Research Paper

Qianwen Deng


Topic: This paper describes the design and influence of a seventeen-story apartment building called the Unité d’Habitation that was built between 1947 to 1952 in the southern French city, Marseilles. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier designed the building and him who expected to be the prototype for mass housing from the modern period. This building also became the apex of his life’s work. It had an enormous influence on the architectural profession, also formulated design principles after World War II.

The development of the design of the building is explained, together with the relevant influences. A critical investigation concentrates on the kitchen design is presented, along with a commentary on its role as a model for the new modern lifestyle.


Among the masters who laid the foundation of modern architecture and design, my favorite is Le Corbusier. Unlike the German absolutism of Mies Van der Rohe and Gropius, Le Corbusier who is from France is more of an artist. Perhaps the reinforced concrete houses of Mies Van der Rohe and Gropius can be directly copied in large quantities. But the works of Le Corbusier are always modern and straightforward at first glance, but with a particular taste, the core must be classical and elegant.

Unité d’Habitation’s apartments typically reflect this. As entrusted by the French government, designed to accommodate as many people as residential buildings, Le Corbusier did not merely develop it into today’s great matchbox all over the world. This design was to meet the most modern requirements for hygiene, aesthetics, and comfort.However, he spent a lot of state of mind, the personalization, refinement, let these people living at the houses to exclaim and got amazed by the modern lifestyle: buildings can also be so designed, the apartments can also decorate so.

After World War II, French government asked Le Corbusier to make proposals for the housing of 14,000 new inhabitants in Saint-Gaudens, for a new industrial zone next to the port of La Rochelle, and to re-build the half of Saint-Dié that had been wantonly destroyed by the retreating German army.

Then, Le Corbusier made his proposal by combing his five points principles to design a new type of architecture for united housing: Unité d’Habitation, built-in 1952 in Marseille, the 18-story concrete box is a symbol of the brutalist architecture that inspired Le Corbusier’s vision of a new city. Unite d’Habitation was the catalyst for the widespread adoption of Modern Movement architecture after World War II. The habitat residence should not be a landmark building like the Sydney opera house, but a prototype of a vast number of buildings built around the world. How did Le Corbusier make this significant movement that influenced the Modernism to later French design principles? What the outcomes derives between Le Corbusier and his primary interior designer: Charlotte Perriand, who also did the kitchen design for the Unité d’Habitation? How did Le Corbusier change the direction of Perriand’s work and, in turn, influence his architectural style? How did their vision of modern interior design help shape attitudes both inside and outside the French design community? Those questions will further investigated in this research paper.

The significant movement of French Modernism.

The modern architecture: Unité d’Habitation. Also called vertical garden city by its cross-compound structure in an open landscape. It has 23 types of rooms and can live in 337 households, enabling families or individuals of various structures to find places to live in. Its top floor has gardens for children to play in, and the 7-8th floors of the apartment are public spaces for shops and rests, the whole architecture is like a small city. Many of the 337 units are bidirectional, provide with views of the Mediterranean and hillsides at the same time, and most have two-story living rooms and balconies.

Color scheme for the building

The first thing in the vision is its vibrant color. Mainly by red, yellow and blue for the trichromatic decks. These colors are not indiscriminate. Le Corbusier believes that blue, representing the sky and evoking memories of the sea, is a “primary color” close to nature. And red, have tease means to also have the burning desire at the same time. Yellow, simple, naive, beautiful. These close to the use of natural primary colors, to give people a happy, relaxed, harmonious feeling. At the same time, these three primary colors are the basis for producing other colors, and that color cannot overshadow each other and cannot be harmonized, thus giving people a visual stimulus.As for the question why not use green on the surface, it is not hard to tell because of the surrounding green plant environment, and then highlight green on the surface of the building, which will dilute the visual impact. So the green is used indoors and in corridors.

Modern living in the micro community

This is a basic unit of a city that is supposed to awaken people from the drudgery of postwar life and to appreciate the charm of a community. The house type is rich enough to meet the needs of various families at that time, in addition to the basic daily living facilities including supermarket, restaurant, hotel, laundry room, barber shop and post office. There are kindergartens, nurseries, adult gyms and specific public activity space on the roof. These stores were a failure at the beginning. It wasn’t enough to provide them with seven-story services not only to worship them, but they could only able to attract trade from residents, so they closed, like the school at the rooftop. Other amenities are still in occasional use, but the concrete coolness of the rooftop “garden” is not an attractive leisure destination.

As Le Corbusier indicates: this building is designing not for particular families. The purpose to design Unité d’Habitation should be a universal housing type that would be suitable for people who were to live in the new modern world. He was designing for his idea of modern people – un homme type – a type of standard man that was a strange combination of monk, artist, athlete, worker and intellectual.

