In 1920, the renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier started to develop the concept behind what was to become his Unités d’Habitation buildings. These vast concrete apartment buildings went on to be enormously influential and are often cited as the initial inspiration for the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy.
The first and most famous of Le Corbuiser’s Unités d’Habitation buildings was La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, which was built from 1947 to 1952. Constructed in rough-cast concrete with its instantly recognisable primary-coloured panels, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture.
Set over 12 storeys, La Cité Radieuse was built to house 337 apartments, two indoor streets of commercial units on the third and fourth floors (currently occupied by a hotel, restaurant and a number of high-end stores), a nursery school and an art gallery, all topped by a expansive communal terrace featuring sculptural ventilation stacks, a running track, a shallow paddling pool for children, an open-air stage, a children’s art school in the atelier and unobstructed views of the Mediterranean and Marseille.
The building’s design incorporated 23 different apartment types, the most common being a two bedroom split-level duplex. It was a (very) faithfully preserved version of one of these duplex apartments that we stayed in during a recent visit to Marseille.
The apartment was arranged over two levels, opening from the seventh floor corridor onto a mezzanine level containing the original Cuisine Atelier Le Corbusier type 1 kitchen and a dining area overlooking the living area below. A Jean Prouvé-designed open tread steel staircase led down to the lower floor of the apartment which stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other with a balcony on each side (the building was designed with a interlocking scissor layout – the apartment across the corridor had a staircase leading to an equivalent upper floor spanning the entire width of the building).
The lower floor living space contained a living area, a bathroom with separate toilet and shower cubicle built into a cupboard-like pod and two long, narrow bedrooms at the opposite end, each with their own sink and dressing area and divided by a sliding door. All of the rooms were furnished with original free-standing and built-in furniture, including “storage walls” with various cupboards with sliding doors designed by Charlotte Perriand in collaboration with Atelier Le Corbusier.
So, what was the experience of living in a perfectly preserved (i.e. almost completely unmodernised) Le Corbusier apartment like? It was definitely an experience. Certain aspects of the original design still worked well – the double height ceiling and window over the living area was dramatic and allowed plenty of light to flood into both the upper and lower floors of the apartment, enhanced by the dual aspect on the lower floor. The extensive built-in storage was functional and attractive.
Other things worked less well: the way that the lower floor stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other combined with the relatively narrow width of the apartment made it feel a little corridor-like, especially the bedrooms which were particularly long and thin.
The original kitchen, while beautifully preserved, was lacking from a practical perspective by modern standards (the oven was particularly difficult to use without scorching yourself) and the less said about the claustrophobic shower in the windowless cupboard (painted black, no less), the better. Lastly, those gorgeous-looking Charlotte Perriand sofas in the living room made for the least comfortable seating I have ever sat on.
The communal areas of the building and roof terrace (even though the shallow pool had been drained for the winter when we visited in March) were, however, spectacular.
I understand that you can join a tour of the building which includes access to at least one of the apartments. If were to redo our visit to Marseille, I would probably join that tour rather than rent an apartment for the full authentic experience of staying in a Le Corbusier building.
Updated 1 July 2020
Having prioritised doing up the house when we moved in, we pretty much left the already pretty ramshackle garden that we inherited from the previous owner to run wild for over a year (as my previous blog entries on the garden from April and June last year – see below – demonstrate).
We were finally forced into taking action when a large tree at the end of the garden fell down during a storm, crushing the row of tall bushes that previously divided our garden and the communal green behind it. While this did mean we no longer had any privacy from any neighbours using the communal green, we quite liked how the garden now felt a quite bit longer and brighter.
We factored this new absence of dividing line between our garden and the communal green into our plan: in the back, we would replace the dirt patch with turf (which wasn’t possible previously, given lack of sunlight), levelled with the communal green so that when looking out from the house, there would be the illusion of a continuous grassy lawn as far as you could see (or at least to the back of the communal green).
We would lay a new back patio (concrete slabs with gravel poured in between them) and the sloping dirt path running down the side of the house would be fitted with stepped sleepers, paving stones, gravel and new planting. We would re-lay the wonky paving stones out front and install a large box planter, to be planted with herbs, behind the fence next to the old shed (which was just too full of crap to even contemplate getting rid of). Finally, the dirt patch in front garden would be completely filled up with new plants and shrubs to frame the cherry blossom tree in the centre.
In a bit of very fortunate timing, we hired a team of landscape gardeners to carry out this plan at the end of February which meant that they had just finished work as lockdown began at the end of March.
On the whole, we were really pleased with the end result and it’s been really nice to witness everything blooming and flowering (lawn aside, which always seems to look a bit brown in places) over the past three months spent at home.
There are, of course, a couple of things we might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. For instance, whilst the gravel/slab combo we used for the back patio would have been great in Palm Springs (the source of inspiration) where there is practically no wind and the only vegetation consists of cacti and palm trees, it has proved pretty unsuited to a windy English garden with the sorts of trees and plants that shed on a daily basis – I find myself constantly having to kick dislodged gravel back into place and picking debris out of the cracks like food from between teeth.
