I went to a beautiful university with a sprawling campus and aging, Gothic buildings that reeked of knowledge and power—all except for the library, which was an oppressive 1960s prison of cement and steel with low ceilings and wide hallways. I hated that library, and yet I have always been fascinated by the idealism that drove the great modernist architects: van der Rohe, Gropius, Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. The chasm between the better world dreamed of by those sculptors of human space and the populist prisons they left for those who followed has long been of fascination to me. And so I stepped onto the S-bahn with intrepid photographer Chris Philips, and made my way to Charlottenburg and Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation.
Stepping off at Olympiastadion is like stepping into another world where space and population are structured differently. To the right, the gaping monolith of a stadium built by the Third Reich for the 1937 Olympic Games, to the left Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, known as The Le Corbusier House. Great buildings rise up like giants of cement and stone, and yet not a single soul can be seen walking the streets, a far cry from what Le Corbusier himself imagined.
Outside the Le Corbusier House in Berlin. Photo: Chris Phillips
The beginning for Le Corbusier came in 1956 when the Berlin Planning Committee, struggling with the relocation of thousands of Berliners left homeless after the war, received a proposal from the famed architect for the building of one of his unités. Designed to function as a small city in and of itself, each unité (and there are five in existence) was envisioned as a grid of streets (in actuality wide corridors) that would encourage social interaction and spacious apartments for individuals as well as families.
According to Architectural Moleskine, “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…an independent measurement system that would be more related to the proportions of the human body… based on the Fibonacci series and the golden section.” And, in fact the facade of the Unité in Berlin are decorated with Le Corbusier’s own depictions of the Modulor.
Hannah with the “Modulor” decorations on the facade of the building. Photo: Chris Phillips
Which brings us back to Berlin, to the short walk from the S-bahn to the Le Corbusier House on the hill, which, from afar, appears far brighter and more cheerful than I had imagined. I knew that Le Corbusier intended to express the individuality of each of the inhabitants with the colored tones applied to the outside of the building, but I expected to see retro-chic imitations of cheer, faded by the ravages of time. Instead, I felt duly comforted by the bright exterior and heartened by the large windows and slim inviting shape.
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