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.
I’ve been attending Open House weekend for a couple of years now so I’ve seen the most of the modernist estates that usually form part of the programme. I was therefore pleased to be able to visit Vanbrugh Park Estate this year, which for some reason has never come up on my itinerary.
Vanbrugh Park Estate was built in 1962 and designed by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon responsible for the better known and more celebrated Barbican and Golden Lane estates. Set on seven acres of land bordering Greenwich Park, Vanbrugh Park Estate comprises a mixture of dwelling types: an eight-storey tower block containing 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes arranged over garages.
Like many parts of London which now contain modernist architecture built in the 1960s, the area, mostly renowned for large period villas, was bombed during the Second World War and was in need of new housing. As such, careful consideration was taken by the architects when building the new housing to respect the surrounding areas, including the blind-wall terraces that were intended to reflect Greenwich Park’s own wall using similar brickwork. In addition, simple but functional materials (such as the breeze block facades) were used to save on costs so that more could be spent on landscaping communal areas, giving the estate a more utilitarian than luxurious feel – more Golden Lane than Barbican, if you will.
Two properties were open when I visited. The first was one of the maisonettes over the garage blocks. The apartment was reached via a communal walkway and comprised a conservatory-like entrance area, kitchen, living/dining area, bathroom and two bedrooms. The owners were clearly architecture and design enthusiasts and had restored a number of original features in the apartment including the wood panelling, black vinyl floor tiles and fireplace in the centre of the living area.
The second property was one of the low-rise terraced houses. Set over three floors, the entrance of the house opened onto a semi-open plan living, dining and kitchen area with stairs down to a bedroom and the garden and stairs up to two further bedrooms and a bathroom. There wasn’t much left in the way of original features in this house (the central fireplace had been removed and that bannister is definitely not original) but it was deceptively spacious and still architecturally interesting.
Next on the 2021 Open House itinerary was Ethelburga Tower, a 1960s 17-storey concrete framed block of flats near Battersea Park designed by the LCC Architects Dept with Ove Arup & Partners as consulting engineers.
The block was built to accommodate 98 homes: 32 split-level maisonettes on the east and west sides of the building and 17 one bedroom single level flats and 17 two bedroom flats single level flats on the south side.
The decision to have landings on odd floors, opening onto double height access galleries (with flats on the “mezzanine” floors reached by the staircase) added a bit of interest to the architecture.
The first residents moved into the block in 1967 with council tenants buying up flats under the government’s “right to buy” legislation from the 1980s onwards.
In 2009, Mark Cowper, a photographer who was living in Ethelburga Tower at the time, staged an exhibition of photographs at the Geffrye Museum (now the Museum of the Home) of individual living rooms in Ethelburga Tower, which highlighted how differently each resident had decorated their flat.
Despite not being part of the official Open House programme (only the corridors and communal areas were open to the public), an owner of one of the split-level maisonettes kindly let me have a nose around as I was passing by.
The flat was in the same configuration as those featured in Mark Cowper’s project with an entrance hall opening onto the living room with glass-panelled door leading onto a small balcony and adjoining kitchen on the lower floor and a staircase leading up to two bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. There was also a cupboard on the upstairs landing containing a fire escape staircase leading to the roof (though I may have misheard this).
This year’s Open House weekend included access to Walters Way, a close of 13 self-built houses on a sloping, tree filled site (not unlike Great Brownings) in South East London.
Each house on the close was built in the 1980s using a method developed by Walter Segal, the celebrated Swiss architect. This method involved the use of a modular, timber-frame system reminiscent of 19th-century American houses or traditional Japanese architecture.
Although the houses were all built using the same method of construction, the houses were designed with flexibility and individuality in mind. Unlike Great Brownings, where homeowners are required to ensure that their house looks the same as all of the others on the estate, I was struck by the way in which all of the houses on Walter’s Way were unique in both style and configuration (most of having been adapted and extended since they were built).
We were invited to have a nose around two of the houses on the estate, which timber walls and flooring aside, were quite different owing to changes made by the owners to the layout and sun deck/garden patio areas outside.
The owners of one of the houses (self-build house 1 in the photos) had extended with lean to lobby which was self-built and a more substantial two-storey extension which wasn’t – whilst more straightforward than a regular build, self building using the Segal method is apparently not without its challenges.
One of the key considerations was the retention of supporting posts from the original build – here, they made for a design feature across the middle of the living area. The owners of self-build house 1 had further plans to modify and extend their house – according to them, self-build houses are never quite finished.
Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.
Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.
Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.
It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.
Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.
Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.
This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.
The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.
Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.
The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.
The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.
Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.
Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.
On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.
In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.
After not having posted anything in over a year (and not having been anywhere in over 18 months), the end of lockdown has meant that I’ve been able to get out and about to actually generate content for Modernist Pilgrimage.
In addition, the shabby bathrooms that we left out of our house renovation project for budgetary reasons have packed up after three years (the ensuite is currently being held together by tape) so I’ll be documenting the renovation of these as well over the coming months.
Thank you to anyone still reading Modernist Pilgrimage!
Although the end of our trip to Stuttgart was somewhat tainted by Storm Ciara/Sabine (we ended up holed up in a dodgy hotel next to Stuttgart airport for 48 hours waiting for a flight home), we did manage to see some excellent modernism-related sights during our time there.
In 1927, an impressive line-up of 17 architects synonymous with the Modernist Movement including the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Walter Gropius built an experimental residential settlement called Weissenhof, which translates as “the Dwelling”, on a hill on the outskirts of Stuttgart.
The settlement, consisting of 63 apartments and 21 houses, was designed as a socialist alternative to slum housing usually endured by the poor and was intended by the architects to house modern city dwellers ranging from blue-collar workers who would presumably live in the studios and smaller apartments to members of the upper middle class who would live in the larger houses.
