BY James Roberts in Reviews | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Down With The People

Project Unité, Unité d'Habitation, Firminy, France

BY James Roberts in Reviews | 05 SEP 93

Turn right at the drug rehabilitation centre, left at the unfinished church and go straight past the empty concrete sports stadium and you arrive at Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in the small, post-industrial French town of Firminy. Situated on a hillside overlooking the town, the Unité is one of five such Le Corbusier projects in France and comprises the apartment building itself, the non-church, sports stadium and a youth club. Symptomatic of most utopian housing projects, the North Wing of the apartment block was condemned and evacuated in 1983, since when it has remained unoccupied and shut off from the outside world. Earlier this year, as part of a campaign by the residents' association to reopen the wing and gain official recognition of the importance of the site, Project Unité was organized to invite selected artists to exhibit in the dormant apartments of the North Wing.

Looking down its long corridor-they are called rues at Unité and not without reason - and knowing that there is art beyond every door is a daunting experience. Thankfully, Heimo Zobernig converted his space into a fully functioning café, so it was possible to take a leisurely break between groups of apartments. It can be said with confidence that, of all the exhibits, Zobernig's space was the most visited and for the longest periods of time - or at least it was until marauding bands of (presumably atypical) drunken Unité residents had looted it. Yet the residents of Unité made their presence felt in less dramatic ways too: room 392 contained photographs of some of the apartments currently occupied by the tenants. This was one of the most interesting sights of the tour, revealing a great deal, not only about what kind of person actually lives in a Le Corbusier building and why, but also showing how adaptable the apartments are themselves. Predictably, a small number were occupied by hopelessly lost Le Corbusier groupies, living the dream to the full and not afraid to show it through neatly arranged glossy tomes of the master's work weighing down the glass-topped coffee tables. Other individuals and families, presumably of North African origin, had made full use of the split-level arrangement of the apartments and the wealth of natural light to populate the space with plants and wall hangings to give an unexpectedly organic and exotic feel to an essentially utilitarian architecture. Still others had fought violently against 'Le Corbu' at every step, cramming as much paraphernalia of modern living as possible into their spaces and obliterating every scrap of white space with posters and wallpapers ranging from the rustic to the baroque, and, yes, even French teenagers paint their bedrooms red and black.

Some of the artists' installations reflected these attempts to fight against uniformity and stamp the spaces as belonging to an individual. Indeed domestic life inevitably figured prominently in many of the works. Renée Green camped out in her apartment - there were a lot of tents in the show, perhaps inspired by Corbusier's notion of the self--contained living unit - filling it with photographs, sketches of the local surroundings, videos, cassettes and personal bric-a-brac relating to her time at Unité and experiences of living in other apartment buildings with her family. Nigel Coates and Swart Helm created a contemporary living space based on Corbusian ideals, replete with neon Modular Man, that brought the architecture into the 90s and re-introduced a taste of the sparse designer lifestyle that had probably not been seen since the building was in its heyday. In contrast, Jim Isermann created a pattern design of bright red, orange, yellow, green and blue circle segments, reminiscent of the most extreme manifestation of 60s wallpaper design, which was printed onto fabric and linoleum and used to cover every surface of his apartment, including the sole furnishings of bed and TV/video unit. The geometry and overt visibility of the archi-tecture having been destroyed by this intensely vibrant and decorative surface, the apartment felt like the perfect place to do all the things one is not supposed to do, enveloped by the warmth of the fabric and intrigued by its repeating patterns.

One of the strangest phenomena associated with large apartment blocks is that often, when seen in their entirety and from a distance, the thought comes to mind of all the people inside living out their lives concurrently but unconnected. The family dramas, the lonely adolescent angst, the daily grind punctuated by moments of joy, in fact the whole process of life itself, all become clearly defined and somehow encapsulated in such buildings in a way that does not happen from simply looking at crowds of people in the street. It is the fact that all the apartments are homes that envelop certain types of private activity that makes the difference.

Clegg and Guttmann's project involved collating the favourite pieces of music of the Unité residents, copying them on to compilation tapes (hey kids, home taping is killing music!) and displaying all the tapes in a custom-built cassette rack that mimicked the form of Unité itself. Each cassette had its own pigeon-hole corresponding to the apartment from which it came. Visitors to the space could play the tape on audio equipment in the apartment or make their own bootleg to take home with them. For some inexplicable reason Bob Marley was the most popular musician by a factor of five amongst Unité residents and the familiar drone of No Woman, No Cry rang out through the stark utilitarian architec-ture at frequent intervals.

The notion of the apartments as museums or mausoleums was picked up by Mark Dion and Art Orienté Objet in an installation which left the apartment virtually untouched since its abandonment ten years ago. Entering the room at its higher level, the viewer was presented with wall charts depicting local fauna and offered a rather attractive bench, neatly surrounded by gravel chips, on which to rest and observe the natural world. The view looking down into the space from the first floor balcony was not so much through the window and into the landscape beyond, but into the apartment itself, where there seemed to be a layer of black, granular dust on all the ledges and window sills. This turned out to be ten years' worth of accumulated corpses of dead flies. Other signs of the gradual encroachment of 'nature' into the space were visible in the occasional skeletons of trapped birds, and streaks of rust and moss marking the huge areas of the wall through which rain had entered the room over the years, leaving a suitably picturesque pool of water on the floor.

While Dion attempted to conserve the state of the lost North Wing apartments, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler approached the monumentality of Unité from a more domestic point of view. Their project, sadly unrealized, consisted of a close collaboration with a local manufacturer of cleaning products. In commemoration of the Unité’s official recognition as a national monument in February this year, and by way of acknowledging that modernism is cleanli-ness, Ericson and Ziegler proposed to re-design the packaging and scent of the local Casino brand Acline household cleaner. The dummy bottle of Acline on display in their apartment shows the Unité d'Habitation as a discreet background to the label, while the perfect modern kitchen depicted on the back of the real product has been replaced by a photograph of a kitchen unit from the apartment. Disappointingly, the Monumental scent that they proposed to create with the help of a 'professional nose' did not materialize.

After 20 or so rooms and 30 or so artists it becomes difficult to know what to think any more. In this state of mind, and with nothing left to drink except guava nectar and UHT milk in Zobernig's cafe, it is time to escape to the Locher room. ln an apartment that seems to have been decorated with wallpaper leftovers from the last 50 years, with every wall bearing a different design, Thomas Locher courteously provided all the thoughts you might ever need. Lists of commands ran from floor to ceiling, grouped by subject in a tenuous relationship with the style of wallpaper that supported them. The commands covered all stages of life from the exhortations of a mother to her child - 'sit still', 'don't eat with your mouth open' - through teenage self-recrimination to the abstract philosophical ponderings of old age: a lifetime of questioning wrapped up in a single space.

Given the extraordinary logistical and organisa-tional problems the exhibition created, documented in room 378 by A. Arefin's methodical presentation of virtually all the correspondence between artists and curators, it is surprising that the exhibition ever happened at all. Such a concentration of art is hard to deal with initially, but the sense of everyday life continuing full-time in the surrounding apartments is so overwhelming that it helps put it all back into context. Nowhere else could as much work have been exhibited in such a confined space so successfully - without the people it would have simply been so much stuff hanging around in an empty building.