"Life is always right: it is the architect who is wrong"
Henry Frugès was a French industrialist who owned a sawmill and a sugar refinery in Bordeaux, and imported goods from the French colonies. In 1923 he read an article by Le Corbusier in the journal Esprit Nouveau and went to Paris to look up the author. Corbusier was then little known, but Frugès was impressed by his sympathique manner, his heavy black spectacles, and his ideas about the industrial production of houses in quantity. In 1924 Frugès commissioned a development of ten houses for his sawmill workers at Lège near Arcachon, and then asked Corbusier to design a ‘garden city’ of 135 houses for his sugar workers at Pessac, a leafy suburb of Bordeaux. This was the Quartier Moderne Frugès, Corbusier’s first major essay in collective housing.
Frugès wrote to Corbusier telling him that Pessac must be a ‘laboratory’ for the reform of low-cost house design. “I authorize you to break with all conventions, and abandon traditional methods.” The construction process should involve “a full tailorization by the use of machines, which I authorise you to purchase.” Corbusier devised a geometrical system of large square and half-square modules that could be permuted to create four distinct house types: detached, terraced, en quinconce (in a staggered arrangement), and gratte-ciel (a three-storey ‘skyscraper’). He compared the process of fitting the modules together with the game of dominoes. All the houses had flat roofs and open plans. The windows were elongated horizontally. Several of the types had spaces that were roofed but not walled, for terraces or garages. The intention was to use poured concrete throughout, but in the event, and despite Frugès urging the use of the latest technology, the walls were built by hand in clinker block.
From contemporary photographs, and going by the reactions of the Bordelais who decided the houses were ‘North African’, one gets the impression that they were white. In fact, Corbusier and Frugès – himself a talented painter in watercolours – took great pains to choose a series of refined colours for the external walls: ‘horizon blue’, golden yellow, jade green, and maroon.
The scheme was received badly, both by the general public and by members of the Bordeaux architecture profession. They described it as ‘the Moroccan quarter’, as a rigolarium, a ‘laughable jokery’. Frugès’s workers refused to move in, so he put the estate on sale. Just 51 houses from the original scheme were completed, but they did not sell. The situation was saved only by the introduction of a law in 1928 that offered cheap loans to low-income workers for buying land and building houses. This meant that in time the occupiers became owners, and were free to do with their property as they wished. In the crash of 1929 Henry Frugès went bankrupt, sold his companies and his mansion in Bordeaux, divorced his wife, and went to live in a tent in North Africa, where among other things he wrote an ‘Arabic opera’ for which he composed the music and designed the sets.
Over the next four decades, the inhabitants of the Quartier Modern Frugès made many changes and improvements to their houses, in the great French tradition of bricolage or creative improvisation. They added pitched roofs. They converted the long horizontal windows to more conventionally proportioned openings. They added decorative window boxes and strangely-shaped gables. They repainted the exteriors in white or colours of their own choice. They enclosed the roof terraces and garages to gain extra living space. And they built many sheds in the gardens. In the 1960s the sociologist Philippe Boudon made a detailed study of these changes, took photographs, interviewed the occupants, and published a book, Le Corbusier’s Pessac: 1927-1967, A Socio-Architectural Study. The photos show a pair of ‘before and after’ views from the book.
Boudon’s interpretation was that the owners wanted to remake their houses in traditional style, closer to the local Bordeaux ‘lean-to’ type: they were engaged in a process of aesthetic ‘vernacularisation’. His book became part of a larger movement arguing for greater involvement of occupants in housing design, and against the top-down imposition by architects of their ideas about how people ought to live. A slightly later study by the Centre for Research in Architecture, Urbanism and Construction in 1970 showed how some alterations at Pessac were simple technical responses to practical problems. People added pitched roofs because the flat roofs were leaking. They changed the shapes of openings, because they could not find off-the-peg replacements for the original specially-made windows and doors.
Some aspects of Le Corbusier’s designs positively invited the bricoleur. The original open-sided spaces with roofs were easily walled in. The internal plans were readily altered. Boudon found one owner who was particularly pleased by a re-arrangement of rooms and walls that he had just made, replacing a conversion by a previous occupant. Boudon informs the book’s reader that the bricoleur – who had never heard of Le Corbusier - had unknowingly rediscovered the architect’s original plan. When Corbusier himself was invited to comment on what was happening at Pessac he said, rather surprisingly, “You know, life is always right; it is the architect who is wrong.” One might indeed see many of the occupants’ changes in a positive light, as an index of the flexibility that Corbusier designed into the plans at the outset.
In the 1970s and 80s, perceptions of the Quartier began to change. Architects, students and Le Corbusier fans came to visit and were dismayed by the extent of disrepair. In 1973 Monsieur Héraud, an engineer who lived at 3 rue des Arcades, restored his terrace house meticulously, and it became the first in the Quartier to be classified by the authorities as a Historic Monument. This triggered the designation of the entire estate as a ZPPAUP, a Zone for the Protection of Architectural, Urban and Landscape Patrimony. The zoning brought strict rules on any new alterations, and strongly encouraged the conversion of houses back to their original state. A social landlord bought four houses, restored them, and rented them out.
Today most of the Quartier has been splendidly restored and looks much as it must have done in 1925. But the old inhabitants have paid a price. Crowds of visitors arrive every weekend to take tours and visit the new museum, the Maison Municipale Frugès-Le Corbusier. Cindy Mosson who has written about the history and fate of Pessac says that she senses the occupants have withdrawn from the roads, gardens and public spaces, and are hiding indoors. They once made the Quartier their own, but it has been taken away from them again.
Philippe Boudon, Pessac de Le Corbusier: 1927-1967, Étude Socio-Architecturale, Dunod, Paris 1969; translated as Lived-In Architecture: Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited, MIT Press, 1972
‘Cité Le Corbusier à Pessac’, video online, ina.fr, featuring an interview with Henry Frugès
Cindy Mosson, ‘Le Quartier Moderne Frugès : Une histoire de transformations’, School of Architecture, Marne-Le-Vallée, online at http://mes.marnelavallee.archi.fr/mes/072011343.pdf