Has anyone come up with a solution to embrace the problem of high-density housing? Many experiments have failed, and some have failed spectacularly. A case in point – Le Corbusier's stark high-rises, which celebrated the triumph of industrialisation.
The world initially embraced his experiments in mass housing. Brasilia, the current capital of Brazil, remade itself according to his urban-planning principles, and many now consider that city to be a sweeping failure.
In the United States, planners and architects became so gung-ho about Le Corbusier's blocky solutions as to spread them throughout Chicago, New York City and other American metropolises.
The result? Ultra-depressing buildings that denigrate rather than uplift, that trap rather than shelter. These buildings express and even create despair as few other buildings can.
In Visionary Architecture, critic Christian Thomsen wrote, "Le Corbusier's initially highly praised machine-for-living units have since become extremely controversial. Those large high-scale high-rise prefabricated housing developments since erected in considerable numbers in the East and West have proven such dismal places that the only things they seem to advance are isolation, criminality, alcoholism and political radicalism."
Would anyone purposely recreate such bleakness? Few architects would own up to such intent.
Indeed, when it comes to low-income housing, architect Wiel Arets of the Dutch firm Wiel Arets Architects astutely criticises the inhumanity of typical offerings in Madrid, Spain. The poorest stratum there lives in brick buildings with little personal space and no outside commons to enjoy, he says. Furthermore, the buildings all look the same. With his Living Madrid project, completed in 2007, Arets says he sought to improve upon that wretchedness.
VARIETY, SPACE AND LIGHT
In designing the three buildings of Living Madrid, Arets says he emphasised variation. For the skin, he made a rubber mould in which to cast concrete. This gave the exterior an intriguing three-dimensionality – a wovenness or, as he puts it, a roughness. A playful arrangement of dark and light squares also makes the walls look dappled.
Furthermore, Arets gave the buildings different heights and lengths. One structure is nine storeys, and the others are six storeys. "We tried to avoid sameness," he says. "There's a lot of diversity in the position of the windows." Indeed, the skin dips down to reveal more windows here, less there, in no discernible pattern.
Inside, too, the 144 flats offer variation, according to Arets. Ranging from 55m² to 80m², some flats are larger than others. Certain residents also enjoy double-height living rooms. "We did our utmost to create a spatial experience," he says.
Each apartment features an anteroom of 15m² to 18m². As many as eight people can dine together in such a space, according to Arets.
He says he also made the interior spaces feel bigger and better lit than they are. With the buildings running from east to west, half the units benefit from southern sunlight (but occupants could suffer in the absence of sun shades).
Moreover, every flat has a frosted glass door to the corridor. Light from the flats shines through those doors, helping to illuminate the corridor and suggesting to residents that their neighbours might be home. Each hallway also benefits from windows at the end.
Such features might seem to encourage a feeling of warmth. But photos of the bright-white hallway convey a striking sterility, one that characterises the project as a whole, particularly from the outside.
In this regard, Arets would have done Le Corbusier proud. In An Introduction to Modern Architecture, JM Richards and Elizabeth Mock wrote, "Characteristic of Le Corbusier's work is the wilful contrast between architecture and nature. The house is literally divorced from the earth and proudly aloof in its geometric perfection. Its man-made materials – concrete, glass and shining paint – are intended to detach themselves from their surroundings and make the most of their own brilliance."
Arets has lifted his structures onto pilotis (supporting columns). It might seem as if he's trying to keep the buildings free from impurities or dirt, but he says he wanted to create a place for people to gather: "Under each building, we have a public realm." In a grey, concrete space furnished with smooth, grey, concrete columns and nary a bench, residents are expected to congregate and develop a warm rapport.
The bleak space looks every inch a parking garage, but Arets insists that these covered areas beckon to people in a hot climate and recall colonnaded Spanish architecture. In reality, this shaded space offers none of the vitality or charm of the traditional arcade or the typical Mediterranean courtyard.
At Living Madrid, parking is subterranean, giving the spaces between buildings the potential to be lush, cooling gardens. Nevertheless, in current pictures, dull brown grass stretches out in all directions, resembling grey-brown pavement.
The three buildings may vary in size, but they line up as if playful arrangements stopped with the skin and windows. A rigid row of buildings conveys a powerful sense of army barracks and of other institutions that strive to impose order on groups, stamping out any sense of individuality.
Across the street from the Living Madrid project is Pradolongo Park, and Arets says, "We tried to incorporate the park into our site." That's a commendable idea, but it's hard to see how the reality matches that vision. The street between the project and the park is a major thoroughfare.
Moreover, the apartment blocks turn their shoulders to the park, allowing for park views from just one end of each building.
Architecture schools in several countries still embrace Le Corbusier as a visionary. But the reality is that several cities have had to confront Corbusier-type projects as crime-ridden failures. Although many such projects still stand, others have met the wrecking ball.
What should architects build instead? What is the most humane way to build for people with little money and virtually no say about their built environment?
Arets's project raises important questions about these matters. And the Living Madrid structures don't provide the solution. Not even close.