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Le Corbusier at Pessac: Professional and Client Responsibilities

Published onApr 23, 2021
Le Corbusier at Pessac: Professional and Client Responsibilities

A debonair Le Corbusier of Paris, circa 1922. (Photograph courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

The ultimate basis for judging an architect’s worth is the built work rather than the unachieved projects, but the quality of its realization is rarely in the architect’s hands alone. In France, the architect of the recent past earned his living from the fees obtained during construction. Since these fees were generally calculated on a rather low percentage of the total costs, it is not surprising that many architects traditionally found other means for augmenting their financial share in a given venture, quite frequently by obtaining a commission from contractors whom they were at liberty to select. Le Corbusier was vehemently outspoken in his condemnation of such practices in France. Nevertheless, these two aspects, direct control over the execution of architectural work and the payment of fees, regularly created delicate situations and occasionally caused bitter arguments between Le Corbusier and his clients.

The history of the achievement of more than sixty housing units at Lège and Pessac (Fig. 43) warrants elucidation in this regard, in part for its typically personal dimensions and also in order to dispel certain misconceptions (sometimes cultivated by Le Corbusier himself) about the role of the local authorities in the Pessac affair.

Figure 43
General view of the Quartier Moderne Frugès at Pessac. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Utilization of the cement-gun equipment for the construction of dwellings at Lège (Fig. 44) depended upon the calculations of a M. Poncet, the head of Henri Frugès’s department of buildings and overseer of the construction site itself. Toward the end of 1924, two months after building at Lège had begun, the foundations of part of the bachelors’ dormitory collapsed, and not long after that the upper floors of some of the individual dwellings were found to be defective. The inhabitants were evacuated while repairs were made. In the meantime, Poncet had begun surveying and preparing the site at Pessac, under Frugès’s orders. By 1 April 1925, work had advanced on the concrete skeletal structure of houses in a block (Fig. 45) and those in a Z-formation.

Figure 44
Demonstration of the cement-gun “gunite” technique for creating wall panels. Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1925.

Figure 45
The construction site at Pessac, houses 49 to 54, 1925. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Poncet’s dangerous incompetence both at Lège and at Pessac, compounded by both his and his crew’s inexperience in the use of the cement gun, finally induced Le Corbusier to seek his immediate dismissal before construction proceeded any further. He proposed replacing him by M. Summer, who was the Parisian engineer at that moment constructing the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau (also financed in part by Frugès) for Le Corbusier in Paris. Because this would cost more, Frugès was understandably reluctant to comply with the request for a complete change of personnel—Summer was to send his own workmen from Paris to Bordeaux. He agreed to engage Summer for a short period of time—eight months—during which his men would train a local crew in the techniques of concrete construction with the cement gun. As a result Poncet visited the Le Corbusier-Jeanneret atelier in Paris, at the architects’ request, to discuss the new arrangement. Experiencing the kind of local labor difficulties encountered by most Paris-based firms even today, the Bordelais engineer declared that only he could make the present crew of guniters work and that if Summer and his men arrived on the scene, he and his men would leave the operation altogether.

In the end, he and the others stayed on the site for a period of time after the Italian workers of Summer arrived, but the use of the cement gun was drastically curtailed, and a more conventional system of construction was adopted by the new contractor.1

The choice of the cement gun for house construction was a costly and mismanaged venture. A mixture extremely rich in cement content was required, while at the same time it was nearly impossible to obtain a wall of uniform, optimal thickness. Sprayed cement was illsuited for the creation of thin panels for hollow-wall construction;2 when this became apparent, Le Corbusier experimented with a kind of pressed-straw insulating material called Solomite, which could be cut into panels of any size, set into the structural frame of a building, and coated with gunite. The Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau was built in this way, but the experience seemed not altogether positive, and when Summer took charge of Pessac in June 1925, common concrete block infill was employed instead of gunite panels for the walls. The cement gun served after that for facing the curved wall of the room for wine storage, for garden walls, and for similar minor tasks. The anticipated assets of speed and durability of construction that the cement gun seemed to possess were nullified by an inability to control the efficient and economical use of material.

To this difficulty with the cement gun must be added the more general dilemma that the architects confronted, that of obtaining prefabricated items such as doors, window frames, and traditional solid window blinds (volets), drains, and so on.

