In 1953 as part of the Interbau International Building Exhibition, new types of buildings were designed to eliminate the acute post-war housing shortage. International architects of the calibre of Oscar Niemeyer, Arne Jakobsen, Alvar Aalto, Pierre Vago and Walter Gropius wanted to revive the building tradition of the 1920s. The Swiss architect Corbusier, who had previously completed unités d’habitation (residential units) in Marseille (1947-1952) and Nantes-Rezé (1953-1955), was also involved, creating the design for the new unité d’habitation, Berlin style.
Due to the size of the new residential complex, the “olympischer Hügel” (Olympic Hill) next to the Olympic Stadium on the edge of Grunewald Forest was selected as the site. The construction phase lasted from 1956 to 1958. The high-rise building, with a height of 52.94 metres (174 ft), a length of 141.20 metres (463 ft) and a width of 22.96 metres (75 ft), contains 530 apartments, each with between one and five rooms. In 1979 they were turned into owner-occupied apartments. Along with a large store on the ground floor, there is also the washhouse, which serves as a cinema and the club apartment, which is used to hold exhibitions – amongst other things. In 2004, the Förderverein Corbusierhaus Berlin (Friends of the Corbusier House) e. V. was formed for the purpose of organising cultural and scientific events along with maintaining and caring for the community facilities.
The Unités d’habitation are among the most famous works of Le Corbusier. As part of a larger and more radical approach, these huge housing units have influenced the development of residential projects around the world in the decades after their construction.
Of the 5 units built, the one in Berlin has sui generis characteristics, since Le Corbusier had to adapt the design of the building to the German modulated regulatory requirements. This post will explore some of the most important features of the unité in Berlin, and will take a closer look to some details Berlin building and the surprising change in the composition of its inhabitants today.
Le Corbusier’s urban ideas
In 1922 Le Corbusier presented a radical urban plan: the Ville Contemporaine, which was a criticism of the European city at that time: overcrowded, unhealthy, bleak. Le Corbusier proposed to demolish everything and build large residential blocks surrounded by parks and arranged so that they do not shade each other.
His ideas were never fully implemented, despite the famed Swiss architect spent his life planner offering their services in many parts of the world, from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Only succeeded in Chandigarh, India.
The unité d’habitation
However, only 5 residential units were built around the world. The most famous of the units is that of Marseilles, in France, called the Cité Radieuse or Radiant City (1945). Others are located in Nantes-Rezé (1952), Berlin (1956), Briey-en-Forêt (1957) and Firminy (1960).
The idea was to build these large units as independent small towns, each with many different housing types, from apartments for singles to family residences for up to 10 people. Also, public facilities were to be included that allow these units to operate autonomously ,such as shops, sports areas medical and educational facilities within the building. It must be said, however, that after some time, the Unités began to deteriorate and they just never worked as independent “small cities”, as Le Corbusier had envisioned.
The volumes are essentially elongated boxes, supported on pilotis in order to achieve better spatial integration with its pedestrian environment. The terrace was used as a garden to compensate the occupied area to nature (the 5 principles above explained corbuserianos in its design Curutchet House in La Plata, Argentina).
A fundamental aspect of these houses was the economy, both in the materials used and in the modulation of the different elements of housing, for which Le Corbusier developed a system of proportions which he called Modulor.
Many of the compositional elements of the buildings of Le Corbusier, in particular the housing units, were designed based on the proportions of the modulor, both in plan and section, from the general dimensions to the small details.
Overview in Berlin
After the devastation of Berlin by the Allies at the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Berliners were left homeless. During the reconstruction the authorities prioritized the construction of affordable housing complexes.
In 1956 the Berlin Planning Committee received a proposal from Le Corbusier to build one of his unités. The committee wanted to capitalize on the fame of Swiss architect and found him a location for his building on the Charlottenburg hil , with superb views of the city (this is very unusual, as noted by Living Numbers magazine, as an architect is usually told a location for a project, not a project is set somewhere in the city after it is designed).
The implementation of the Berlin unité took place between 1956-59, when the city was not yet divided by the wall.
The multifamily unit is very close to the monumental Olympic Stadium built by the architect Werner March for the Berlin Olympics in 1936 during the Third Reich. The unit is located on a small hill, in the middle of a vast park. Unlike the pompous megalomaniac prelude to the stadium, the access to the unité is indirect, through a winding road that approaches from the northwest and allows a general visual perception of the block, a resource also used by Le Corbusier in his approach to other works, such as the church at Ronchamp, for example.
Unité in Berlin
Le Corbusier’s proposal for Berlin includes 530 apartments distributed in 17 levels. However, they are accessed only through 9 “streets” which are actually quite wide corridors, much wider than those of a common residential building, where residents would supposedly enjoy social interaction.
Each house also has separate balconies, forming a grid than can be seen from the exterior. This allows light to enter, but protects the inside of excessive solar radiation.
The idea of using color to give some character to the repetitive facade has been used in subsequent residential buildings throughout the world, such as the recent Shinonome Canal Court in Tokyo Bay, by Toyo Ito, Riken Yamamoto and others .
Unlike other unités, like Marseille, Berlin has little additional facilities. At the beginning a children’s nursery, a post office, a small supermarket and a bank were added, but they do not work anymore.