This article was originally published by Metropolis Magazine as “The Fascinating History of Le Corbusier’s Lost Barge.”
This winter, France experienced some of the heaviest rains it has seen in 50 years. In Paris, the Seine flooded its banks, submerging parks, streets, and disrupting metro service. The deluge also claimed an architectural curiosity. On February 8th the Louise-Catherine, a concrete barge renovated by Le Corbusier, slipped below the murky waters of the Seine and came to rest on the bottom of the river by Quai D’Austerlitz on the east side of Paris.
As the floodwaters receded, the 100-year-old barge’s bow became stuck on the wharf, tipping it into the river, according to Le Parisien. Though firefighters were present and attempted to save the historic vessel, it filled with water and sank in a matter of minutes.
The Louise-Catherine began life in 1915, as a reinforced concrete barge named the Liège, which hauled coal from the port city of Rouen south to Paris during WWI. In 1929, the Salvation Army purchased the Liege and hired Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) to convert the vessel to a floating shelter for the homeless of Paris.
According to New York University professor and Le Corbusier scholar Jean-Louis Cohen, the project was financed in part by the American sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer Polignac who was a major supporter of artistic and charitable projects in Paris. Another supporter of the project was Madeleine Zillhardt who had the barge named in honor of her lifelong companion, the painter Louise-Catherine Breslau. Around the same time, Le Corbusier was working on a public housing project for the Salvation Army, the Cité Refuge in Paris’ 13th Arrondissement, which was also funded by Singer Polignac.
Le Corbusier’s fascination with ships went back to his childhood. Cohen writes in a forthcoming book, Le Corbusier: The Built Work (Monacelli, 2018), “So great was the young Jeanneret’s fascination for ships and ocean liners that upon reading the texts of Adolf Loos in 1913, he declared that he wished to transpose ‘the forthright expression of the ship builder into the home.’”
In the case of the Louise-Catherine, Le Corbusier reconfigured the 70-meter-long barge to hold 148 beds, a dining room, a kitchen, quarters for a captain and a program director, as well as a small hanging garden. Supplementary sleeping spaces were added as well, allowing the Louise-Catherine to sleep nearly 200 at full capacity.
Cohen writes that Le Corbusier’s primary concern with the Louise-Catherine was to accommodate as many cots as possible within the limited confines of the barge. The space was punctuated by cement pillars and divided into three chambers. The spare interior was illuminated by one of Le Corbusier’s signatures, a ribbon window running the length of the cabin.
During the winter the Louise-Catherine served as a refuge for homeless individuals who often slept under the bridges that line the Seine. In the summer it traveled just outside of the city to serve as a summer camp for Parisian children. Due to safety concerns and leaks in the hull, the Louise-Catherine was taken out of service as a shelter in 1994. In 2008, the City of Paris formally recognized the barge as an historic monument.
But nearly a century of neglect took its toll. Before it capsized, the Louise-Catherine was extremely spartan, the reinforced concrete unpainted inside and out, save for 84 concrete pillars repainted blue and scrawls of graffiti. The original bunks were removed to make way for planned exhibition space, revealing its original utilitarian purpose of transporting coal. From the dock, however, the clean geometry of the horizontal window peaked above the Quai D’Austerlitz and hinted at a piece of floating history.
Before she sank, the Louise-Catherine was on the verge of receiving a facelift. The Louise-Catherine Association, a charitable group that acquired it from the Salvation Army in 2006, was in the process of restoring Le Corbusier’s barge.
Alice Kertekian, a member of the Association, told Le Figaro, that the association intends to salvage the vessel, but until floodwaters on the Seine recede further, divers are not able to assess the barge’s condition.