In the first place, the correspondence between architect and client demonstrates quite clearly that design barely kept ahead of execution at Pessac; details were often neglected and Frugès was perpetually asking for last-minute directions. Second, manufacturers had to be found who would mass produce, for instance, the window frames of steel, wood, and glass with the peculiar profiles specified by the architects, and as rapidly as possible.3 Instead of attempting to utilize to the maximum the products already on the market (and preferably at Bordeaux rather than Paris), the designers sought to stimulate the production of prefabricated (as opposed to handmade) elements, while at the same time they were seeking to minimize the cost of the finished houses. The incompatibility of these two objectives raised the construction costs at Pessac immensely.

Finally, the site planning had been improperly executed according to accepted standards (Fig. 46). Faulty surveying and siting of the houses on the terrain, as well as the complete neglect of the capacity of the roads to serve the future dwellings, were partly the responsibility of Poncet, the engineer in charge, and partly that of the architects. The waste of the client’s time, effort, and money in rectifying these errors could have been avoided through more preliminary studies. As it happened, the design of a particular house type was often barely ahead of actual construction, which may explain why the house’s integration into an overall system of utilities and drainage was neglected until afterward (Fig. 47). Some houses (duplex “skyscraper” types) had to be eliminated altogether when it was discovered that the foundations would extend on to the existing road, but this was of lesser gravity in terms of the success of the endeavor than the ultimate realization by client and architects that the constructed houses would not be accepted by the authorities. The reason? Neither the existing laws regulating the provision of public services for new developments nor acceptable standards of engineering for these services had been respected.

Figure 46
Site plan for the original project of 130 dwellings near Pessac, 1924. Only the sector between the road and the railway was executed. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Figure 47
The construction site of the Quartier Moderne Frugès in 1925, with the promotional signboard that was “later removed at the request of the local authority.” Note the conventional cement block infill that replaced the gunite panels. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Contrary to later accounts given by Le Corbusier of what happened at Pessac, the administrative entanglements that blocked the provision of water—and hence the immediate sale of the completed houses—occurred because first, the existing laws that defined procedures for obtaining official sanction to build a housing development had not been adhered to at the outset, and second, the engineering of roads, drainage, and utility installations was nonexistent or poorly done. The houses had, in fact, come into being before a complete file had been deposited at the town hall and a building permit duly obtained.

In the first instance, it seems that neither Frugès nor his architects bothered to become fully informed on the regulations then in force throughout France concerning new expansion in cities. According to the “Law of 14 March 1919, supplemented by the Law of 19 July 1924 concerning the plans for extension and arrangement of cities,” a plan must be submitted specifying all characteristics of the road network to be constructed and a program describing all hygienic facilities, including the distribution of drinking water. The law required that a promoter deposit these plans and specifications for the development with the municipality for approval before any kind of advertising could be undertaken. Proper installations for the supply and drainage of water were to be executed at the developer’s expense. Le Corbusier, Frugès, and even the mayor’s assistant at Pessac, who issued a provisional building permit in October 1924,4 seem to have been negligent in seeing that their actions conformed strictly to the legal constraints then in force. When the Prefect of the Department inquired of the mayor in March 1926 whether a permit had been issued for the Quartier Moderne Frugès, the reply was at first (and correctly) “no,” and then a rather equivocal followup explanation of “only in principle,” since Frugès had failed to complete the necessary documents as requested. Subsequently, for many months Frugès attempted to obtain an authorization to sell his houses and regain some of his large capital investment, while the municipality waited for him to rectify the deficiencies so the development could be approved according to the legislation.

Official attention was first drawn to the neighborhood when the communal and cantonal road surveyors submitted a report in September 1925 on current road conditions. The nearly nonexistent street and drainage system—the builders had been employing the drains of the nearby railway line—became public knowledge. Frugès urged his architects, with little apparent success, to study and to send him new plans and sections for all utility installations. The sanitation engineer for the city of Bordeaux visited the site and advised that all installations should follow the public right of way rather than cross the gardens between the two blocks of houses, as the architects had suggested; in this way problems of riparian rights and accessibility for repairs could be simplified. As an indication that local opinion was in some measure favorable toward the Quartier Moderne Frugès, the client reported that M. Hugon, the engineer for the city of Bordeaux, visited the site to offer his counsel, claiming to have read books by Le Corbusier and to be enthusiastic about the principles behind their enterprise. In an attempt to comply with the regulations, Frugès delegated an engineer from his sugar refinery, René Vrinat, to draw up the necessary specifications and plans of streets, which were submitted in April 1926.5

In attempts to extricate his client from a difficult situation at Pessac, Le Corbusier became an advocate of the rightness of their cause among higher authorities in the bureaucratic structure in Paris. His overtures to government officials on behalf of Frugès, particularly to the Minister of Public Works at the time, Anatole de Monzie,6 were completely apolitical; it was administrative maneuvering through personal contacts in the central government, first to obtain a special exemption from a 15 percent tax on the assessed value of the Quartier Moderne Frugès, and then, at the time of the official inauguration of the development, to obtain a less strict application of the Law of 19 July 1924.7 The case in point is typical of Le Corbusier’s tendency to gravitate toward sources of power, financial, political, or simply bureaucratic, in order to realize his projects.

