the house of the mad man

It is the local name for Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation (or Cité Radieuse). Inspired by a culture of resistance to architectural innovation that endangers the typical southern French style, this building is known by most residents as the butt of a joke. But the building, one of France’s first high-rise social housing complex, has what I would call the typical complicated relationship with the legacy left by its mid century maker.

To preserve or not? In this case, the answer is obviously “yes,” but it brings to light some of the issues I have found elsewhere in cities that need to carefully craft the potential straight jacket of preservation controls.

From the outside, nothing can change. Residents must maintain even the paint colors on their balconies, and cannot add or delete any façade elements. Inside, anything goes. I was told that if the residents have the means, they update their apartments extensively. Unfortunately I could not access the apartments themselves, but I was able to explore the residential hallways and the commercial “street” inside the building. Hallways maintain their original aesthetics, though some of the functional elements, like two way grocery delivery cupboards, no longer operate.

The commercial street contains some shops, but they are nothing like the shops intended. A gourmet Le Corbusier themed restaurant takes advantage of the beautiful view on the Mediterranean while an architecture bookshop anchors the neighboring commercial wing.

So, the shell of the building is preserved, the apartments even in their alterations make use of the innovative duplex design, but the commercial functions fail to maintain any vitality with respect to the daily uses of inhabitants.

Beyond the building, the view of its copies, mostly designed quickly and cheaply to create cheap housing, presents another scenario, one the France has been attempting to deal with almost since its inception.

Here the social housing projects, or cité in French, suffer from two major issues: strict regulation and thin socioeconomic diversity. The first prevents both residents living in undifferentiated apartments and entrepreneurs in repetitive shops from changing things to fit their needs. The second stems from the French policy of pushing its lower income residents to the fringe of the cities, into these large housing projects with little commercial attractors to bring in other civilians even on a daily basis. The lack of a diverse economic environment prevents a difficult situation for commerce to grow.

As I post more on my time in France I will deal with both of these issues in more detail. In Marseille in particular, the haphazard placement of the high-rises away from viable public transit and major commercial centers has further reduced their capacity to adapt to the city’s growing economy.


tel aviv phase two

In the second phase of planning, when Tel Aviv expanded east, commercial areas were included. He Be’lyar is one of these zones. Wrapped around a circular dog park, the city’s high end boutiques and fashion labels occupy the ground floors of these bigger, bolder and commercially more friendly buildings.

Though perhaps not the most exciting or beautiful solution, this plan for a commercial area in the second phase of Tel Aviv exhibits design characteristics that I would say were based on the original alterations. Whether they were expressly considered by the architect, or if the new buildings simply conform to market needs, I cannot say. I imagine both were at work. Regardless, in either scenario the buildings are adapted to a more economically driven circumstance.

The upper stories contain larger, more flexible spaces for offices, which is what now occupies most buildings in the commercial areas that Tel Aviv has grown. At the ground level, the commercial strip is continuous, because all of the space at the sidewalk is valuable for visibility. At the top, structures already occupy the terraces.

The city is learning, but newer structures have already been altered by their tenants!

the flattening effect

Tel Aviv is preserved as the White City, a city of modern cubes. In its bid for world heritage status, the authors describe the city as a result of the intersection of modern planning and architecture. Certainly a simplification, the description actually goes too far in combining its planning and architecture. Actually, as it has been argued since, the architecture came from a modernist school of thought that supported open, fluid space in which were placed building objects, while the planning was based on early twentieth century garden city concepts, which by 1927, when the plan was adopted, were no longer avant garde.

Basically, Geddes made a denser plan with smaller lots than was in vogue. He also based the major roads in his plan on the existing roads, and then organized the infill. Functional zoning unconsidered, he was planning a garden suburb whose only real zoning category was residential, with some space for residentially based commerce.

Within a restrictive plan and lot division, architects may have envisioned a sea of white cubes. Or, they simply built out their buildings to the maximum size after the setback regulations that governed all sides of each plot.

Source: Tel Aviv City Archive

What it produced was a new kind of street in Palestine, one that held a depth of open space on either side. According to Nicky Davidov, the simplicity of the building design drew emphasis away from each building, allowing the street edge to function as a whole, while still creating a somewhat fluid space through the presence of the gaps in each lot. The buildings acted as volumes that filled out the street space.

Since then, the building volume has flattened into a continuous edge along the street. Growing vegetation obfuscates the side and back lots, and in some cases the front facades as well.  New additions to the sides of buildings in commercial areas fill in the side lot gaps at the ground level, creating a continuous edge along commercial streets. Balconies have been filled in with plastic shades, disconnecting the inhabitants from the street, and further flattening the facades.