Innovated new building structure

Another critical point: various spatial scales are controlled by Le Corbusier modulus. By designing this architecture, Le Corbusier invented his own new measuring system which he called: Le Modulor. ‘just fifteen measure-ments whose proportions are repeated in all the components of the building, which despite its huge size ne-vertheless remains on a human scale’. – Le Corbusier. In the design process, Le Corbusier used the humanistic thoughts of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Renaissance to evolve a series of modules, which formed a set of constant ratio series close to the golden section based on the sizes of all parts of the male body. He used the modules to determine all dimensions of buildings.

The Unite d ‘construction is the first large-scale structure to be built entirely on precast concrete wall panels, with the main structure being cast-in-place reinforced concrete. As the cast-in-place concrete formwork was removed without any treatment on the surface, exposing the rough concrete showing traces of manual operation to a rough, primitive, earthy and unpretentious artistic effect, it was propagandist as the ancestor of ‘brutalism.’ The structure of the building has several features (fig 1). The apartments that were L-shaped in cross section, and second, it had access corridors at every other level. With further explanation, it has access with every third floor, so called internal street. The idea was to produce overlapping private and public spaces called collision zones, where different communities could interact – as Ginzburg put it ‘the principal objective of constructivism … is the definition of the Social Condenser of the age’. The main framework was built on a basic 4.19 m × 4.19 m grid, with the reinforced concrete surface. The heating system uses pipe air. Even it was not an innovation, but it was unusual in Europe at the time. Eight fans with heaters and humidifiers provide warm air. The kitchens, bathrooms and toilets are all mechanically ventilated. The kitchen also installed with the popular fixture: icebox.

After the innovation of the Unité d’Habitation. Increasingly, the boxed towers have attracted derogatory names, such as “sinking estates” in the UK or “projects” in us. In France, the properties are known as HLM, short for ” moderately rented housing.” HLM quickly became a colloquial term meaning “interior or inferior.” The innovation from the Unité d’Habitation has led to a large number of these buildings being demolished. Although, as this paper illustrates, the actual Unité d’Habitation at Marseille was a prototype itself is a failure, but it is a brilliant success conceptually – at least for architects. The physical destruction caused by the World War II required not only reconstruction but also, in many places were also seen as a chance for comprehensive slum clearance.

Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand

At 1927, Charlotte Perriand already achieved considerable renown as a talented, innovative designer. When she got disappointed about to become a women designer, she even wanted to abandon design and to do agriculture instead. Le Corbusier’s book encouraged her, and she went to his studio seeking for a job. First time, she got refused by Le Corbusier with the comment:”we do not embroider cushions here.” After Le Corbusier saw her previous work at the Salon d’Automne, he decided to hire her to do his interiors for his architectures. However, at that time Le Corbusier couldn’t pay them, far from regular salary. She still insisted on working for him because the admire and encouragement, Perriand got her life support from her husband, an old Englishman, who also supported her to learn private architecture lessons.

Before Perriand joined Le Corbusier’s design organization, he already defined furniture as ‘portable equipment’- creatures in functional and efficient. Which also could be mass-produced and standardized, should not take too much characteristic. The design purpose should more towards to industrially produced and include technical aspect. Even he had been trained from a decorative arts school, by next design style movements, he rejected the original furnishing idea from the entire field of decorative arts, the concept of design new modern lifestyle became his renovated new theme.

The interior design from Le Corbusier’s design

When Le Corbusier and Jeanneret got frustrated and felt failure from an exhibition, display with German designs. The feedback and judgment he got from the journalists were all complaining the inefficiency furnishings of his kitchens and the ambiguous term of ‘engineer’s aesthetic.’ Roth, which was Perriand’s architecture professor introduced her, as an expert to the domestic domains, as well as an original modern sensibility that must have appealed to Le Corbusier. Even Perriand was trained more like an ‘upholsterer.’ However, she developed herself into furniture/interior designer by showing the public of her renovation for her own apartment in Paris. This achievement also became the key factor that convinced Le Corbusier: women may be more capable of handling the domestic design problems. As she keeps innovating and developing new modern design as women, which also profoundly influence the work of Le Corbusier. At the same time, Perriand always following Le Corbusier’s lead according to his new ideas and pursued similar studies. Under working at Le Corbusier’s atelier, Perriand gained more reputation on modern interior design, and she became more successful in solving the grave social problems such as housing, domestic living, women position in the social latter. At one hand, her design remained the attention to what might be seen as traditionally feminine attributes, but also in an innovative perspective: transfer functions, furnishings to a more ‘outgoing,’ independent and energetic way.