The Prefect of the Department issued a decree of approval in November 1926 authorizing the sale of houses in the Quartier on condition that Frugès construct the streets, installations, and drainage at his own expense; this was all that the municipal authorities were demanding. He was given until I January 1928 to complete the work. In February 1927 Frugès obtained an estimate of 100,000 francs from the Société Lyonnaise des Eaux, a private water company that had the sole distribution franchise for water and electricity to the town of Pessac. Finding this cost for installation much too high, he sought other solutions, such as drilling a well and constructing a watertower. But nothing could be done until the streets of the Quartier were approved as part of the Commune’s street system, which occurred only in October 1927. The price and guarantees asked by the Société Lyonnaise were still too high for Frugès. The dwellings remained vacant and without water for another full year. The municipal council of Pessac was apparently to appoint a commission of inquiry in November 1928 to sample public opinion concerning the Quartier Moderne Frugès and to file a report as to whether people in the town felt favorably disposed toward the empty development. In the meantime, Le Corbusier had arranged for Louis Loucheur, the new Minister of Labor, to visit the Quartier and to explain to the populace the possible ways by which the sale of the dwellings might be facilitated by the recently passed housing legislation that carried his name.

A financial appraisal of the Pessac endeavor is crucial to an assessment of the economic character and social impact of what was finally achieved. Questions of cost—never a minor consideration for the person who pays to build or simply to purchase a house—also shed light on the personal aspirations and beliefs of those who collaborated at Pessac. Within a broader framework, the social consequences of this effort to build minimum-standard, low-cost workers’ dwellings can be evaluated according to the economic criteria of a free market.

On the level of personal and professional behavior in the venture at Pessac, the calculation (and payment) of the architects’ fees became a psychological as well as an economic issue.8 Le Corbusier had persuaded his client to invest in machinery for a system of construction not yet tested by himself, while offering at the same time to reduce his fees to one-half of the official rate, which was then 6 percent of the construction cost. The anticipated costs in 1924 for building one of Le Corbusier’s house types at Lège came to an exceptionally low sum of 10,000 francs. After the important visit of the architects to Bordeaux during the construction of the Maison du Tonkin (the first trial house, July 1924) (Fig. 48), Le Corbusier sought to confirm by letter that his fees would be based upon 3 percent of the construction costs, which, for the newly projected 135 houses at Pessac, would amount to 3 percent of 1,350,000 francs. When Frugès replied that his understanding had been a fixed sum of 350 francs per dwelling, Le Corbusier admitted having suggested this figure as a base by which one could move toward a more “modern and equitable” means for remunerating the architect. He proposed a system of rewarding the architect’s personal ingenuity in discovering inexpensive solutions by paying him 10 percent of the client’s profit when the dwellings were sold. The architect explained that the current system of a direct percentage of the building costs hardly encouraged members of the profession to search for economical designs.

Figure 48
Plan and photograph of the experimental modulor house-type Maison du Tonkin in Bordeaux. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Frugès, recently confronted with a costly outlay for the new machines and cautious about just how inexpensive the constructions would turn out to be, countered Le Corbusier’s percentage proposal with the following formula: he would pay the architect at a fixed rate per cubic meter of each dwelling constructed according to his plans. In addition he suggested that the site planning, roads, utilities and services, and so on should be calculated according to a rate per square meter. The client, always anxious to establish a fixed rather than a sliding scale by which to calculate the architects’ fees, found the design of houses by modular units a convenient (and rather novel) means of determining Le Corbusier’s remuneration. Once this was established, Frugès indicated he would be willing to discuss a percentage on top of the fixed base. He seems to have had his way, for notes of an agreement (reached in a personal meeting on 5 February 1925) indicate that 100 francs per module measuring five meters by five meters by three meters was the payment adopted.

