Firminy is a small French mining town, and the site of the largest collection of Le Corbusier’s architecture outside of the Indian city of Chandigarh. Monumental in scale and civic ambition at its inception, the development at Firminy followed Le Corbusier’s concept of La Ville Radieuse (the Radiant City), an overarching theory of urban redevelopment that was a systematic failure whenever put into practice. The buildings at Firminy were never completed due to local industrial decline, and in recent years what was erected has suffered from political manipulation and physical neglect. The current state of the site is documented in Arni Haraldsson’s photographic series from 1999. Using a historically minded and architecturally oriented curiosity, Haraldsson sets Le Corbusier’s buildings and their modernist utopianism within the frame of a debate between the local inhabitants. Some share a conviction of the social and historical value of the architect’s life and work, while others see the buildings as reminders of the decisions of an authoritarian civic demagoguery.
Haraldsson’s photographs concentrate on two main buildings in Firminy Vert (or Green Firminy as the new town was named), the Unité d’habitation, a monumental concrete block apartment complex, and the church at St. Pierre. The construction of this latter edifice was halted mid-stream, and a small architectural model provides a view of its current state. Had it been finished, a large conical roof reminiscent of the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant would have capped the church. Local ecclesiastical authorities thought the design too secular, and their uncertainty, combined with mounting political opposition to Le Corbusier’s plan, put a stop to the project. The church ‘ruin’ has now been declared a national heritage site.
The Unité was one of six similarly designed apartment complexes that Le Corbusier based on the idea of a ship at sea. It’s brutalist, punctuated façade is bisected by a stairway, and capped by a children’s daycare and school on the roof. Some of Haraldsson’s photographs document these facilities, and one depicts a small sculptural protest by some of the tenants’ children. Their interpretation of the disintegrating state of their school can be seen affixed to the ceiling of their classroom. Due to civic cost cutting the north wing of the Unité was closed in 1983, spurring the remaining tenants to protest against further closures. They’ve successfully kept the south wing and the school alive, but its future remains uncertain as the city refuses to provide needed upkeep.