Tuesday 26 January 2010

Le Corbusier and the Salvation Army

Le Corbusier lived for most of his life in Paris until his death in 1965, but relatively few of his designs were ever constructed in the city itself. Here though is a quick look at two of his creations built in conjunction with the Armée du Salut (Salvation Army) in 1929.

1929 was an important year in the life of Le Corbusier as it marked the point where he began putting into places his theories of urban planning. The two commissions from the Salvation Army are good examples of this, with Le Corbusier himself saying that "these buildings played the role of a laboratory".

The first, alongside the Gare d'Austerlitz is the most unusual. It is not a building as such, but a converted barge called the Louise-Catherine. The barge was first built in 1915, and was initially used to transport American coal from Rouen to Paris. Less than 15 years later though it was acquired by the Salvation Army who wanted to turn it into a floating shelter. Le Corbusier was brought in to imagine a revolutionary usage of the space.

Le Corbusier himself wrote about the project;

"Le barge was 80 metres long. We built, from the bottom to the top...a vast space divided into three compartments. We added 160 beds, a dining room, kitchens, toilets, sinks, showers, private apartments and a hanging garden on the roof of the barge".

Le Corbusier wrote of its mission to house the 'clochards' (tramps) who had been chased out from under the bridges by the cold. However, it was also moved down the Seine when it got warmer and used as a summer camp for young boys. Today though it is difficult to imagine how luxurious it would have seemed at the time. The hulk is rusting, and the barge is closed off to visitors. It was nevertheless used for over 60 years until finally being closed down by the authorities in 1994. A project is now underway to restore the barge and to use it for artistic and educational purposes.

The second Salvation Army construction is situated around 1km away on the other side of the railway lines. The Cité de Refuge was designed by Le Corbusier with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, who were specifically chosen by the philanthropist, the Princesse de Polignac, who paid for the work. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret were given almost a free hand, which enabled them to come up with a radical design, but also one that would eventually be found to be ahead of its time.

The central feature of the design was a south facing sheer glass wall. The design was based around an ambitious and revolutionary system of double glazing and a type of air conditioning that unfortunately never worked. This glass wall had to be replaced in 1952 after a series of summers in which the residents had been almost baked in their rooms! A series of polychromic sun-screens were added at this point.

The idea behind this building, and one that still applies today, was not simply to house the homeless, but also to transform these outcasts into useful members of society. Despite his rather pious protestant upbringing, Le Corbusier was not a religious man, but he did share some of the principles of the Salvation Army movement, and clearly believed in this project. He created not only dormitories but also classrooms and relaxation zones, most of which are still operational. However, if it is seen as an important building today, it is more because of the role it played as an experiment for Le Corbusier's subsequent constructions.

Note: If you are interested in seeing these constructions, both feature in the 'Contemporary Architecture' free downloadable walk I produced last year. Download it here.


Anonymous said...

During my short time in a university architecture program, we spent an entire semester studying the Villa Savoye. It made me appreciate and come to admire Corbusier.
I had no idea that he did these projects for the Salvation Army. And, on our next visit to Paris we will definitely be taking this, along with your other tours.


Cergie said...

1929 est l'année de naissance de mon beau-père...
Ah ! Le Corbusier on finirait par croire qu'il est français (de même les autrichiens pensent que Mozart est autrichien et Hitler allemand)
On a beau dire il faut des grands théoriciens et des personnes ou des institutions qui leur fassent confiance pour mettre en pratique leurs théories, et quoi de plus important que le lieu de vie ?
J'aime bien ta photo du haut avec cet escalier coloré et les petits fûts rouges au coin de la photo comme un clin d'oeil malicieux...

Starman said...

One wonders what plans they have for the refurbished barge. Will it once again be a shelter for thge homeless, or the home of some large corporation?

PeterParis said...

Yes, Le Corbusier made some nice things, innovated, had some revolutionary plans for what a big city (like Paris) should look like (for Paris, fortunately not realised)...

A problem is still that his buildings often have an ageing problem. They need permanent maintaining, painting, renovating... and this is far from always the case. If his villas often have nice lines, they are very "cold" inside. Not really "cosy". I have also strong doubts on his collective bildings in general.

I think his major contribution is his wakening up of completely new and different ways of considering what the habitat should be. This is already considerable. I think however that several of his followers and colleagues did better.

Anyhow, a great bravo for this very complete post ... as usual!

(Yes, I could not open the "walk", just got a message to install some adobe tools, which I already have. Maybe it's anyhow a problem with my PC?)

Starman said...

@Peter - One wonders what you think of Habitat 67 in Montréal?

Surfanna said...

I live just a few streets away from this building. Never liked it much... but your pictures show it's originality.

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