But it is not only additions and alterations that have affected the streetscape. The buildings themselves were primed to support that shift. The buildings, though described as white cubes, were built with emphasis placed on the front façade, both in geometry and surface treatment. So as the side lots began to fill, the already secondary building faces disappeared altogether.

index: alteration

In the case of Tel Aviv, I think the relationship between what people have done to their individual buildings, apartments and shops, both for commercial and residential purposes, has impacted both the block and the city. Designed without major commercial centers, these have grown through demand and eaten through the residential fabric, changing not only the appearance and function the buildings, but also the streetscape and city-wide traffic patterns, both pedestrian and vehicular.

Following are various types of building alterations I have discovered in the urban fabric of central Tel Aviv, which repeat throughout the city, and have had the power to change both the existing fabric and newer implementations of the plan.

Most restaurants put tables and chairs out during the day. Some even borrow public benches for their services.

As a practice that gradually builds permanence, these start chairs, add paint on the ground, then move to flowerboxes and awnings, and finally construct an extension to the building.

Restaurant owners also build out into arcades, but always leave a gap for pedestrians. So while the access remains intact (though now feels semi-private), the permeability of the arcade disappears.

Filling in the gap is another common practice. Because the majority of the area was residential, almost all buildings were setback on all sides from the property line. In the homegrown commercial areas, owners have compensated by adding a single story addition to the side of their building, which creates a continuous shop-filled edge along the sidewalk.

Usually one side builds out to the lot line, while the other leaves a narrow space for access to the back of the buildings.

In areas that have remained residential, one of the key components for alteration has been the balcony.

Plastic shades were the original way to enclose balconies. They closed off the connection to the street and flattened the façade. Nissim Davidov, Nitza Smuk and others have written about this phenomenon throughout the city. Now these shades are being replaced by glass, which might reopen the visual connection, but still cut the aural relationship.

Finally, 2 story penthouses pepper the terraces of the buildings. New regulations allow owners to add two stories to their buildings as an incentive to renovate.

Each act happens in the interest of the individual owner. But an individual act sets a standard, and others follow. These moves have rippled around Tel Aviv until they have restructured the street and sidewalk, and moved commercial zones deep into residential areas. Furthermore, many of these changes to existing buildings have been incorporated into the planning and design of later phases of Tel Aviv. More on that later….

traffic & movement

The plan of Ankara relies heavily on traffic and movement for its legibility. And now, as almost all of the original architecture of the 1930s and 40s (with the exception of the monumental administrative sites) has been destroyed, the streets and their relationship to the surrounding buildings are the clearest point at which the changes in the plan can be seen.

In many ways, the main thoroughfares of Ankara have become divisive edges, catering to long-range vehicle movement. Atatürk Bulvari, the main north-south road, originally was a boulevard. Today, the central green space has been used to create numerous underpasses, so that the road is not only difficult to cross, but has only small points at which it connects to anything in the immediate proximity.

A policy of overbridges for pedestrians and trains, long pursued by Ankara’s mayor, further segregates the street terrain.

The divisions also play out between the old and new city centers along Atatürk’s transit corridor: a flyover U-turn redirects traffic from the south back toward the new center once it reaches the edge of the old city, Ulus.

But there was an interesting phenomenon present (almost) along many of these main roads, in both the old parts of the city and the new.

Roads running parallel to Atatürk and other mains have picked up the majority of the pedestrian traffic flow. The focus for security and for movement is on the main roads, so the side streets behind them have acted as support streets, perhaps because of the combination of their proximity to fast transit and their smaller scale, the streets attract mostly smaller scale commercial spaces, which fill the sidewalks, crowd out the cars and open the streets to pedestrians on foot.

It happens in the old city and the new, and these commercial, market streets hold the majority of walkers, sometimes blocking traffic from cross streets with the strategic placement of a kiosk.

In new areas, the parallel supports are connected by footbridges, but most people prefer to risk the street traffic.

istanbul’s market systems

This is not quite within the lines of my project, but I thought that the system for construction of Istanbul’s main markets, the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, was a beautiful example of a simple system used to hold a changing and complex landscape, program and scale of space.

The Spice Market, contained within a neat cross in plan, applies the vaulted structure regularly, with a main barrel vault over the central walkway flanked by individual dome vaults lined up to house each of the shops. The messier Grand Bazaar, with a series of different areas connected by bends, curves and alterations in the vault structure, creates moments of surprise, where one arch divides into two, an abrupt turn requires a quarter of a dome, or large spans rest on columns of varied scale.

booths v. shops

In the sectors, I have learned there are two types of shopping facilities: booths and shops. Shops were part of the original design…subject to architectural controls, and built usually as 3 story mixed use structures with shops at the ground level. These contain a number of variations, but the structure in each is relatively similar. The arcade is embedded in the building structure, a result of opening up the ground floor as walkway. In general, the commercial buildings become larger as the city grows southward, because of increasing height allowances.