One year later, Le Corbusier once more raised the issue of fees, as houses at Pessac were nearing completion. Among other things he outlined the extent to which prevailing economic conditions had affected the enterprise. (It should be remembered that the cement gun had long since been abandoned in favor of more conventional techniques and that Frugès was then engaged in trying to repair the gross deficiencies of site planning.) Le Corbusier pointed out that, according to the 1925 agreement, his fees would amount to only 31,000 francs for the total of 310 half modules constructed at Bordeaux, Lège, and Pessac. Having previously agreed to reduce his fees by one-half, and then in a second instance to a fixed sum per module, the architect now attempted to raise his own present financial bond by means of various arguments. He noted that a simple draftsman, earning 1,000 francs a month during the preceding two years in which 112 plans were sent to Frugès, would have cost 24,000 francs; supposing the architects’ contribution to be at least equal to that amount, the fees could be considered to be 48,000 francs. Then reverting to his original proposal of 3 percent of the total construction costs, Le Corbusier noted that the average cost per house for the fifty-three houses then under construction was 30,000 francs, yielding 47,700 francs in architects’ fees. This sum, when divided by the number of modules, as Frugès wished (there were 272 at Pessac), showed an average cost of 175 francs per module, or an increase of 75 percent over the rate agreed upon in 1925. Le Corbusier maintained that, in the light of the considerable monetary instability of the period (the franc had fluctuated between 65 and 132 per pound sterling during the fiscal year 1924 to 1925) and the rising cost of living, a revision of his fees was desirable. In short, he was feeling the strain of engaging his staff over many months on work at Pessac for a fixed sum, when costs were rising across the board: “All our effort is directed towards this goal: to make savings for you … to get the maximum with a minimum; to establish standards is an overwhelming, exhausting problem. It’s necessary to reconsider repeatly the dimensions.”9

He concluded by proposing to Frugès a rate of 175 francs per module and 200 francs per house for site planning, or, 3 percent of the total cost of construction. Frugès agreed that the project itself and the role of the architects had become more complicated than previously anticipated and that their fees should be modified; nonetheless, he declared himself on the verge of stopping all construction completely until some of the houses could be sold.

This discussion is, on the one hand, quite typical of the financial burdens of an entire project that a private client is compelled to shoulder alone even when he considers his efforts to be in the public interest, and on the other hand, it demonstrates the perennial difficulties that the architect encounters in placing a monetary value on his contribution—and then obtaining his remuneration. Celebrated architects with clients devoted to their cause are obviously no exception.

Although construction costs in France did not rise more than 2 percent from November 1923 to November 1925, the cost of dwellings in the Quartier Moderne Frugès increased by three or four times the original price envisaged in order to attract a working-class population. Part of this rise at Pessac was the result of adopting more elaborate house types—units comprising five and six modules (bays) instead of only two or three. The Type A of two full bays constructed in Bordeaux cost 12,000 francs in 1924, or 6,000 francs per module. When the houses in the Quartier Moderne Frugès were completed, the average construction cost was 40,000 francs, the price per module ranging from 7,000 to 15,000 francs. These figures, supplied by Frugès, included only materials and labor, not the land, site preparation, paying off of material, interest on capital, and general costs and fees. Six months later, in March 1927, Frugès sent a breakdown of the total costs for each house type: the least expensive were those in a block (nos. 49-54) (Fig. 49), valued at 51,300 francs; the individual pavilions (nos. 14 and 37) had cost 72,000 and 74,500 francs respectively. These prices did not include the average of 2,000 francs per dwelling that the water company demanded. By way of contrast, one finds minimum-standard Ribot Law dwellings costing 30,000 to 35,000 francs during the same period. As a result, Le Corbusier’s dwellings were quite out of the market for which they were originally intended.

Figure 49
The attached houses in a block, numbers 49-54, were the least expensive at the Quartier Moderne Frugès. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

To what factors can one ascribe this failure to remain within the price range of working-class housing? The disparity between their intentions—“to achieve the maximum with the minimum”—and the final product resides in both the nature of the house types themselves, which would not be considered minimal, and in the actual processes of production, in Paris, Bordeaux, and elsewhere. The choice of the cement gun turned out to be a poor one, as did the choice of the first supervising engineer. The savings obtained by changing to more conventional techniques and materials were not sufficient to counterbalance the costs arising from, first, Le Corbusier’s insistence upon a contractor and laborers from Paris to execute his designs, second, the primitive and hasty attempts to obtain prefabricated building elements from industries not yet equipped to offer these at a reasonable price, and third, the repair, tardy execution, and private maintenance of roads and utility systems. The dishonesty or occasional bankruptcy of local contractors precipitated delays and higher costs, as did the architects’ inattention and slowness in providing the necessary plans sufficiently in advance of actual construction. Time and cost would have been minimized with an efficient, “taylorized” system of planning or industrialization of the construction site, neither of which existed.

