New towns don’t exactly have a great image and are often used as symbols of soullessness, like Cumbernauld in the film ‘Gregory’s Girl’. The British new town Milton Keynes tried to do away with that image by blending a wide variety of environments, from garden suburb to hi-tech industrial zones, and used to advertise itself by showing children cycling along leafy laneways and couples sauntering beside lakes, barely a building in sight. But people still joke about Milton Keynes
There were many new towns built in the nineteenth century, thanks to the grandees of the industrial revolution, who created village communities for their workers. Some were small, like Sir Titus Salt’s lovely Saltaire in Yorkshire, started in the 1850s, and some were larger, like the leafy Arts and Crafts villages of the Lever brother’s Port Sunlight and the Cadbury family’s Bournville, both being built in the 1880s. (Prince Charles continues to push that Old English look with his new town, Poundbury in Dorset, every building given a Classical or vernacular reference so it won’t scare the twinset-and-pearls brigade.)
To me, though, new towns were places of the 1960s, mainly because I grew up close to one that was still expanding. The very first house I lived in looked down on Cwmbran in the valley. I remember it as windy and grey, big and blocky, full of angles and open spaces. It was so different from normal towns and I wasn’t sure I liked it. That was probably reinforced by the fact we rarely went there, despite its big new shopping centre, my parents preferring to shop the traditional way in nearby Newport. When we stayed with my grandparents in their house outside Glasgow we would often drive into another new town, East Kilbride, which had the deep pink roads common to Lanarkshire. It felt bleak and grey, too, although I was always excited by its large car parks because that meant there were plenty of cars for me to gawp at. I remember once watching with amazement as a whole family clambered out of a tiny ‘bubble car’ through its single front door. I think that image attached itself to my overall idea that new towns were bizarre and alien places.
All bizarre and alien places should be properly examined, of course, because there are some real marvels among them. Like Perret’s amazing rebuilding of the bombed-out port city of Le Havre in northern France, and maybe even Milton Keynes (I’ve never visited it so can’t really comment) and most certainly Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s Punjabi capital, which is often cited as one of the most liveable cities in India.
Which brings me to Firminy, another of Le Corbusier’s new towns, which I visited last year.
It is an odd place, Firminy. At first glance it’s just another French working town that sprang up to house miners and mill workers and which is now filled with high-rise housing blocks. West of Lyon, it’s at the very edge of the Auvergne so that you can see the sharp hillsides of much wilder countryside beyond, which reminded me of the glimpses of moorland and dales you get from the industrial towns of Yorkshire. In the 1950s, the mayor of Firminy planned to update the place by clearing away old housing and replacing it with something more contemporary. The new area would be called Firminy-Vert (green Firminy). The mayor, Eugène Claudius-Petit, happened to be a close friend of Le Corbusier’s and naturally he believed that Le Corbusier was the best man to create this new town. It was the perfect fit for Le Corbusier who was as much an urban planner as an architect (and had grown up, in fact, in the New Town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland). It would be very twentieth century, with ample sports facilities, a church, a cultural centre and new apartment blocks, with plenty of green space for children to play in.
It was a long process, though, and the only building that was completed before Le Corbusier’s death in 1965 was the Cultural Centre, in which you have to buy a ticket if you want to visit the other buildings. The long pavilion with its sharp, tent-like roof looms over a generous sports ground, on the other side of which is a gently stepped stadium – another Le Corbusier design – and a swimming pool, completed by Corb’s protégé, Andre Wogensky. And then there’s the church.
What a strange-looking building the church of Saint Pierre is. It was designed to add height to the horizontality of the surrounding area but it’s a lop-sided kind of structure, a little like the concrete cooling tower of a power station, and reminiscent of the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh. The base is square and contains a generous entrance area and various meeting rooms so that the curving, sloping shape above holds the church itself. As at La Tourette, there are shapely skylights (or light cannons) poking from its very top, and a complicated system of ledges and channels takes rainwater to the ground, which looks as though it was designed for a giant steel ball to run down like a pinball machine.
We bought our tickets just before lunchtime, with everything about to close for an hour or so (la belle France’s bloody stomach always comes first) but the ticket seller urged us to run to the church before it closed because the light inside at that moment would be extraordinary. And it was. The inward-sloping concrete walls were brushed with wavy lines of white light reflected from the skylights and also through the random scattering of tiny openings above the altar, which sparkle like stars. It’s a dazzling effect, as though the building is in motion. Later, when we returned after lunch for a more leisurely look, the light had completely changed, the sun no longer hitting the building from the same angle, and the starry effect was muted. The reflected lines of light were gone altogether, giving the lofty interior a more sombre air. That playfulness strikes me as very Le Corbusier, a man who understood that buildings are never static, that light and colours change, and with them, mood.
The church was only properly completed in 2006, which explained why so much of the concrete interior felt and smelled new, but the design is completely Le Corbusier’s. We had arrived fresh from a night at his priory at La Tourette so it was fascinating to see how, once again, the great architect, famous for his austerity and who claimed no religious faith at all, has managed to create a building of powerful emotion, with a sense of uplift and, dare I say, joy.
Later, we went back to explore the Cultural Centre, which has the same pivoting ventilation panels that I’d admired at La Tourette, like little doorways in the walls, drawing the breeze into otherwise stuffy offices and a lofty theatre space. It is a generous building, filled with light, unexpected views and sudden dashes of strong, primary colour. Conceived as the new town’s community space, with its gallery, theatre, meeting rooms, museum and offices, it felt lively and inhabited.
We finished by driving up to the nearby Unité d’habitation, whose construction started in 1965, the year of Le Corbusier’s death.
It was the only one of three planned Unités to be built, which seems a shame as there are newer housing blocks nearby with none of the Unité’s attributes, a clear demonstration that you can shove innovation under some people’s noses and they still won’t see it. In some ways, with its position on a hill overlooking the town, the Firminy Unité has a more forceful presence than those in Marseille and Nantes-Rezé, crisp against the blue sky. Its colour scheme is simpler, too, using predominantly red and white with only a touch of blue, although there are multi-coloured glass windows peppering the sides of the school that occupies the uppermost two floors (much bigger than that in Rezé). The rooftop is closed but we managed to sneak a look at its stepped concrete seating and running track. It was built as public housing and costs were kept deliberately low but it’s still a fine building, if not in the same league as the Unité in Marseille. And as I noticed in the others, there’s an air of cheerfulness in the people who were coming and going. People smiled at me as I took my photos, and children were playing on the grassy playground to the back of the building. Not bad at all.
As we left Firminy, I noticed a familiar object gracing a roundabout. It was the Open Hand, the symbol Le Corbusier developed for Chandigarh. Its unmistakeable shape shows the immense pride taken by the town in the man who changed the look of the place. This had been apparent in the little bistro where we had lunch in the middle of town, its paper table mats covered with images of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Firminy and the UNESCO logo. I’m a sucker for anywhere that celebrates its architecture.
I left Firminy glad to have found another place that I had liked. Like the 1960s new towns of Britain, it is a blend of open space and enclosure, greenery and concrete, and with the emphasis on supporting community – births, deaths and marriages in the church, gathering places for sport, theatre and play, while living with views, cross ventilation and boundless natural light. It might not knock your socks off as Ronchamp or La Tourette will but it is deeply satisfying.