|Architect||Lods, Marcel & Eugéne Beaudouin|
|Address||Ave. Henri Barbusse/Ave. Jean Jaures|
|Number of Dwellings||700 (original)|
|Dwelling Types||1 & 2 Br. flats|
|Section Type||point-access flats; gallery-access flats|
|precast concrete, metal|
|Construction Type||Mopin system: steel frame with applied prefabricated concrete panels|
|Ancillary Services||community spaces, schools, some commercial|
A long courtyard block is all that remains of one of the most interesting and technically advanced housing projects of the 20th century, la Cité de la Muette. Located in the suburb of Drancy, a short distance east of Paris, La Muette was conceived as a cité-jardin development incorporating CIAM ideas about community and social housing. Built between 1932 and 1936, La Muette was actually occupied as housing for only a few years before WWII. Germans occupied it during WWII. Later it was used as army barracks and was finally demolished in 1976. This tragic tale of brilliant conception, catastrophic occupation and mindless destruction presents a cogent case study of all that is good and bad about modernist housing in the 20th century.
In 1931, Henri Sellier, the director of l´Office H.L.M. de la Seine, the government office responsible for building moderate income housing (habitations à loyer moyen) in the Paris region, approached the architects Marcel Lods and Eugène Beaudouin with a concept to build a large-scale cité-jardin. Lods and Beaudouin had just finished a project at Bagneaux, a suburb south of Paris, the cité des Oseieaux, in which they had applied a new building technology using a steel frame and a system of prefabricated concrete panels. Sellier was interested in applying this system in a new project to be built on a site that had been acquired in 1925. The new project was to incorporate the first use of high-rise "American style" skyscrapers in France and was to be built using an advanced industrialized building technology. The engineer Eugène Mopin designed the construction system and Jean Prouvé designed the system of metal forms used in the casting of the concrete elements. Following the great housing experiments of the early years of Modern Architecture in Holland and Germany, the period of the 1930's witnessed the advent of high-rise housing. La Muette was also seen as a prototypical community applying the principles defined in the CIAM Athens Charter of 1934. Open space regional planning, Green Belt regional planning and an emphasis on freestanding high-rise building had been added to the 20's lexicon of Functionalism, existenzminimum and industrialized building. La Muette is thus the quite literal manifestation of CIAM principles of the time: sited in an open area at the edge of the city, a mix of high and low buildings, to be built using an advanced system of factory-made elements.
La Muette consisted of a typology of 3 building elements arranged in four distinct ways. Sixteen-story point-access towers, connecting 3 to 4-story point-access slabs called peignes (combs) defining long narrow courtyards extending southward from the towers. A repetitive courtyard formation of stepping 2-4 story redans elements defined the north side of the site. Finally, a very large courtyard building (grande cour) is located at the west end of the complex opens to the south and defines a large open field. There were to have been 4 stages of construction beginning with the towers and peignes, the redans, to be built in 2 stages along the north and east forming an end to the line of towers, and finally the larger perimeter block on the west. The towers were the first example of the type to be built in France. and are thus important prototypes for the next 30 or 40 years of French housing. The typical floor plan of these slender elements has a central stair and elevator lobby and a small flat in each corner. A secondary exit stair and corner balconies resulted in a very plastic, articulated form. The most distinctive element of the group was the repeating group of 5 towers and 10 connecting slabs. The slabs interlocked around the base of the towers at the north end the courtyard, and stepped up to a 4-story height for a few bays at the south end. Proportionally, it appears that the horizontal void of the courtyard had been tilted up to form a vertical solid at one end. The towers contained studio and one-bedroom flats, while the peigne slabs contained 1 & 2 bedroom flats organized around stairs projecting partially into the space of the courtyards. The stepping redan were only partially built at the west end of the site. These appeared to have been an economy version of Le Corbusier's redant slabs of Ville Radieuse fame. The large courtyard block on the west was a 5-story version of the peigne containing flats, shops and community spaces along a ground floor arcade, and arranged point-access fashion around the courtyard. The north end of the block was a gallery-access type above ground floor commercial spaces. The courtyard was designated for use as playing fields and two schools to the west were part of the overall plan. Several other buildings appear in early site plans including an administrative block at the end of the western tower/slab group and some smaller buildings planned for the open end of the larger courtyard block.
The construction materials and techniques are the most interesting and exotic features of La Muette. The space between the row of towers and courts and the redan blocks was used as a fabrication and assembly area. The buildings were made of a steel frame that was assembled without the use of cranes. This frame was covered with prefabricated concrete panels that were made in factories in the assembly area. Tracked gantries transported materials to each building site. Jean Prouvé designed the metal forms for the panels which were cast using vibration techniques to achieve greater strength. Unlike so many of the prefabricated concrete panel systems that have been used in Europe in the past 40 years, the Mopin system was designed to be attached to a structural steel frame. It was quite complicated, and consisted of a typology of parts including balconies, window and door frames, floor and wall elements, as well as interior stairs, floors and partitions, fabricated with different exposed finishes. While the only remaining building does not use the full range of parts and the balconies and trim pieces seem to have been simplified, the detail quality of the prefab components can readily be seen here.
During WWII, Drancy was a center of Gestapo deportation activities and the Germans occupied La Muette during this time, the siedlung of a repressive regime. The buildings remained unoccupied for many years after the war until l'Office H.L.M. sold it suddenly to the Amy in 1973. During this time it was used as a barracks and the interiors were further damaged. Shortly afterwards, in May of 1976 a decision was made to destroy all the buildings but the large courtyard block. Even though La Muette had been abused for many years and may have become dated as a useful housing model, it was still in relatively good condition and the renovation and improved insulation techniques that have been used in other similar modernist housing projects in Europe could have restored La Muette to use as viable social housing. Indeed the only surviving block is testimony to the fact that much of the housing of the Modernist era still provided useable dwellings for many people. Issues of building recycling and WWII emotions aside, the destruction of 650 dwellings has to be seen as a huge economic bungle.
Architecture d'aujourd'hui, Oct/Nov., 1976.
Architectural Forum, Feb, 1936, pp. 21-23.
Architectural Record, Feb., 1936, pp. 44-46,
Art et Décoration, Jan, 1936, vol. 65, pp. 3-10
Architectural Record, Feb. 1939, pp. 44-46.