Architecture visit : Citée Frugès – Pessac

bbc_fugesMany will have heard of le Corbusier, perhaps the most influential and famous architect / visionary of 20th century. Few, including the 15 members who visited Cité Fruges were aware that one of his most influential projects was executed on our doorstep 90 years ago – we were not disappointed!

Our visit commenced with lunch in a ‘locals’ Brasserie in Pessac, the surroundings were not so impressive, but the food and hospitality – as well as value for money, was. The three course, four choice menu was beautifully cooked and presented. Preceeding this with a Kir, accompanying it with wines, and following it with coffee, was good, but a number of us opted for more expensive menu choices (eg a super large steak), and we were surprised and delighted that this was all included in the 18€ price – we will come again.

Thus fortified we staggered on a ten minute walk to the Cité Fruges development where we were met by our guide Cyril Zozor, who works for the Pessac Marie, which has purchased and preserved one of the 51 houses. All of these houses, offering 75m of living space, share a common ‘core’ design, where the outerwalls are structural, the ground floor largely pillars – used for storage, the first floor lounge/ dining room and kitchen, and the top floor two bedrooms and a bathroom. On top of this was a structural flat roof used for relaxation, with plants and a shaded area. The feeling of space on the ‘living’ floor, enhanced by the ‘’Z’ form concrete staircase was remarkable.

As well as the revolutionary layout, the houses pioneered the use of ‘industrial’ building methods especially using steel reinforced concrete. They were built for factory workers in M. Fruges sugar factories, and were expected to be bought by them for one year’s salary. Their ‘equipment level’ is not surprising today, but then they pioneered built in hot and cold water supply, the WC was no longer in the garde! and they included electric lighting and ‘revolutionary central heating’ with a centrally located stove/fire with chimney passing through the middle of the building. The stark external and internal aesthetics resulting from this was totally revolutionary, being devoid of ornamentation, featuring large windows (including rolling shutters) and subtle curved internal corners to maximise space.

The utopian development offered 4 types of houses, mainly semi detached, which could be customised with internal partition walls, and ideally provided M. Fruges’ employees with a lovely rural ‘garden’ environment just outside Bordeaux. Alas today a number are empty and decrepid, and not so many display le Corbusier’s vision – Why ?

The early 1920’s marked the start of the Depression and costs soared, and the planned 150 house development was cut. The services, water, drains, electricity and roads were not connected until 4 years after completion, and the workers found their future homes too far from their work, and they were now too expensive. Unfortunately some of the pioneering construction was a step too far, eg the bitumen on concrete roofs leaked, and 4 years of non occupation had shown further deterioration.

It is so sad to see much of such a revolutionary development in a state of neglect, there have also been a number of unsuitable linking garages and extensions constructed in the meantime. Poorly aimed bombing of the nearby railway station (by the Allies) did not help – one house was not rebuilt! However several houses have been restored and are in all their beautiful art-deco glory!

The Pessac Mairie’s intiative in preserving one house as well as providing such an interesting tour, is promising for the future of Cité Fruges. They also demand that any new owners strictly follow le Corbusier’s vision. Our BBC visitors went away much the richer for the experience, one was heard to say ‘Why have we not heard before of this visionary development here in Bordeaux ?’

Report and photos by Phil (also Organiser)