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Exploring Le Corbusier with LEGO

Uniting architecture and LEGO

At One World Architecture, we’re big fans of the LEGO Architecture series, a diverse range of recreations of classic works of architecture. The building sets include some iconic world landmarks — crowd pleasers like the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower — and they are all well designed and astonishingly accurate given the small scale at which they are modeled. Yet the pleasant surprise for us are the models that appeal specifically, and in some cases almost exclusively to us: the architecture nerds. What other mainstream toy company would offer lovingly detailed models of the United Nations Building and the Villa Savoy, two 20th century buildings designed by Modernist master Le Corbusier? It speaks to the number of LEGO-obsessed kids that grew up to be architects that a toy company can produce and successfully sell a product line that appeals to such a niche group. As lifelong fans of LEGO, we appreciate that the company really gets us.

So in the spirit of these faithfully recreated modern landmarks, we decided to tackle another iconic design by Le Corbusier: a prototype apartment building in Marseilles, France called the Unité d’Habitation. 2100 bricks and countless hours later, we have produced a LEGO model that looks great in our office window. We also gained a better appreciation of an oft-maligned and misunderstood building.

Le Corbusier was a visionary modern architect. The Unité d’Habitation sprung from his desire to create more humane low-cost housing options and living environments. He envisioned a radical clean-slate approach, a modern utopia that replaced crowded, dirty, disorderly cities of the past with clean, well-ordered towers, generously spaced in a green park.

Unfortunately, the social utopia that Le Corbusier hoped for never panned out. In fact, his prototype often created the opposite effect. The Unité inspired countless imitators for all the wrong reasons, reducing his innovative and ambitious model into a rash of awful, dehumanizing repetitive boxes. You see these everywhere. At best, they are bland, soulless towers lacking in character and visual stimulation. At worst, they are synonymous with dangerous and notorious low-income housing projects: think of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green or St. Louis’ Pruitt Igoe, both demolished after years of problems and neglect. From the standpoint of 20th century urban housing development, the Unité was a colossal failure.

A mixed legacy: Many of dismal apartments around the world reveal shortcomings with Cobusier’s ideas. When stripped of the subtle sophistication, generosity, and dignity of the orginal Unité d’Habitation, large apartment towers create the dehumanizing and oppressive living conditions Corbusier sought to eliminate.

So why did we choose to model such a controversial symbol of modern architecture?

The Unité is deceptive. Unlike its imitators, it’s not as simple or bland as it may initially appear. Viewed from afar, it’s easy to believe that it’s just a typical substandard apartment highrise from the mid 20th century, with its boxy shape and rough concrete structure. A closer examination, however, reveals a complex and intriguing work of experimental architecture that yields innovative ideas that were missed by lesser incarnations. As we studied the building and translated its various architectural elements into LEGO form, we investigated how those elements contributed to both the exterior and interior composition. This led us to pore over many interior and exterior photos, plans, elevations, and building sections of the Unité.

Weird little quirks and seemingly incongruent details abound, which on closer inspection prove to be vital parts of a complex whole. See the horizontal band midway up the facade that diverges from the regular pattern? That’s the promenade publique, an interior “street” lined with shops that underlines the Unité’s role as a self-contained town. Check out the surreal concrete landscape of the inhabitable rooftop, where various mundane elements — a gym, a day nursery, ventilation stacks, and elevator towers — are treated as striking sculptural objects.

Putting together the model also revealed how ingenious the apartment layout is. Public corridors run along every third level, with each apartment unit occupying two levels. This allows each unit to stretch the entire width of the building, which means they have balconies and views in two opposite directions, as well as living rooms with two-story high ceilings and full height windows. It’s an important, novel feature that was regrettably never realized in subsequent knockoffs.

Given the prototypical nature of the project, the Unité has its fair share of issues — the apartments could be a bit more spacious, the rooftop garden could use some actual greenery, the material palette could be less harsh. But ultimately it’s much more than just the unfortunate catalyst for a lot of bad 20th century architecture and urban planning. There are many interesting ideas to be harvested from this 62 year old building from a visionary modernist architect — ideas that can inform our work as architects in the 21st century. As One World Architecture continues to develop prototypes for affordable housing, ideas we came across in the Unité will no doubt serve as inspiration.

This is why we keep playing with Legos.


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