However, Perriand’s concept of new modern domestic design fits Le Corbusier’s insistence between machine-wised functionalism with humanism: types of furniture are portable and apply to different spaces, instead of designing specific location for particular pieces of furniture. (This against the design principle from Mies Van der Rohe). The modern domestic furniture should be more generic and convenient for people’s daily use.

On the other hand, their design purpose was not for general and commonly apply to all range of residents. Despite all the material and expenses, they were focusing or few middle-class residents that would have appealed only to an artistic or intellectual elite.

Kitchen later became more critical in a modern family. Le Corbusier previously thought it is only used by the servant, not of vital importance. Perriand made him changed his attitude. She was trained to emphasize the practical aspects of daily life; also, as a woman, she thought it was a significant step to beak the boundaries, bring out the women in the kitchen to entertain with public spaces.

“The kitchen is not precisely the sanctuary of the house, but it is certainly one of the most important places. Kitchen and living room, both are the rooms where one lives”. (Le Corbusier). Under Perriand’s New Women’s influences, Le Corbusier put more effort on the kitchen, as an openly, visible women domain in the residential housing. Rather than just being functional and aesthetic innovative for the kitchen, Perriand wanted the furniture became more like ‘a unit,’ which can naturally and proceed harmony to the environment. Especially after she left Atiler, Le Corbusier’s studio and went to Japan and got attracted by the philosophy of Tealism on late 1940s. She started to build a new realism- a pragmatic commitment to industrial production and the commercial market, inspired by a Zen-inspired spirituality that renounced personality and material display. After she came back from Japan, she started to concentrated more about social content that focused on her later design, with gender issue and functionality beyond industrial and mechanical revolution.

After World War 2, her design even became more practical and radical. She had also plunged into investigations of serial production and modular unites. The ‘open’ kitchen of the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles became a prototype for Perriand’s radical kitchen design.

Le Corbusier with women designers

Compare the relationship of Le Corbusier with Charlotte Perriand to Elieen Gray, two woman interior designers. Gray is more towards ‘equal’ relationship, they respected each other at the beginning, and Le Corbusier gets to know Eli Gray because of her husband, and she is openly gay, which means she did not have a child with her husband. It is a foreshadow for the later conflict between a feminist woman designer with a famous architect with a strong ego. Unlike Eli Gray, Perriand always admired Le Corbusier. If it were not him, she would completely abandon design and to agriculture. Indeed, she always obeys his requirement and convinced Le Corbusier from her feminine attitudes. As a women, a wife to her husband, a mother to her family. Perriand also thought Le Corbusier to learn and respect about domestic living arrangement too. She was willing to put her accomplishments as secondary to attach importance to Le Corbusier’s new idea.

The kitchen from Unité d’Habitation

Other than its brutalism exterior surface from Unité d’Habitation, the interior space was delicate designed to create a new lifestyle. The purpose to design this mass housing was not for practical comfort, but more than a bare existence, will be offered to modern families. It was critical for Le Corbusier to design a post-war residential housing with the latest technology. In addition, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand had been working on creating a type of built-in storage wall. It is an interior furnishing system with built-in cupboards with sliding doors which contains space-saving feature.

Various people were involved tightly in the design of the Unite d’Habitation. At 1946, André Wogenscky, who was an architect and associated with Le Corbusier, had published a functional arrangement for kitchens including basic requirements, technical equipment. At the same year, Le Corbusier’s studio: Atelier have assigned Charlotte Perriand to design the interiors of the Unité d’Habitation’s apartments and especially, the kitchen units. She developed a model that unified the kitchen layouts that widely and commonly apply to modern domestic housing. Wogenscky’s wife also participated with the kitchen design and helped Perriand to be modified and simplified the plans according to her house-wife identities. ‘The kitchen in Marseille, should become the center of French family life …’ (Marcus, 2000, p. 158). Perriand indicated that the kitchen should no longer separated or isolated from the daily social life, it should be perfectly blend into the living space, forming a public communication spot. Charlotte Perriand described this new housewife area as a bartender (Perriand et al., 1985, p. 500).

