Le Corbusier and Color: Unité d’Habitation in Marseille Revisited
University of Tennessee Knoxville, Knoxville, TN, USA
The Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, built between 1945 and 1952 as a prototype for a vertical garden city, not only represents radical new ideas for the urbanization of the cities and the standardization of the logis based upon the modulor, but also serves Le Corbusier as a testing ground for a revised architectural polychromy. The newly developed characteristics of his post-war polychromy, that not only included a new vibrant color palette, but also a new syntax and inner geometry, can be found, with variations, in a number of his structures built after the war.
To address the scope and complexity of the construction, Le Corbusier created for the first time a comprehensive color plan, and employed industrially manufactured paint products. Hand in hand with the paint manufacturer Peintures Berger de La Courneuve, he developed for the Unité a color palette based on Berger’s paint products Matroil and Matone. Consequently, these hues, the “paints of modern times”, formed the basis for his post-war polychromy.
The vibrant polychromy of the loggias stand in stark contrast to the crude concrete of the facades, and together with the color design for the apartments and rue intérieures, forms a complex mathematical color equation of juxtaposed and superimposed color groups and patterns. Comparable to the modulor that was based on the human measurements, the architectural polychromy created a human dimension within a complex system. Based on only sixteen different tones, this system yielded a large number of color combinations individualizing each of the 336 apartments. Different from Le Corbusier’s purist buildings, where he used color mostly as a tool to articulate and modify the space, the Unite d’habitation in Marseille marks a shift towards the independence of color from form, and revealing within his work a new social dimension of color.