We also probably wouldn’t have given total control over to the landscape gardeners when it came to the planting: due to a lack of knowledge and confidence on our part, we just handed them a sum of money to purchase whatever plants they thought would look good and would have the best chance of survival in our garden. It just so happened that the landscape gardener had a thing for rhododendrons (which admittedly have done pretty well thus far, even under the canopy of a huge tree of heaven out front) and so we have ended up with… quite of a lot of them.
The same goes for the herbs: due to the landscape gardener’s selection, we seem to have a lot of mint (which we don’t really use and also seems to grow like a weed) and not much of anything else. This, however, may be also be down to the family of foxes which seems to have installed itself in our garden, though it’s entirely possible that they have been here all along, camouflaged in the overgrown mess that our garden used to be.
In terms of finishing touches, it would be nice to get some smaller pots and planters for the back patio to soften it up a bit. We also recently bought a Tolix-style metal circular table (aka a knock-off from Swivel UK) and some stools to accompany the loungers on the back patio just in case we have a socially distanced barbecue before the end of summer.
23 June 2019
Given that we have no appetite for a full-on landscaping project this year (we did call in a gardener to remove weeds and anything that was clearly dead/rotting but that was the extent of it), we decided instead to make a few additions to make the garden a little more inviting for when we have guests over this summer.
Inspired by this photo of the rooftop garden in the Berkeley Hotel in London that I saw in a magazine, we decided to get a pair of budget-friendly Applaro loungers and the matching side table from Ikea and cover them with sunshine yellow pads and cushions from online store Maison du Monde. We also bought a simple Dancook barbecue and hung up some solar-powered lanterns and some Ikea outdoor lighting.
This limited window dressing does not conceal the fact that the garden is still a bit of a ramshackle mess (I still want to re-landscape at some point, adding bit of grass and more planters/beds containing a variety of different plants and shrubs) but it’s going to have to do for now.
22 April 2019
Given that both my partner and I have lived in flats for all of our adult lives, neither of us have any experience of looking after a garden.
This meant that we were at a bit of a loss when it came to dealing with the quite mature front and back garden that came with our new house – we had no idea what to do with it or when so we just left it to its own devices (save for removing a rusty old washing line and getting the builders to straighten out the wonky wooden fence in the front garden) while we concentrated on doing up the house itself.
Six months and two season changes later, it feels like we should do something about it. All the dead leaves and mulch that accumulated in autumn and winter have formed a crispy brown dirt bed everywhere, interrupted by spiky-looking weeds which have started springing up at an alarming rate in the last few weeks.
The trees, plants and shrubs that aren’t weeds (which it was quite nice to witness sprouting out of the ground in unexpected places at the start of spring, especially the little tree in the front garden which unexpectedly turned out to be a cherry blossom which flowers in mid-March) could also do with some attention before they get even more overgrown and out of control than they already are.
We’ve called in a gardener to carry out this haircut in the next few weeks so I’ll update this entry if there is any discernible difference worth reporting on. In the longer term, it’d be nice to carry out some slightly more adventurous landscaping. The wonky paving stones leading up to and in front of the house could definitely do with being re-laid and while the ground is too uneven for a lawn in the back garden (and I don’t think I could face maintaining that every week), I like the idea of cultivating a few planters or beds like some of our more green-fingered neighbours.
Sunnylands, a stunning 200 acre estate containing a 25,000 sq ft mid century house, three guest cottages, a private 9-hole golf course and 13 man-made lakes was the winter retreat of the late ambassadors and all-round power couple, Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
The pair frequently hosted famous entertainers, political leaders and basically anyone rich and/or influential at the sprawling estate (often referred to as “Camp David of the West”) from when it was completed in 1966 all the way through to 2009 when ownership passed onto The Annenberg Foundation Trust upon Leonore Annenberg’s death.
The estate, which was almost completely hidden from public view by a pink-brick wall and a thick belt of eucalyptus, olive and tamarisk trees, was open to the public for tours during our stay in Palm Springs. Our tour began at the 15,000-square-foot visitors’ centre, designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles in a compatible neo-modernist style and situated on 15 acres of desert gardens adjacent to the estate, from which we were transported to the main house by golf buggy.
The 1966 main house, with its distinctive pink Mayan roof, was designed by mid century architect A. Quincy Jones in his signature style, namely spacious, open rooms on a single floor with vast stretches of glass walls offering views of the pool, the golf course and the purple San Jacinto Mountains.
The main, almost temple-like entrance opened into a vast atrium and living room featuring a bronze Eve by Rodin at its centre. Eve was accompanied by a similarly significant art collection on the walls acquired by the couple, with about 50 works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Andrew Wyeth, and Monet (though most of these paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art following Walter Annenberg’s death in 2002; the ones still up on the walls were high-tech facsimiles in perfect replicas of the original gilt frames). The rest of the house seemed to branch off the central atrium, with an almost overwhelming run of interconnected rooms that flowed on from one another.
