As an architect, visiting the Unité is like coming home. So much of it feels familiar. Yet there’s a continuing sense of absolute wonder at how on earth Le Corbusier brought myriad different threads and uses together into this perfect synthesis. It’s magic.
This visit is my fourth and I’m sure I’ll be back again. I first came 15 years ago with my partner, Robert Sakula and our children but had a long time before been enthused by Peter Carl, my tutor at Cambridge. Le Corbusier was out of fashion at the time and people were getting excited about postmodernism. Peter Carl was more interested in the symbolism and Orphism of Le Corbusier rather than in modularisation, modernity and machinery, and he taught me that you could make your own Corbusian mythology and take from it what you wanted.
The Unité feels like a very special crucible in which people can live, work and play together. It is so much more than the sum of its parts. That first visit was memorable. We encountered it first as tourists; then it seemed as if the building took us in when we made friends with one of the residents as our children played on the roof and she invited us all down to her apartment for lunch. We sat out on the balcony and felt rather blessed. It was fantastic sharing her enthusiasm for the smallest details of her flat — how clever the storage arrangements are in that complicated bit in the middle of the plan that you can never quite get just looking at it on paper, or how thoughtful the variety of alcoves in the stainless-steel splashback behind the sink were.
What’s interesting for me is its ambition to be full of ways that people might meet and knit together. It’s a complete town in the air — there’s the sense of each domain being a very regulated piece that’s repeated to make up the facade. You have a double-height and a single-height apartment module that toggle together beautifully in plan and section. But for such a simple diagram, it feels very complex. It can keep catching you out as you walk around.
Added to this arrangement of apartments are many other uses. The commercial floor halfway up for shops and hotel has such a particular allocation of spaces, for example the fish counter or the place where you could pick up ready-prepared meals or have them delivered to the gorgeously-sculptural grocery deposits outside your front door. There is some very forward social thinking here to lighten the burden of housekeeping — it’s maybe what leads the Le Corbusier expert Flora Samuel to call Le Corbusier a feminist. You could drop the kids off in the nursery then have your hair done, go to the shops, go to the gym, commune with nature and the sky on the roof: the ocean liner ideal of lofty individualism and simple community. It very nearly worked. Only a few years ago when I visited it felt both surreal and straightforwardly obvious to find a working supermarket halfway up the building.
The roof feels like a vast room. You go up one step from the perimeter running track and you get a lot more of the view of the sea and the mountains over the parapet. People come up to walk, to sunbathe or to read. Everyone has their favourite place. In the summer, the pool has water in it and the children come up from the nursery, use the roof as a beach. Residents bring their lunches and the roof acts a hearth or hub for the whole community. Corbusier designed areas for picnic seating and also the “camel hump” forms for children to play on, which mimic the contours of the landscape so perfectly. There’s a lot of light and shadow to play with — it keeps giving. It’s difficult to drink it all in. I think of the roofscape as being almost mythically timeless in the generosity of its sculptural forms.
The Unité housed 1,600 people. When Fry, Lubetkin and others tried to do similar things in London, they lacked the critical mass to achieve the same palpable sense of a whole community. Le Corbusier started from the big concepts of how people might live together then drilled right down into the detail, which then informs the concept. There is a sense, as I think he puts it, of continually moving from the general to the particular and from the particular to the general.
When it was built, the Unité was practically in the country and it must have seemed like a brilliant dream to float its immense mass of béton brut above the trees. Unlike the undercrofts of most brutalist buildings that feel so desperate, here there is enough light. These amazing columns that take down the enormous load of the building and conceal the service runs start off massive and then taper to become quite delicate tip-toes before plunging underground, where they spread out again.
Le Corbusier talked most about the dual-aspect, E-type apartment where you enter below and the main bedroom is on a balcony over the living room but its opposite variant with the double-height living room/bedroom and small upstairs entrance/dining room/ kitchen also works beautifully. He was interested in having a space with perspectives that are internally dramatic and play with light at different times of day — a fantastic contrast with the perpetual twilight of the corridors. Your eyes can travel and feast — you don’t ever feel like you’re just staring at the walls and want to get out. In the apartment plans, the two children’s rooms seem oddly narrow but in reality they include so much territory inside and out for making things and experimenting, playing, or working. They are divided by a sliding metal screen with a full-height blackboard for drawing, or doing homework on. We drew on a lot of this when we did a competition for a Child’s Room for the Twenty-first Century, incorporating lots of different scenarios in a single space that could adapt and change as the child grew up. Le Corbusier was interested in letting the clutter of life play with the interior landscape. The original built-in furniture and fittings are amazing — he even designed in a baby-changing table. The cupboards have such a presence and the handles are very organic — almost like antlers.
It’s very fertile — it’s hard to think of one of our buildings that hasn’t referenced it in some way. We won a competition a few years ago called High Rise to improve a 15-storey tower in Newham and copied the Unité in many ways, in particular the idea of how a building can be a whole town. The existing tower was a bit of a stump so we proposed adding another 10 storeys and creating duplex flats with double-height wintergarden spaces like at the Unité and with a rooftop garden with both indoor and outdoor communal spaces. Our Peabody apartments in Silvertown have a communal life to them that also owes a lot to the Unité — we were thinking about shared space externally and internally and about how we could reinvent things that were important about family life. Instead of having a big open-plan living space we argued that families need as many separate spaces as possible, and designed a couchette-like living room that can become a guest room or a home office while most of the living takes place in the much larger kitchen. At the Hothouse art and community centre in Hackney we thought a lot about the Unité when we were creating a sort of shanty-town on the roof for artists’ live-work studios, a tray of objects to be seen speeding past on the adjacent railway viaduct.
The Unité has built an enduring fan base among residents — the diminutive 80 year olds we met on the roof during their regular 300m arm-in-arm promenade around the track say it’s impossible to get lonely there. The leak through the kitchen ceiling is just “c’est la vie”.
Some of the facade is a bit difficult, there is a Travelodge moment and new uses need to be found for the empty commercial spaces. But buildings often need reinventing for new audiences. And if, as at the Unité, the architecture is generous and the original programme has vision and ambition, then new life will grow on the old wood.
Post by Cany Ash in conversation with Pamela Buxton, with all photography by Gareth Gardner. Please Click Here for his website and more beautiful work.