One of the most-read items on Invisible Bordeaux is the overview of the remarkable Cité Frugès estate in Pessac , where influential arch...

Lotissement de Lège: Le Corbusier’s housing legacy in Lège-Cap-Ferret

One of the most-read items on Invisible Bordeaux is the overview of the remarkable Cité Frugès estate in Pessac, where influential architect Le Corbusier was encouraged by local sugar magnate Henry Frugès to roll out his grand designs for cheap, modular housing. The 1926 Pessac development has become a renowned sight in the area, promoted by the local council and recently listed as UNESCO world heritage. And yet, prior to the Pessac estate taking shape, a similar but far smaller and lesser-known scheme by the Frugès/Le Corbusier double-act was rolled out in Lège-Cap-Ferret, which is where we are today.

The story goes that, in 1923, the 44-year-old Henry Frugès was already a wealthy man, thanks notably to the sugar refinery business he headed up in Bordeaux. With a view to optimizing his business model, he had also taken over a sawmill in Lège, to the northern tip of the triangular Arcachon Bay. This is where he planned to manufacture the wooden crates and casing used to package his company’s sugar production. In addition to being a successful industry player, Frugès was a great lover of architecture and a philanthropist. So, in a move that was set to combine all of the above, he called on the up-and-coming architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, who went by the name Le Corbusier, to design homes for sawmill workers on a plot of land that lay across the road from their workplace (where a fire station is now located).

Part of the small estate and its focal point: a pelote basque court, which was sadly not in use the day I was there. 
Le Corbusier teamed up with his cousin, fellow architect Pierre Jeanneret, and conceived the tiny estate, made up of six small houses, a larger communal residence, and a central square which doubled up as a pelote basque court. The building process, which began in October 1924, involved installing prefabricated units around a basic backbone made up of concrete pillars and beams, the walls being “built” using a cement gun to project the cement onto steel formwork structures. The estate was completed the following year and, in essence, became the blueprint for the more ambitious Pessac project.

The smaller units were built to two designs: three were the rectangular-shaped “Type A”, with ground-floor covered patio areas and upper-floor pergola-covered terraces; the other three were the more cubic, no-frills “Type B” houses. Distinguishing features included wide, horizontal windows (also used in Pessac), along with narrow slit windows. A ground-floor fireplace was used to heat the homes, which initially did not have toilet and bathroom facilities (running water only became available here in the 1970s, until then the only source of water was through use of a hand pump by the central square). The larger communal building, referred to both as “l’hôtellerie-cantine” and “la maison des célibataires” (home for single people), comprised a kitchen and refectory on the ground floor, and male and female dormitories on the upper level (able to accommodate 15 men and eight women).
In behind the hedges: a Type A design.
A cube-like Type B design.
The communal unit.
Henry Frugès’s dream proved to be short-lived though. His sugar refinery business didn’t make it through the financial crash of 1929 (he had to sell on to Béghin-Say) and the sawmill was taken over by a Landais family, Darbo, who already owned a sawmill further south. Employees of the new company moved  into the small estate, which by now had become known locally as “le quartier marocain” (the Moroccan neighbourhood) because of the unusual first-floor terraces. Over the ensuing years, subsequent tenants successively tweaked and modified the houses, until they were pale imitations of their original selves. The estate gradually fell into a state of disrepair, so much so that the local council seriously envisaged carrying out full-on demolition work towards the end of the 1980s. A renowned local architect and Le Corbusier enthusiast, Michel Sadirac, was alerted to the issue by a Japanese visitor and stepped in, triggering a process that saw the estate listed as historic heritage in 1990.

Distinguishing features: wide horizontal openings.
Slit windows.
Three years later, the social housing structure Office HLM 33 (now Gironde Habitat) acquired the properties (which, apparently, still belonged to the Darbo family) and went about restoring the estate’s six houses (but not the communal building) between 1994 and 1997 (a couple of interesting photos from that period can be found here). In 1998, things came full circle as the good-as-new homes were rented out once again to low-income tenants, the estate now going by the name of “Résidence Le Corbusier”. And that is the way things remain today.

The one outstanding question mark hangs over the communal building which, for more than 20 years now has been completely bricked up to prevent the inside being tampered with. The structure now belongs to the town of Lège-Cap-Ferret, and studies are ongoing as to how the building might be used in the future. It could become a cultural meeting point, a music centre or a museum. But progress is slow; options have been on the table since 2015 and obstacles to be overcome include funding, not to mention the issue of noise and parking if this quiet cul-de-sac were to become a hive of activity. The case continues…

Awaiting rebirth? The bricked-up maison des célibataires from another angle.
Meanwhile, visiting the tiny estate is an interesting experience: you can easily sense the philosophy of the original concept of an area for communal living. Today, though, it has become a quiet side-street and the small gardens are hemmed in by tall bushes in a manner which is far-removed from the open-plan atmosphere that must have initially reigned. The strangest sight is the pelote basque court, where you wonder how often people actually congregated to play pelote here. The space now appears to be the territory of cats. One comes up and befriends me before posing for the camera. I feel as if I’ve captured an unusual sight, framing my feline model with a Le Corbusier home in the background, until back home I check out the associated Wikipedia page and spot the same cat on a photo there too!

"You may remember me from Wikipedia...". Our celebrity cat gets the Instagram filter treatment.
Still, as one of the more discreet achievements in the high-profile legacy of Le Corbusier, the Lotissement de Lège or, if you will, the Moroccan quarter or even Résidence Le Corbusier, is an interesting place to explore, and is a far cry from the ocean beaches and oyster farming villages more usually associated with Cap Ferret...

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Lotissement de Lège, avenue du Médoc, Lège-Cap-Ferret.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! It is indeed perfect Invisible Bordeaux material!