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.


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….

jaipur: 18th century precedent

I spent a weekend in Jaipur, Rajasthan, 6 hours outside Delhi, to look one of India’s older planned cities. Jaipur was built by Sawai Jai Singh, a Rajput Maharaja, in 1727, and is described as a fusion a eastern and western planning. Singh was well read in western planning, but based the Jaipur plan on the vaastu shaastra, a traditional Indian philosophy of space making. This was the reason for the division of the city into 9 squares. The northernmost square was relocated to the southeast of the grid, because a mountain blocked its placement.

My interest in Jaipur is in looking at how the city has absorbed density over the last 3 centuries, what aspects of the plan have maintained legibility, and how the structure has held up to transformations.

Its strict grid structure separates the city into 9 major blocks. 2 are filled by the City Palace, which was closed to residents, and remains so, unless they pay the tourist fee to enter. Other blocks contain residences within, and are wrapped with commercial spaces, which line the main boulevards of the city center. The distinction between a  commercial and residential street is in its section: commercial streets contain shops on the ground floor that are shaded by an arcade running the length of the block, which also serves as a foundation for a terrace in front of the living quarters located on the first floor, above the shop. Residential streets also contain a shop/trade/sitting space, used originally for family business or trade, above which the residential space pushes up close against the narrow street

At one point, the arcades had been filled by zealous shop keepers, but new enforcement about 5 or 10 years ago brought back the walkways.

More than just a continuous walkway, these commercial zones create a protective edge around the residential areas of Jaipur, shielding them from the noisy traffic and lights of the wide boulevards. The entrance to these blocks is punched through the commercial barrier, with various scales of openings to indicate the privacy of the place beyond.

Inside, the blocks are quieter, and the narrow streets allow the buildings to shade themselves, while residential windows open into the space of the street.

The hierarchy among streets has been preserved through densification, and the main commercial areas have been able to specialize while daily needs shops inside the blocks maintain residents’ ease of access to normal goods.  But Jaipur’s greatest success is in the open spaces tucked behind layers of protective facades. Inside these gates, in the form of libraries, temples, residences and gardens, the city’s densely packed walls open to breathe.

Despite Jaipur’s planned beginning, the city’s development beyond the end of Jai Singh’s plan has been haphazard. But one interesting between Jaipur’s old city and old city sections in other Indian cities is that it has remained not only the geographic and historic center, but also the commerce center. The wide roads connect directly to the new developments, and still the newer additions to Jaipur’s top industry, jewelry, are built right at the old city’s edge. Jaipur’s plan hasn’t influenced its new development, but it has maintained the vitality of a city center across multiple changes in transportation, density and governance.