Earlier this year I broadcast a piece on ABC Radio National about Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation (listen here). It’s a confronting building for some because a) it’s made from concrete and b) it looks like the sort of housing blocks that everyone blames for all kinds of social problems. A listener posted a comment on the ABC website to say that people need organic shapes and contact with nature to feel healthy. A box like this could not, she inferred, be a happy, healthy place. I visited the building a couple of weeks ago. It’s in Marseilles, the Mediterranean port city that I have always rushed through, nervous of its reputation as a car-jacking, gun-toting, drug-running melting pot of multicultural resentment. The first revelation was what a wonderful city it is. Okay, there are polluting factories on the outskirts but the setting is breathtaking. The Count of Monte Cristo’s imprisoning island sits at the entrance to the bay and sun-bleached limestone hills lead around to the famous rocky inlets, the calanques, where the sea is so turquoise and clear that you’d swear you were on some languid Greek island.
The city and its pretty port reminded me of Naples, and its narrow streets were filled with activity that looked anything but illicit. I felt as though I’d stumbled across a secret. Le Corbusier’s building is located in an area that wasn’t built-up in 1949 when construction started but is now a busy part of the city complete with a swanky velodrome and numerous other apartment blocks. It’s commonly called the Cite Radieuse, referring to the Radiant City concept that Le Corbusier first touted in the early 1920s where apartment buildings would be set within open parkland, offering fresh air, views and (ahem, ABC listener) proximity to nature. His 1925 exhibition pavilion for L’Esprit Nouveau was a forerunner of the apartments in this building.
I was ridiculously excited as I parked in its tree-lined car-park. Above me loomed the building, the colourful balconies glowing in the late afternoon sunlight. That’s the thing that many people forget when they talk about Le Corbusier – colour. They think of his early buildings like the Villa Savoye and its cubic whiteness, or they think of raw concrete, beton brut, the term that gave us Brutalism, the seemingly scathing title for an architectural style that can often appear rather dehumanising. But Le Corbusier was a painter and a colourist as well as an architect and you cannot walk into the Cite Radieuse without being struck by its abundant use of colour, especially with its apartment doors and post boxes in vibrant primary colours. Everywhere vibrates with colour.
I was staying in its hotel, located on the 3rd level, which actually means the 3rd ‘street’ rather than the 3rd floor – the building has five internal ‘streets’ serving two-level apartments, their second floors running the full width of the building, under or above an internal street. It means that the hotel is in the middle section of the block, actually the 7th floor, high enough for lovely views to the sea.
I had booked the cheapest room, which turned out to be like the child’s bedroom in the apartments, meaning it was long but narrow. Too narrow for my partner and me, I decided, and so we moved to a larger room – a studio – which was basically two interconnecting narrow rooms, each with a balcony. It felt fantastic. The current owners of the hotel have kept things as original as possible, from Charlotte Perriand’s pivoting wall lamps to the simple sliding wood cupboards and inset shelving. But they’ve added a dash of contemporary style that is entirely in keeping. The stools in our room, for instance, were like the upturned whisky crates Le Corbusier used in his own holiday cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin except these were beautifully made from oak; three felt cushions on the bed were shaped like large pebbles, the sort he liked to collect on his seaside walks. The hotel rooms are off the internal street but have a lobby so that they’re insulated against sound. Le Corbusier was very particular about this, which further endears him to me, noise sensitive princess that I am. Each of the apartments has a gap between it and its neighbour, meaning noise isn’t transferred through the walls. That’s quite an innovation and means the 337 apartments remain peaceful places to live. That evening we ate a delicious dinner on the balcony of the hotel restaurant as the sun flamed and died over a silver sea. The warm air was filled with the calls of the parakeets that seem to be invading Europe and which fluttered among the numerous trees that stud the parkland around the building. Along from us a table of Americans talked about film making. Two of them wore thick-framed glasses not unlike the famous owl-eyed specs of Le Corbusier. My own aren’t very different, either, but I figured this was definitely the place you could flaunt your Corb-Tragic status.
The next morning I strolled in the sunshine on its stunning roof terrace. An elderly resident with a stick wobbled around the walking track, presumably carrying out his regular daily exercise. A mother supervised her happy child in the paddling pool and another woman sat reading in one of the sheltered concrete booths. The massive, sculptural air vents chugged away, giving me the sense of being on a ship just as Le Corbusier intended. The views were stunning, the sky felt immense. I could have happily stayed there for the rest of the day.
Instead, after breakfast, the hotel had organised for me a tour of a resident’s apartment (just ask at reception). Jocelyne was an Algerian woman who had moved to Marseille when she was six. She had lived in the building for years, loving the mid-century-modern style, which was obvious from her collection of furniture. She showed us around her apartment, which was a Type E ‘descending’, meaning you walk into its upper level kitchen. Originally the living room was on the lower level, a double-height space overlooked by the kitchen. Many of this type have been converted, filling in the open space so that the kitchen now leads into a sitting area on the same level with the stairs down to a large main bedroom and two smaller bedrooms. Her kitchen still had the Jean Prouvé-designed aluminium worktop and the Charlotte Perriand-designed cupboards which she said worked beautifully. Although relatively narrow, the apartment felt spacious and airy, with a lovely breeze being drawn from the balconies on one side to the other, which Jocelyne said was a blessing during Marseille’s hot summer months. She lamented how the building had become fashionable (I’d noticed the trendy retro Alfas and new Mini’s in the carpark and the hipster dudes waiting for the lifts) and how few of the older residents now remained. Not like at the Unité at Rezé, she said, which retained more working-class residents, just as had been originally intended.
The Unite d’habitation at Nantes-Rezé was built just after the one at Marseille. I had visited it a week or so previously and been equally bowled over by it. It’s a shabbier place and not as large nor as glamorous as Marseille’s rockstar building but I noticed the ordinary families coming and going and was charmed by the way they all greeted me with a cheery bonjour or a smile. They seemed proud of their building. In Marseille I was just another Corb-Tragic taking photos with his iPhone.
Both buildings are astonishing and reinforce my view that Le Corbusier was a genius. He may not have designed every single item but he drew the right people around him to complement his skills. Everywhere you are struck by the playful shapes of a communal bench or stairway, the colour of imbedded glass in a concrete shelf or on the brightly painted walls, and the sense of light and shade and fresh, clean air moving through the building. The thoughtfulness is apparent in the careful planning of public and private spaces, the little touches that bring humanity to a building. I defy anyone not to be awed by the sculptural wonder and adventure of the rooftop terrace.
Before I left, I strolled along its shopping street with its clothes shop, bookshop and empty supermarket waiting for a new tenant and I couldn’t resist buying a little piece of Corbusian nonsense from the bakery.
This Modulor man is made out of marzipan and, I was told, tasted really good. I’m not sure Le Corbusier would approve but people forget that Le Corbusier had a playful side. It makes me smile now and reminds me of the joy I felt being in this special building. A radiance, for sure.