Cité de Refuge, Armée du Salut, Paris

Master piece by Le Corbusier, the Cité de Refuge is still an unknown or better said badly acknowledged piece of work. Successive bankrupts, transformations, restorations made it hard to understand.

Despite all that, everything in it is extraordinary. The innovative character of the program, the topography, the way it was financed. In spite of all the difficulties undergone by the company, Le Corbusier stubbornly applies the results of his studies to the five axis of architecture.

This piece of work, criticized by its users in its first version, and then modified by Le Corbusier him-self, does not have the attraction of the extreme abstraction of Villa Savoye or Pavillon Suisse. Nevertheless it is a testimony of the doubts and remorse which give a unique humanity to the master pieces of the history of Arts.

The building phase of the Cité de Refuge was a special period of time for Le Corbusier as for l’Armée du Salut. A research centre for an ideal social solution to poverty, this testimony is nowadays passed onto us as a rusty ship stranded on the shores of urban area in complete transformation. For the Cité promoters, the duty to support the most vulnerable is mixed with the duty of memory, as they believed in the need to give the best to the most humbles people.

The project of a Cité de Refuge was born from the gathering of three personalities and their strong wills: Albin Peyron, commissioner at the Armée du Salut and is innovating social project, Winaretta Singer Princesse de Polignac, philanthropist and generous funder, who lived surrounded by Art and innovation and finally Le Corbusier whose architectural studies lead to exploring – inter alia – the social dimension of architecture and city planning. It is the reunion of those exceptional three characters that allowed this master piece of the history of architecture to be born.

The program of the Cité de Refuge is highly ambitious. The aim is to create a city where “ all misery, where all people milling about, the wayfarer, those who are tired, desperate, those who die of anger, who have no roof, no religion, no God, can come in and rest assured that they will be welcome » («toutes les misères, où l’errant, le chemineau, le fatigué, le désespéré, le meurt-de-faim, le sans-taudis, le sans-foi, le sans-Dieu, pourront venir, avec la certitude d’être accueillis») (Albin Peyron).

The building is a mix of daily life activities some like kindergarten are new, other are linked to health and hygiene (dispensary, changing rooms, solarium) to work (workshops, offices), to hotel industry (kitchen organized and fitted in a rational way, laundry room, etc.). In the basement a large space is devoted to technical rooms so as to control the environment.

This quite innovative programme shows modernity, especially as far as the technical equipment in the kitchen and in the kindergarten is concerned, as well as for furniture: very simple and logical. Those various usages of the space (eating rooms, bedrooms, communal bedrooms, kindergarten) are unified by glass panels, which pose a major problem to regulate thermal atmospheres. And actually part of the heat problem stems in the location of the kindergarten…which is busy during the day and receives slightly too much sunshine.

The Cité de Refuge is a very logical and efficient building in its organization. Vertical corridors which open way to two separate blocks, one for men, one for women, are halved from the 5th floor onwards (kindergarten). They rest on the Northern side on a supporting wall made in traditional masonry (rubble bricks) and are lit by small courtyards. The lifts, that were first located opposite the staircases, are now placed on the sides with the toilets. This central blocked is completed by two large ventilation stacks. Horizontal corridors run along the façade for the dormitories or in a corridor along the Northern façade for private bedrooms in the women block from the 4th floor onward.

Real little « factory of good » («usine du bien»), to use Justin Godart (FLC J1-20-20) words, the logic of the organization of the rooms allow to have about five hundred people circulating, sleeping and working with a great economy of means.

Some of the architecture elements come from the language used in the imaginary transport world: the reference made to ships is explicit not only because of the building shape but also because of its details. The two ventilation stacks together with the vertical corridors reminds of the round chimneys that can be seen on a cruise ship. The access via a footbridge, the corridor on the rotunda – kind of an articulation similar to a sorting yard – the final shape of the two levels with the private bedrooms, set back from the façade and in saw tooth (like a sail inflated by the wind) and little details on the metalwork such as railing/ship rails contribute to evoking the a nautical fantasy world.

The realization of 1933

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Changes from 1951 to 1953

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