The interiors and virtually every piece of furniture were designed by William Haines and Ted Graber, known for decorating the Reagan White House. The “Hollywood Regency” style was quite unlike anything I’ve seen paired with mid century architecture before: it was maximalist in a really chintzy sort of way featuring things like cream-linen sofas embroidered with pale-blue floral motifs; lacquered coffee tables, rare Chinese objects encased under glass tops, an entire wall display of Steuben glass, a sunshine yellow master bedroom, Meissen porcelain, Regency gilded silver and Ming vases. I can’t say that it was all to my taste but I couldn’t help but admire its sheer opulence.
While the interior decor and furnishings were a bit of an acquired taste, the views out onto the grounds from the terrace (where photography was finally permitted) were undeniably spectacular.
Photographs of main house interiors courtesy of a Google image search – photography was not permitted inside the main house during the tour.
Aside from nosing around desert modernist houses, we also tried to fit in seeing everything else that Palm Springs had to offer from a mid century/sightseeing perspective (which, as it happens, was quite a lot).
Palm Springs City Hall (1952-1957)
Palm Springs City Hall was a classic Albert Frey mid century design built between 1952 and 1957. Frey incorporated a distinctive portico overhang at the main entrance with a circular cut out (framing three tall palm trees which shoot up out of it) and used aluminium piping cut at right angles to create brise soleil, shielding the front of building from the intense morning and early afternoon sun. The facade and most of building reportedly looks much the same today as it did when it was completed in 1957. The interiors were comparatively dreary.
Sunnylands Estate (1966)
The mid century Sunnylands estate was developed in the early 1960s and was home to influential couple Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Located at Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope Drives, the property has been the vacation site of numerous celebrities and public officials including several US presidents. While the exterior and gardens were indisputably stunning, the interiors were an interesting, debatably attractive blend of mid century modern and premium American chintz. A separate blog entry dedicated to the estate will follow.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1949-1963)
Probably Palm Springs’ most popular tourist attraction, this gondola ride treated us to a double-digit temperature drop, snow-covered mountains, some interesting mid-century architecture (the rotating cars and the angular stations at both ends were constructed between 1949 and 1963 and designed by renowned mid century architects Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams) and a view of the entirety of the Coachella Valley when we reached the top.
Bank of America (1959)
Located at the south end of Palm Canyon Drive, the Palm Springs branch of Bank of America was designed by Victor Gruen Associates and built in 1959. The architects were reportedly inspired by the shape of le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp but seemingly decided to take the building in a more bold direction with the rounded edges and primary colour palette. I thought it looked like something out of The Flinstones i.e. just on the wrong side of cartoonish.
Tramway Gas Station (1963-1965)
Designed by Albert Frey and Robson C Chambers and built in 1963-65, this former gas station with its distinctive cantilevered wedge-shaped metal canopy was converted into the Palm Springs visitors centre in the 2000s after a long period of disrepair and a unsuccessful stint as an art and sculpture gallery. It is referred to as the Tramway Gas Station due to its location at foot of Tramway Road, the long road leading to the entrance for the Palm Springs aerial tramway.
Saint Theresa Elementary Church (1969)
St. Theresa elementary church was designed in 1969 by William Cody, one of the forerunners of modernist architecture in Palm Springs. The church featured a vast concrete wall, which curved upward like an inverted arch, surrounding the church and blocking wind, street noise and quite a lot of light – the church was cool and dark inside. This was reportedly international so that worshippers could forget the outside world and focus on the spiritual character.
Shell Gas Station (1964)
Until recently a Shell Gas Station, this structure was designed by architect William F. Cody in 1964. This is the last of five architect-designed mid century gas stations in Palm Springs that still operates as a gas station.
Ace Hotel (1965/2009)
Opened in 2009 on the site of a converted Howard Johnson motel built in 1965, the Ace Hotel had a slightly irritating modernist meets Americana ironic/hipsterish vibe. Everything seemed to have been designed for the explicit purpose of looking good on Instagram. The hotel was broken down into different buildings (that made up the original motel), most of them facing a central pool, the location for pool parties and DJ sets frequented by Coachella festival-going types.
The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five (1955)
A collective of 14 rather expensive shops selling clothes and mid-century homewares in a very photogenic 1955 E. Stewart Williams-designed building with a pink facade in Uptown Palm Springs. It was recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site (“We would trek from LA to Palm Springs for a visit to The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five alone!”) which gives a good idea of the kind of place it was.
Antique shopping at South Palm Canyon Drive
I found most of the shopping in Palm Canyon Drive, the main shopping street in Palm Springs, to be expensive and a bit pretentious (in the same vein as The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five – see above) so I was pleased to discover this cluster of antique, vintage, art, and thrift stores set along East Sunny Dunes Road and Industrial Place. My favourite stores were Sunny Dunes Antique Mall and the Antique Galleries of Palm Springs, both warehouse-like spaces containing labyrinthine mazes of rooms filled with vintage tat to buy. Prices weren’t exactly flea market level but were reasonable/affordable enough (the average price for a single item was about $25).