Publicity to attract buyers for the houses was prohibited by law until the development was approved by the municipality.10 Before this approval was given, the Mayor of Pessac suggested on one occasion to Frugès that the French Ministry of War might be interested in purchasing the houses in order to offer free lodging to underpaid army officers and their families. Well before the streets of the Quartier were ever incorporated into the communal system as required, Frugès engaged in 1926 a Paris-based real estate firm, Bernheim, at Le Corbusier’s insistence, to promote the sale of houses (which were still without water) on the open market. At the time there was hopeful expectation that the administrative difficulties would be settled rather quickly. Le Corbusier sought and obtained from the German planner Werner Hegemann copies of brochures containing the by-laws of different garden city associations, including Hampstead Garden Suburb in England, Washington Highlands in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and others in Berlin, all of which he forwarded to Frugès as model cahiers de charges.

The Quartier Moderne Frugès gained the attention of several professionals—in 1926 the Dane, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, visited, and, according to Frugès, “a German whose name I don’t know” came (we know today this was Walter Gropius), Robertson and Yerbury were there in 1927. Visitors had “first moments of customary stupefaction on seeing Pessac for the first time, then passed successively through periods of curiosity, attraction, and finally enthusiasm.” But in spite of this notoriety, the sales agent was unable to proceed with publicity on a local or regional basis until September 1927.

A number of criticisms came from the general public to the sales office on the site, once advertising began; Frugès transmitted these to the architects; however, no sales and only two leases were concluded during the first year. Principal criticisms by visitors of the interior planning of the houses included the disconcerting necessity of entering many of the houses through the kitchen or service areas (Fig. 50) (“this annoys their little bourgeois pride,” observed Frugès); the absence of vestibules; the smallness of the kitchens and the storerooms; the absence of cupboards; and the narrowness of the staircases when it came to moving furniture. House number 14 (Fig. 51), with living quarters on a single level and shelter or atelier below, was the most popular with the public, most certainly because it had a large garden and was detached from other dwellings.

Figure 50
The floor plans of the attached houses in a block, numbers 49-54, at the Quartier Moderne Frugès. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Figure 51
The individual detached house, number 14, was the most expensive at the Quartier Moderne Frugès. (Courtesy of Archives Fondation le Corbusier.)

As Frugès pointed out to his architects for future reference, the amount of habitable space was extremely limited in relation to the construction cost for this type. The dimensions of the communal room and the bedrooms seemed satisfactory to nearly everyone, which was a significant reaction giving reasonable validity to Le Corbusier’s choice of dimensions, after many years of research and experimentation. Finally, concerning the form of the houses, Frugès reported this from his conversations:

Contrary to what one might think, the architectural form only intervenes negatively for a small percentage of people. However, another important element in the lack of sales is that, given the distance from Bordeaux, people would like to be alone in the middle of their garden and I think it will be difficult to sell the villas which touch one another.11

It seems, in fact, that the high prices of the dwellings and the lack of an assured water supply were the chief obstacles to their sale.

The passage of the Loucheur Law in 1928 opened a new possibility for populating the neighborhood, for Frugès to extricate himself financially, and even for building on Sectors A and B as originally envisaged, but with a new developer. According to Le Corbusier, the law would permit Frugès to set up a low-cost housing corporation, exempt from a number of taxes, and to which the state would guarantee the mortgage of eventual buyers.12 Persons taking advantage of this law would purchase the property outright but not the house itself, being required to pay only annually on the mortgage. Le Corbusier was at the time in personal contact with Loucheur and arranged for him to visit Bordeaux and the Quartier Moderne Frugès at the beginning of 1929, at which time the architect himself would give a lecture, sponsored by a national reform group, the Redressement français, to explain and promote his model.

Notwithstanding this concerted effort, the houses remained without inhabitants for many months; understandably, some of the first to come were members of the bourgeoisie from Bordeaux, looking for a second, country house.13 The Loucheur Law did eventually aid some low-income families to move into the Quartier, although they did not actually become owners of the houses nor did they maintain them in good repair. The incentive of personal possession was missing, and the condition of the dwellings, that had stood unused for several years, was hardly encouraging.


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