the lunatic’s house

north west corner

La maison du fada: that’s the local name for Le Corbusier’s famous – or infamous – unité d’habitation, or cité radieuse, in Marseille’s suburbs.

Much has been written about this remarkable creation, not least by architects. If you’ve not heard of it before, let me explain its significance: built immediately after the end of World War Two as part of the city’s response to Allied bombing and Nazi destruction of old Marseille, French modernist architect Le Corbusier’s 20 storey block is regarded as the precursor to the residential tower blocks that have sprouted across Europe since.

The concept of the building is encapsulated in its most common name – unité d’habitation – literally, a unit for living. With 337 apartments, shops, offices, restaurant, hotel, nursery, gym, paddling pool and open-air theatre, the building was conceived as the solution to urban living. It’s been the subject of study and ardent debate by architects and planners for decades. For some, it’s the pinnacle of what architecture can achieve for quality of life; for others, it’s a depressing form of urbanism which looks inwards and pays no attention to the context of what’s around it.

rue 3

Those who choose to buy apartments and live in the building – reputed to be generally professional middle class – are said to enjoy and appreciate it as a place to live. It’s certainly a far cry from some of the modernist social housing schemes that it inspired, such as the social housing in Glasgow’s Sighthill and Red Road – many of which are now being demolished.

Back in Marseille, the unité’s 21 bedroom hotel offers a wonderful opportunity to stay in the original block, the big daddy of them all. I was lucky enough to spend 3 nights there recently, but came away with mixed feelings about the place.

The contrast of the modern lines of the brutalist concrete building with the original wooden fittings was fascinating – even many of the chairs and toilets appear to be the original 1940s designs. The architect’s attention to detail and design quality is obvious, and made the building a delight to explore. I’ve tried to capture a feel for the building in the slideshow below – click on the arrow or text in the middle to start it.

(If you have trouble viewing the slideshow, you can jump straight to the photos by clicking here.)

south elevation

But for all the genius of the architecture, the unité left me feeling that attempts to replicate the original are fatally flawed. The system-built blocks that have peppered our cities since the 1960s so often sit in proud ignorance of their surroundings. When grouped together, they can be immensely impersonal and disempowering for people – due to the lack of human scale and the inability of residents to influence their environment, particularly in Britain where the concept of home and garden is such an important part of people’s identity.

Ultimately, these massive blocks pay no respect to the urban context that surrounds them. They undoubtedly have the potential to be good places to live – provided that they are designed and managed well like the original unité, which is no small matter, as the experiences of Britain’s 1960s schemes have shown us. But even if they meet their residents’ aspirations, do they contribute positively to the wider concept of urban living and community?


Personally, I’m still not sure of the answer to this question. Three nights in the unité left me with more questions than answers: I came away wanting to understand how the concept could work if scaled up. So maybe a visit to Brasilia should be on my wishlist…

If you want to find out more, there’s a wealth of information in books and on the internet about Le Corbusier. For relatively unbiased introductions, take a look at the Wikipedia entries on Le Corbusier and the unité d’habitation.



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