the sitting area which is combined with the main bedroom with again two further bedrooms on the other side of the building.  See sketch plans below.

Plans

The apartments are well designed and detailed and very well serviced.  The kitchens have built-in cupboards and appliances; the main bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms, there are separate WCs and shower rooms for the use of children and visitors and the two subsidiary bedrooms have their own wash-basins (and this was at a time when nearly 50% of houses in Marseilles did not even have toilets).  There are also lots of built-in cupboards and shelving units.  Central heating is provided by large, square radiators that run the full width of the apartments below the full-height windows and form a step at the bottom of the windows with a timber top to protect them.  The design of the apartments, with every unit having one floor that occupies the full width of the building, means that all apartments have views of the gardens, mountains and the Mediterranean and all have sun in some rooms in the morning and the afternoons.

So how has the design and the actual building stood up to the passage of time? The concrete finishes have in the main worn well, they are not badly stained and look good especially in contrast with the coloured panels to the balconies.  There are some problems especially on the roof terrace with spalling of areas of concrete over the reinforcement and some fairly minor elements on the roof terrace have also had to be (discretely) reinforced with steelwork.  The building is heavily modelled with massive pilotis on the ground floor, inset balconies and horizontal and vertical brise-soleil and the effect of the movement of the sun over the building during the day is very pronounced and quite dramatic.

I managed to get into one of the apartments (type inférieur) with the entrance and kitchen/dining area on the top floor and wonderful views out over the city through the full height glazing.  The interior seemed to have worn very well especially the kitchen where the original sink worktops and fittings are still in use.  The bathroom has however had new sanitary-ware and the lining to the shower was looking a little sad!  There was plenty of storage space for a small apartment and some ingenious storage ideas such as a cupboard door with built-in shelves and storage compartments.  The two children’s bedrooms also seem to work very well although they are very narrow and quite dark at the entrances.  The large sliding door between the bedrooms transforms the rooms when open.

The problem with this apartment type is the lack of a division between the sitting space and the main bedroom on the lower floor.  A previous owner of the apartment had got over this by constructing a floor across the double-height space creating a separate living area on the top floor and a private bedroom on the lower floor.  It has solved the privacy problem but at the cost of losing the double-height space!  A number of owners of this type of apartment have apparently done this.  The other type of apartment does not of course have this problem.  My only other major criticism of the building is that the access streets do not have any natural lighting and are rather dark and gloomy even with Corb’s the use of bright colours.

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The building does deal very well with Marseilles’ hot climate which has temperatures in summer that range from 17 to 29°C and in winter from 2 to 12°C.  The building is orientated to face east-west to obtain maximum sunlight into rooms when required but the brise-soleil protects rooms from much of the sun during the summer but allows low-level sun into the rooms during the winter.  The design of the apartments with one floor occupying the full width of the building together with the double-height space on one side and the full height windows/doors to both sides allows a good deal of cross-ventilation through the apartments to keep them cool when it is very hot.

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It is interesting to contrast the design of this building in terms of climate control with a similar building in the tropics, my main area of concern.  If I was designing a similar building in the tropics, I would orientate the building to face north-south in order to reduce solar penetration to a minimum all the year round but keep the brise-soleil to keep the sum off the windows and the face of the building.  The provision of cross-ventilation to rooms in the tropics is very important to improve comfort levels and the design of these apartments would work very well.  In fact there is still a lot to be learned from a study of the building and I am very glad that I have at last been able to visit it.

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It is also interesting to contrast this ‘iconic’ (I hate that word and most of the buildings now associated with it!) building with some of the buildings that have recently been constructed in Marseilles.  At the entrance to the old port, two buildings have recently been constructed: the Villa Méditerranée and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation (MuCEM) both completed in 2013.  The former is a very curious building both in concept and design.  It has an auditorium (in the basement below sea level), a large atrium and galleries and takes the form of inverted letter ‘L’ with the top consisting of a huge cantilever.  It was closed at the time of my visit but it does seem to be a very strange building with large areas of the building being taken up by the structure and no protection from the sun to the large areas of glazed walls.

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The second building is more interesting.  It takes the form of a large, glazed cube with the southern wall and part of the roof terrace being given some protection from the sun by pre-cast fibre-cement lattice panels attached to the exterior of the building by a very complicated system of stainless steel arms.  The building is surrounded on 2 sides by external ramps that climb up to the roof terrace and on the other 2 sides by subsidiary spaces.  This means that all of the entrance and exhibition spaces are internal and artificially lit.  The entrance area is particularly badly planned and lit and not, in my opinion a very nice space at all!

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A more interesting use of brise-soleil (in this case obscured glass panels fixed to the external face of the building) can be seen at the FRAC PACA building, a gallery for the display of contemporary art which was unfortunately closed at the time of my visit.

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A building, or rather a roof by Foster that is quite good fun is the ‘Ombriere’ at the north end of the Old Port.

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