After entering the entrance door, the kitchen comes into the vision. It is only 4.8 square meters. Seven colors were specified to match the exterior color scheme: white, yellow ochre, green, umber, light blue, and light and dark grey. Also because of the kitchen layout did not come with the windows, the colors and open structure also helped with brightening the interior space with the lack of natural light. The layout of the kitchen is u-shaped, with the bottom half equipped with an integral refrigerator console and a two-tank sink, as well as a collector of vegetable peels. Below the sink is a double drawer cabinet for vegetables. The combination cabinet is in L shape. A fluorescent light tube is placed on the bottom shelf to illuminate the operating surface. The open kitchen plan blurs the boundaries between kitchen and living area. The counters’ cabinets open for both sides with two sliding doors. The stoves and tableware have specific and perceived storage spots. With the specifically manufactured kitchen furnishings, the kitchen is like a laboratory with a systematic planning system. There are two kitchen units were used at the Unité d’Habitation: the cuisine courante, installed in 295 apartments and the cuisine spéciale, produced for the 26 smaller living units. Moreover, the kitchen arrangements were all come with two versions: left and right, they are in the same design but depend on the L-shaped apartment’s layout.

The mass production of the kitchen required quick process. The construction team had to complete two prototypes kitchen in five months, as well as the continuous production of 321 built-in kitchens, about 2,500 cabinets, and cupboards. Many parts are glued together with nails and glue. However, careful manufacturing techniques were applied when necessary. To provide sufficient stability, manufacturers used dovetail and box joints. Generally speaking, the construction of furniture is accurate and firm. After 60 years of use, most of the fragments remain intact.

Recent record

In the fall of 2011, when MoMA group travel to Munich, Germany and try to examine a kitchen that the Architecture and Design Department wished to purchase. They found the collection of an assembled kitchen from Unité d’Habitation in the collector’s garage by accident. Since the truth was a rare condition for an old kitchen setup which did not be restored yet. The MoMA group bought the Unité d’Habitation’s kitchen with good conditions and hoped to do the reassembled exhibition in New York. After it had been purchased, it was again disassembled in Munich and shipped to New York. Not surprisingly, for this kitchen that nearly 60 years old, there were approximately six layers of over-paint.

One of the delightful element from this kitchen collection is, this is displayed not as antiquity, not even an artwork. In the interview, MoMa make it clear just how different this was from the items they are used to dealing with: “Unlike the majority of the collection at MoMA, this work functioned as a household kitchen for half a century prior to its acquisition, and so can be interpreted both as an artefact and as a design object.” It represents a symbol of a modern household kitchen. The goal for the museum was to highlight its usage and convenience rather than just the appearance. Instead, the construction team did the repairs to the kitchen’s assemblage that to present the kitchen in a way that best shows the original design and initial color schemes achieved by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. On the other hand, they aimed to restore the kitchen type that as close to Perriand and Le Corbusier’s vision of a postwar private kitchen in France as possible. Also in a way to enhance the concept of the kitchen design from Perriand and Le Corbusier: a tautly designed, multi-functional, mechanized life routine that expresses the idea of an absolute solution to the modern social, domestic housing at the 1950s.


The idea of an indoor living being like a sea journey runs through the design of the Unite d’Habitation. Indeed, life and travel have something in common; both contain beginning and end. They are not confined to clear facts and concrete things, but narrate a poem, a story or a drama, and shape and structure the development and continuation of human life. Under Charlotte Perriand’s help with the internal planning, Le Corbusier filters reorganize, redefines, modifies and reappears in front of people, inheriting the experience left by predecessors, from the outcome of Unite d’Habitation.

The innovative kitchen design undoubtedly is the critical and compelling turning point from the Modernism period. It also highlights the modern French design from the origin of Modernism: Germany. It broke the conventional border of the kitchen from the living space, also unify, tightening the concept of family. Indeed, the new kitchen layout also protrudes women into a more communal level. To reconsider women identities concerning the family, to the civic life. Meanwhile, the modernization of the kitchen did not deprive women’s duty as a housewife, the symbol of the carrier of life. The kitchen idea derives from Unite d’Habitation spread to the whole Europe, even to the world-wide range; not only because of its functionalism and the modern lifestyle principle beyond its utilization, but also the first step of women play an essential role in the domestic living, or, social responsibilities with further development.

The loft of the Unite d’Habitation, with its terrace and ample sunlight, is built to meet human needs. Unfortunately, later generations simplified the human things, made directly into lattice buildings, do not know whether to learn things did not gain or deliberately forget. The Unite d’Habitation, though a social residence, emphasize the dignity of the community. After all these years, are there any revolutionary advances in modern housing? Do people in cities live with dignity? To answer with a passage from Le Corbusier: “When you think of houses, you think of the houses of the rich, but more broadly, the houses of the unsightly poor. I explore ways and hope that one day, through these methods, poor people and all honest people will be able to live in beautiful homes.”


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Marcus, George H., and Le Corbusier. Le corbusier: Inside the machine for living. New York: Monacelli Press. 2000.

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