Text and Photos By Jessica Smith
Visiting a public housing site isn't usually on my bucket list of travel destinations, but most public housing sites aren't designed by Le Corbusier. This summer I kicked off the season with a little trip to Marseilles, the Mediterranean port situated in the south of France. Known for its diverse and vibrant culture with miles of beaches, it is also home to Le Corbusier’s famous Unite d’Habitation, 1952. Even though I am a new modern enthusiast, I did not want to waste a perfect opportunity to view firsthand one of the few public housing sites that is not only beloved by the architect or academic but also by the average citizen.
Photo (above): View from the roof looking towards what was originally the gym but now is a functioning gallery space
Earlier that day, my family and I visited a 16th century medieval village in the Provencial hills, so it felt as though we were traveling in time as we drove back towards the city. As we made our way down Boulevard Michelet I finally saw the building’s ocean-liner form, speckled with primary colors, rising above the buildings in the surrounding area. After pulling into the parking lot, which was only accessible through a very narrow alley, it was a pleasant surprise to see evidence that the building was visibly in good condition, and upon further inspection, we found that the building was still home to apartments, shops, a school, an art gallery, and a hotel. Knowing the general success of post-war public housing developments made me curious why this particular site seemed to be a functional and desired place to call home.
One of the first architectural details that greeted me as I neared the building were the massive concrete pilotis supporting the building like giant, abstract legs of a catapiller. The open space underneath was empty, but it created a nice sight-line from one end of the building to the other as well as provided views of the green space surrounding the north side. I was surprised that there were no signs of graffitti or garbage despite the lack of use. As I came closer, I began to notice the imprints of the boards used to form the concrete were not just random details but carefully considered patterns. Already my appreciation for Corbusier’s attention to the minute details was growing, and even though I knew there was much about this building that I was failing to notice, I could see why it has had such an impact on large scale community housing.
Photo (right): Concrete pilotis supporting the building
The lobby was full of Corbusier motifs like geometric stainglass windows cut into the concrete walls, a concrete reception desk that sat on small pilotis, bright primary colors accenting doors and windows, and a small stainglass window showing Corbusier's Modular Man. We weren't required to check in, we just hit the button for the elvator and made our way up to the roof-top terrace, and once I was there and saw the city extending along the coast in one direction and the hills in another, I began to see and appreciate Corbusier’s vision of a “vertical garden.” Originally, the roof was intended to be a space for residents to come relax and enjoy the escape it provided from city-life, and although the space struck me as a little steril, there were people there sitting by the pool or taking advantage of the view who did not appear to be tourists. I was a little disappointed to find that the pool was in fact a wading pool, intended for children, and currently had no water. What had once been the gym had recently been renovated and opened in 2013 as a gallery space. I was struck by the juxtiposition of different materials next to each other and the effective way these contrasts defined the various forms and spaces. The warm gray concrete, the main material used, creates a perfect canvas that seems to surround and accentuates the bright colors of the tile, the honey-colored wood, and dark metal. I also love the fact that an emphasis seemed to be placed on organic shapes through the use of rounded corners and s-curves that accentuated the nature that surrounded the building. However, because time was limited, we were not able to explore the rest of the building, leaving a great excuse to come back again.
After a little research, I discovered that as the first and most famous of the five ‘Unite’ sites built and realized as part of Corbusier's vision of the ‘Radiant City,’ Marseilles’ ‘Unite’ has had the strong national and local support that has kept it well preserved and functioning. The building was designated a historical monument in 1986 and presented as a World Heritage Site in 2008.1
The "Association of Inhabitants of the Unite d'Habitation Le Corbusier Marseille," an organization of tenants
was formed shortly after the building was completed, have been actively involved in forming various clubs, activities, and events that have involved the residents of the building as well as the surrounding community, thus creating the community-living that Corbusier had invisioned this building would foster. Some of the residents have lived there since the building's completion and played a key role in forming this association, and who were responsible for fighting to protect their right to live there as the city of Marseille was trying to sell the building to a private owner.2
While there is emphasis on preserving the building's integrity, it seems as though the people who have seen to the building's care have recognized that the preservation doesn't necessarily mean it must be kept exactly as Corbusier had designed, allowing the people who have called this place home to not feel trapped in a museum but instead assisted in living a sustainable life.
Photo (above): Wading pool on roof underneath the kindergarden
Looking back on my time spent at Unite d’Habitation, I am drawn not only to Corbusier’s vision and execution of a work of architecture that fosters community living, but whose success has also been dependant on the people who have lived there and who made his vision become a reality where other public housing sites have fostered such isolation, poverty, and crime.
1. Carriere-Chardon, Sarah. "Visiting The Cite Radiuse, A Verticle Utopia." L'Occtane. Accessed July 14, 2014. usa.loccitane.com
2. Lherisson, Suzanne. "Living in "Corbu." Unite d'Habitation Le Corbusier Marseille. Accessed July 10, 2014. www.citeradieuse.org/