The homes were designed to be bright spaces surrounded by verdant landscaping to promote healthy living. A key example of one of these homes was the two-family house designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret on the edge of the complex, which was recently added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List and opened to the public as a museum.
The house, essentially a fancy semi, had many features closely associated with Le Corbusier including a horizontal strip window that ran across the length of the front facade, painted steel columns on the ground level which held up first and second floors, a terrace on the flat roof partially sheltered by a concrete canopy and a monochromatic colour scheme with splashes of bold colour.
Visitors entered the building via the house on the left hand side of the semi. This house had been converted into a whitewashed museum with a modified floorplan to accommodate an exhibition setting out the genesis and history of the Weissenhof. Having climbed the modernist staircase through three floors of this rather bland museum space, you were directed down into the second, more interesting house by way of the roof terrace that connected the two houses.
The second house was laid out, furnished and decorated as it would have been in 1927. The not very substantial living area was located on the middle floor and consisted of a kitchen, bathroom and living/sleeping area with staff quarters occupying the whole of the ground floor. Apparently designed with women in mind, the spaces were narrow and simply furnished.
The Neue Staatsgalerie was designed by the British firm James Stirling and was constructed between 1979 and 1984. The controversial building, consisting of a series of connected galleries around three sides of a central rotunda, has been described as the epitome of Post-modernism.
The building was a slightly disorienting and trippy mixture of classicism (travertine and sandstone in classical forms) with modernist elements (industrial pieces of slime green steel and bright pink and blue steel handrails) and housed a collection of 20th century modern art including Picassos, Modiglianis and Schlemmers.
Vitra by StoreS
I know it’s hugely overpriced and everything that they sell is a well-worn design cliche but I can’t help but love Vitra.
At 570sq metres and spread over two levels, the colourfully fronted Vitra store that we visited on Charlottenplatz was the world’s largest retail space dedicated to Vitra. As well as stocking all of Vitra’s design cliche products (displayed as attractively as ever), the store also looked at the company’s history in the form of a small museum of sorts.
The State Library of Württemberg was designed by Horst Linde and opened in 1970. An academic library, it contained the humanities sections of the University of Stuttgart.
I couldn’t find any information online about the building which suggests that it isn’t held in particularly high regard but I thought the exterior and interior spaces were visually quite striking in terms of design and scale. It also looked like it hadn’t been renovated since 1970, which greatly appealed to me.
Flea market Karlsplatz
As far as European fleamarkets go, this was a good one. Open every Saturday since 1983, Flohmarkt Karlsplatz filled the whole of a large square, consisting of well over 100 stalls selling everything you might expect from a typical flea market including mid-century furniture, antique frames, crystalware ornaments, silverware, crockery, antique kitchen appliances, antique cameras, WW2 militaria, coins and toys.
My favourite kind of stall has always been the type that looks like the vendor has cleared out their own home and dumped it on a table (and there were plenty of stalls like this here) but there were also some slightly more professional dealer-types with higher quality tat mixed in which gave the flea market a slightly higher end feel.
Phoenix, Arizona was a bit of a step down in the glamour stakes after Palm Springs (it only factored into our plans because it was en route back to London) and we’d made the foolish mistake of coinciding our visit with Thanksgiving Day in the US (which explains why most of the photos in this blog entry look like something out a post-apocalyptic film) but it turned out that there was a lot to like about the place from a mid century/modernist perspective.
Armed with our map from modernphoenix.net (a spectacular, if slightly overwhelming resource setting out every modernist building of interest in the city), we wandered around taking in various commercial buildings.
This included Hanny’s (formerly a department store, now a restaurant) from 1947 with its international-style facade, the US Federal Building and Courthouse from 1961, Central Towers (often referred to as the “U-Haul Towers” since U-Haul’s headquarters are located there) from 1959-62, Pyramid on Central (basically a concrete inverted pyramid) from 1979, the Lescher & Mahoney office (a two-storey courtyard office building occupied by an architectural firm) from 1963, the Phoenix Financial Centre together with the “North Rotunda” and the “South Rotunda” (today used as government offices) from 1964-72, Durant’s (a longstanding steak restaurant) from 1950, the Fifth Avenue Medical Building from 1967 and the Dental Arts building (essentially a box on silts, a popular design solution in Phoenix for providing shaded parking while maximising the leasable area of an office building) from 1969.
We came across some futuristic-looking mid-century motels featuring dramatic angles, bold colours and oversized neon signs, the best example of this being the City Centre Motel (now a Travelodge) from 1959. Most of these had been left to ruin and had a distinctly seedy feel upon closer inspection.
In contrast, we also came across a concentration of nice garden apartment buildings from the late 1950s/1960s on Fifth and Sixth Avenues. These garden apartment buildings were characterised by a low-rise profile, the incorporation of a central open space, generous patios and balconies (designed to provide shade for the unit below) and a general blurring of the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. These garden apartment buildings mostly had glamorous park-like names such as Park North, Royal Riviera, Park Fifth Avenue and The Shorewood.
In terms of shopping, we discovered a cluster of around ten decent but not especially bargain-filled mid century/vintage stores along N Seventh Avenue.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Phoenix was home to several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, two of which we visited – First Christian Church and Taliesin West.
First Christian Church was first designed around 1950 for a local client which went bankrupt. The design was revived by First Christian in 1970, long after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death and was completed in 1973. Meant to “evoke the Holy Trinity and reflect an attitude of prayer”, the chapel’s roof and triangular spire were 77 ft high, supported by 23 slender triangular pillars. The church was accompanied by a separate and free-standing 120 ft bell tower built in 1978 and topped with a 22 ft cross.
Slightly further afield was Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school. This bizarre building warrants its own dedicated blog entry, which will follow.