Posted on May 28th, 2012
“Architecture is able to make great play with contrasts, to harmonize simple elements with complex ones and small with great, to blend the forcible with the graceful.”
“Reinforced concrete provides a solution – a revolution of the scheme of things.”
“And when man finds himself alone in vast empty spaces he grows dishearted. We must learn how to tighten up the urban landscape and discover units of measurement to our own scale.”
“We must arrive at the ‘housemachine’, which responds most perfectly to our physiological and sentimental needs.”
I tend to forget that this architectural gem is hidden behind a set of trees just a few meters from the Olympic Stadium in Berlin’s west – a good 40 minute train ride from my home. Yet, it’s always a delight to visit the Unité d’Habitation, walk around the building and sit in the surrounding gardens for a while.
I am reminded that buildings tend to fascinate me more than pictures. It’s their three dimensionality, the fact that you can actually enter the artwork itself and that there are people living inside of it, altering the art work, giving it a special character over time. To see how the perspective, the light and even the different seasons set a tone on how you absorb the object you are looking at.
Naturally, every time I visit this place, I long to see some of the flats inside. Preferably in the state how Le Corbusier imagined them, but it would be equally interesting how the people living there might have arranged their surroundings to their liking and needs, and what time did to the overall aesthetic impression of the building. It would be the best possible way to experience if Le Corbusier succeeded with the plan he had set out for his vertical garden city and the people inhabiting it, to see and experience, how his theories already developed back in the 1920 worked out in practice.
Compared to the Unité in Marseille, the Berlin type has always been more of a residential building than the original concept of the Unités would suggest. Due to technical building regulations, shared facilities on the roof and a zone with shops on the fourth floor were never realized. There were a few stores located on the ground level, the only one remaining nowadays, being a little kiosk that was closed for the day.
The building, which is elevated by a set of concrete pillars, holds about 530 apartments, distributed along 10 streets – that’s how Le Corbusier called the 10 floors of the building. The ceilings are low, the doors leading towards the apartments painted in colors you will recognize from the outside of the building. Each street is equipped with its very own color scheme. I wonder how the architect’s original idea of tenants meeting and hanging out in the hall ways becomes reality, since they don’t seem the most inviting place to hang. Yet, some anecdotes you find in the media suggest they do.
There are many old people walking around the little pathways crossing the lawns and woods around the building. I wonder if they are still some of the original tenants, who moved in when the building was finished in 1958. Some of them smile, others just stare at me and my camera and nod grimly. When I ride the elevator to the 10th floor, the people entering and leaving the elevator greet my very nicely and I don’t get the feeling they are particularly disturbed by my presence, I am most likely just one of many people visiting the building. However I can’t help feeling like an intruder into their everyday lives. I wonder how they feel about the fact, that their home was planned and built by one of the most iconic architects of the last century. A few requests for apartments are pinned to the notice board in the foyer, at least two of those advertising themselves as future tenants claim to be architects.
All quotes from Le Corbusier: The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (Dover Architecture)