Booths began as temporary structures, filling in vacant space with 8’x8’ sheds for smaller merchants…those either without means for a whole shop, or with less merchandise. Since these booths filled an important gap in Chandigarh’s commercial options, they slowly crept in to supplement the shopping areas in most sectors. There are many variations of the booth. Some, like those in Sector 24 are still makeshift bamboo structures with aluminum or plastic cladding. Others are more developed, and some sectors (I have found these in 15, 20 and 22) hold whole booth markets, with which architects were involved. I have yet to come across a sector market without at least a handful of booths.

temporary booths were the originals…occupying extra space mostly at v4 intersections, in the commercial center of the sectors.

The Palace Bazaar in Sector 22 is a designed variation in which the walkway is a ventilated barrel vault with booths on either side.

Designed booths in Sector 18, with some occupant additions included.

The city has also begun to build 2-story booth buildings at many of the open corners of the sector centers. Because the original plans often made green space buffers at the corners adjacent to roundabouts (for traffic safety), the booths first encroach there. Chandigarh administration, concerned about the disheveled appearance of its markets, has put a lot of effort in legalizing and revamping the temporary situation.

Verka booths deliver dairy products to local residents, and are scattered as stand-alone booths throughout the city. There were shops designed for this purpose in the original plan, but because people don’t want to walk all the way to the market in the early morning, booths have sprung up at intermediate points.


The Shastri Market in Sector 15 is a huge booth complex that filled in old parking areas. Sector 15 is one of the major markets in the city, and these booths supplement the shops. Covered in signs and goods, the structure appears to be informally built, but once you see the skeleton and the roof structure, you can see the carefully designed (though slightly claustrophobic) market space.

The market uses booths, with 3 load bearing brick walls, as its structure. These are roofed with a concrete pyramid. The walkway, whose ceiling is far higher than the booths, is created by an RCC frame the rests on top of the brick booths. In an interesting inverse of the shop arcade structure, the arcade here is the focal point, rising higher than aggregated booths below. This also allows it to be ventilated.

The arcade runs all the way around the building, as per Chandigarh aesthetic requirements. But this market distinctly shows the push and pull between the planned concept and the residents needs that is happening throughout the city.

blocks & slivers

I’m getting nicely settled in Chandigarh—many thanks to the numerous people who have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable, find access to various parts of the city, and discuss my discoveries (Preeti & Urmi, Singhs, Sumit, Sheenam, Sangeeta, Bindu, Nikharika…)

Chandigarh commercial spaces

Originally, the commercial buildings in Chandigarh were designed by government architects, as block-long buildings comprised of a ground floor of shops, and residential upper floors. Shop entries were pushed back about 9’ from the building façade to make room for an arcade protected from the sun by the floors sitting above it. The continuous building demarcated the commercial area, and shops operated within it.

In the old, northern sectors of Chandigarh (1-28) this pattern remains. Some buildings have begun to crumble a bit, and the autonomy of the shop owner has increased, as brightly colored signs creep out from underneath the shady arcade, portions of the facades receive a variety of paint shades, and upper windows serve as display cases, whether they are attached to a store that has moved up in the building, or just rented from the family living there. Even behind the building, in the service alleys, enterprising cybercafé owners have enclosed a rear entry, painted their wall and opened shop.

In the south, and in satellites Panchkula & Mohali, the pattern has morphed further.

Here, the same urban development laws exist regarding façade treatment, setbacks, arcade etc. However, the buildings were constructed by private entities, not by the government. This shift in ownership shows up in the building itself. Because private developers build these shops, the lots are sold one by one, and built as and when money and demand is there. So instead of building as block, shops are built as slivers, waiting for eventual neighbors. In the end, the building (usually) is built in full, and the traces of the process remain in the slightly uneven parapets, doubly thick columns where the party walls meet, and discrepancies in window frames, brick color and details down the length of the fused slivers.

In Zirakpur, a village just south of Chandigarh that has grown up into a large town (mostly of cheaper housing for Chandigarh hopefuls), the  commercial building takes on yet another twist. Here, unlike Panchkula, Mohali and Chandigarh, there are no building codes restricting façade and material decisions. There are fewer, if any setback rules. However, the sliver typology remains. A shady arcade works really well in Chandigarh’s summer sun, and my guess is that for the construction industry, this has become a standard, and is built whether or not the law requires it. Here, however, the differences between each sliver are almost irreconcilable, and the resulting building holds patches of every variety of modern Indian commercial construction.

And for anyone who knows any more about this…please let me know!