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Design Students Revisit A Le Corbusier Masterpiece

ECAL students invent household wares for one of Le Corb’s grandest Brutalist structures.

There’s no doubt that history informs the present, especially in the realm of contemporary design born from the modernist canon. Students are regularly lectured about the significance of certain practitioners and their projects, but how often are they able to directly build upon that lineage? A group of product design master’s students at ECAL had that rare opportunity and invented items tailored for one of Le Corbusier’s grandest works: the Unite d’Habitation.

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An exercise in mass housing, the Brutalist structure was completed in 1952 and symbolized what vertical living could be. Located in Marseille, France, the building, now an historic monument, was based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor, a system of proportions informed by the Golden Ratio. He dubbed the building the “radiant city” as it included apartments, shops, medical and educational facilities, and a communal rooftop. While modernist housing projects of this scale notoriously fell short of their aspirations, this one remained popular over the years.


Two architecture enthusiasts, Jean-Marc Drut and Patrick Blauwart, restored one of the more than 300 apartments and turned it into a museum of sorts. They’ve invited stars of the design world—Pierre Charpin, Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec Brothers, Jasper Morrison—to create installations in the space, which are open to the public. This year, they extended the opportunity to a group students from ECAL, a prestigious school in Switzerland.

“I thought it was a great exercise to see what they could propose to improve or complete what was imagined by Le Corbusier in the late 1940s,” Drut says.


Under the direction of Thilo Alex Brunner, head of the Masters in Product Design program at ECAL, and Augustin Scott de Martinville, an ECAL professor, the students created products that respond to the historic space. In a three-day workshop that took place last fall, the students observed how residents lived in the building and based their designs on what could improve the experience. Their only constraint was the design couldn’t modify the existing architecture at all.


“Special factors came into play, like for example the special climate, the flexibility of the indoor spaces, life in communal areas and the fact that the owners of Apartment 50 give tours to visitors,” Brunner says. “Specific situations require specific solutions.”

The impressive 28-piece collection includes lighting, rugs, cushions, fans, folding chairs, and a measuring tool based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor (see them in the slideshow above).

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“They all perform very well,” Drut says. “Sometimes it is in their aesthetic, sometimes in their functionality, but they are all very relevant to the place.”

The ECAL exhibition at Apartment No. 50 is open from July 4–19, 2015. Visit appt50lc.org for more information.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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