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Marseille's Hotel Le Corbusier - Stay in Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation

Stay in a French national landmark, one of Modernism's first great buildings

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Updated November 22, 2010
On a clear November day, the Mistral had scoured the Marseille sky a pure, paintbox blue. The city, the mountains and the Mediterranean were edged with bold and dazzling clarity, like an impressionist composition laid on with a palette knife.

So what was I doing four stories up in a concrete tower block, discussing double glazing with a pair of French intellectuals in Earth shoes?

To begin with, this was no ordinary concrete tower block. Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation de Marseille is the granddaddy of them all, a 17-story, vertical village surrounded by acres of landscaped park. And, at nearly 60 years old, the thermopane windows could reasonably be considered original period features.

Known to the Marseillais as le Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City), or simply Le Corbusier, the Unité d'Habitation was erected between 1947 and 1952 to house the families of construction workers rebuilding Marseille's war-damaged port. Its design was so radical for the day that the intended inhabitants refused to move in. Instead, the city's educated elite, its doctors, architects, social workers and teachers flocked to what was then an Eastern suburb, to snap up the owner-occupied flats, capable of housing 1,600 people.

More than 50 years on, it remains a des res for Marseille's chattering classes. It is also a listed French National Landmark with a hotel on the third level (actually about the 7th floor, but more about that later) where travelers interested in art, interior design, architecture and cultural tourism can sample mid-20th century architectural utopianism for themselves.

Grit, graffitti and raw concrete

When I told him my destination, the cab driver let me know, with a series of Gallic exclamations and gestures, that he was impressed -- and possibly expecting a big tip. So I was surprised to pull up to what looked to me like a London housing project, complete with windblown grit and graffiti. Brutalism, the style inspired by the Unité d'Habitation, became the vernacular of European public architecture throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The grim familiarity of these masses of rough cast concrete makes it hard to imagine the original avant-garde shock of them. The name, by the way, is not a comment on the raw, in-your-face appearance of Brutalist buildings but derives from béton brut, French for raw concrete. And while much about the style is the product of consciously applied theory, the use of the material that defines it was necessitated by the lack of structural steel in post-War France.

Legend has it that the Unité d'Habitation, with its marble and mosaic bathrooms, oak parquet floors and dramatic, oak double glazing cost as much to build as an aircraft carrier. Le Corbusier included a 21-room hotel in his plans. It has been maintained with most of the 1950s features and furnishings ( some furniture was replaced by a previous owner but much of the original Charlotte Perriand decor remains). Intended as guest quarters for residents' visitors, from the beginning the hotel has been more of a pilgrimage stop on the Le Corbusier Trail.

A magnet for architects and design students

Bevies of architecture and design students, worshippers of minimalism, the above-mentioned earnest French intellectuals and reverent Japanese students regularly arrive to experience what has become a minor shrine to functional design and minimalism. According to owner Alban Gerardin, Japanese visitors are particularly interested in the two, doll-house sized studios. These have tiny, open-plan kitchens (no longer functional but kept for their museum value), painted concrete walls and shower cabines with porthole access, uncannily reminiscent of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's film Sleeper.
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