The Radical Ideas Behind The Renovation Of A Crumbling Le Corbusier Masterpiece

Cité de Refuge is one of many International Style buildings that have fallen into disrepair. But a faithful recreation isn’t the way forward.


Many legendary 20th century architects were wildly prolific. And today, after 70 or 80 years, many of those buildings are crumbling and long overdue for rehabilitation. We’re entering a new era of conservation–one where modern buildings need careful restoration.


According to France’s Chief Architect of Historical Monuments, François Chatillon, we’re standing at a crossroads for architecture. We could go about restoring these modern buildings like we do historical ones–with an obsessive eye for detail that recreates the exact way they once existed. But doesn’t that do them, and their creators, a disservice? After all, these buildings were supposed to represent a new age for rationality and utility in design. What good does conserving them as they were first built really do, except put the last nail in the coffin of modernism?

Chatillon thinks there’s another way to conserve modern buildings. “To put it in a nutshell, I would dare to say that to conserve is modern, and it perhaps constitutes one of the roads to future modernity,” he writes in his passionate manifesto, Conservation is Modern, recently published in Domus .


So what does that look like, exactly? Look no further than Le Corbusier’s Cité de Refuge–a building Chatillon and fellow architect François Gruson restored during a five-year-long, $35.6 million renovation that wrapped up this spring.

Like so many other iconic buildings of the era, the 1929 building was a prime candidate for rehabilitation. But since the Salvation Army still uses it as social housing, a conventional restoration wouldn’t work. Instead, Chatillon approached it as an “active” restoration that incorporated contemporary ideas about social welfare and low-income housing into a historic structure. “To conserve a work of architecture, its necessity must be assured, meaning a usage that corresponds to current times,” he writes.

Built in 1929 for the Salvation Army, this hulking piece of social housing was a chance for Le Corbusier to tests some of his ideas about how architecture could affect social ills. “It will teach them how to live in their houses,” Le Corbusier wrote at the time, a goal that seems remarkably paternalistic today. The architecture, his thinking went, could rehabilitate the needy individuals who came to the Cité to get back on their feet.


The living spaces inside the Cité were originally either dormitories or individual apartments for single women with children, historian Deborah Gans has written. But in the renovation, the architects adapted the apartment layouts to better fit contemporary needs, expanding some units and creating new ones that are designed specifically for families and couples. Elsewhere, partitions were removed to create larger communal areas–underlining the importance of social contact when it comes to developing meaningful support networks and strong communities, “to allow them to rebuild and prepare for reintegration,” the firm writes.

According to Paris Update, which reported back after a tour, in some cases the demolitions even revealed original details–like a wall painted to reflect light into darker rooms in the building. The entryways to the building were redesigned to accommodate wheelchairs and new safety regulations, too.

Cyrille Weiner

In the end, usability trumped preserving the exact details of Le Corbusier’s 85-year-old design. But to balance the new alterations with the preservation of Le Corb’s intent, the architects set up a committee of stakeholders that brought together technical experts, community members, historians from the Le Corbusier Foundation, project architects. That way, any major changes-or restorations–would be vetted by people on both sides of the conservation debate, as well as locals. And now, if an architecture fan stops by? Their tour will be guided by a trained resident, the Art Newspaper says.

You can check out Chatillon’s manifesto appears in the current issue of Domus, but the discussion on how to preserve modern architecture is growing elsewhere, too. A few years ago, the Getty Conservation Institute launched the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, collecting case studies and scientific resources about preserving modern materials, for example.

A new era of preservation is emerging where contemporary architects don’t just restore the original vision of the architect, but act more like collaborators working toward the same conceptual goal–just separated by a few decades.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.