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Public Housing and the ‘Thermal Ghetto’

In the book I borrowed David Gissen's excellent concept of the ‘thermal ghetto’ to briefly discuss an issue in public housing that Fred Keck addressed beginning in 1950.  Gissen coined this term to discuss how low-income urban dwellers usually lack access to air-conditioning and disproportionately suffer heat-related deaths (“Thermopolis: Conceptualizing Environmental Technologies in the Urban Sphere,” Journal of Architectural Education, 2006).

I extended the ‘thermal ghetto’ concept to explain why Keck needed to fight for a single-loaded corridor plan when he designed the Prairie Avenue Courts, a superblock-type public housing project.  Keck wanted all of the the units to face south; in effect he treated the project like a giant solar house.  But if designed like a 'typical' housing block with a double-loaded corridor, half the residents would be banished to a ‘thermal ghetto’ on the north (where the units would be cold and dark, with high heating bills).  Keck developed a few solutions, the best of which is shown below, although shading devices on the south façade are not indicated.

George Fred Keck Prairie Avenue Courts from Progressive Architecture, April 1951

George Fred Keck
Prairie Avenue Courts
from Progressive Architecture, April 1951

In the book I note that the 'outside corridors' were unfortunately enclosed in chain-link, and I quote Stanley Tigerman's colorful critique of that problem.  The project was demolished in 2002.

Le Corbusier also grappled with this problem a few years earlier.  It should be emphasized that he was concerned with heliotherapeutic factors and not space heating or energy savings.  The Unité d’Habitation at Marseille (1947-52) is, of course, well-noted for its sunny roof terrace and deeply shaded façades.  But perhaps less well-known is the building’s orientation.  Here, Le Corbusier faced an impossible dilemma.  The renowned organization of space in the building allowed each unit to have ‘double-orientation’, so he could have placed the long axis east-west without banishing half the residents to a ‘thermal ghetto’ on the north (although some apartments would have collected twice as much sun as others).  But the north wind known as the mistral prompted him to place the long axis running north-south and to create a blank north wall.  Therefore the units face east or west. 

Le Corbusier Unité d’Habitation at Marseille in morning sun from Google Earth

Le Corbusier
Unité d’Habitation at Marseille
in morning sun
from Google Earth

When he designed the brises-soleil, Le Corbusier paid attention to his own requirement of permitting at least two hours of sun penetration in the winter.  But, as David Jenkins has argued, “since the brises-soleil on the east and west façades are of equal depth and position, despite their diametrically-opposed orientation, one is forced to conclude that they have more to do with art than science” (Unite D’Habitation: Le Corbusier, Phaidon, 1993).  The west-facing apartments, as a consequence, receive too much direct sun when it is least wanted, late in summer afternoons.

The other Unité d’Habitations, at Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, and Firminy, are also oriented with the long axis running north-south, so that the units face east and west.

More: Le Corbusier and the Sun