Arriving late on a Sunday evening in July into a balmy, tropical Marseilles then taken by an overpriced taxi to a narrow, claustrophobic concrete room without any water or food is not the ideal start to any vacation, but we had looked forward to this visit to the Unite D ’Habitation with so much anticipation these were details quickly forgiven.
By the time the bright sun woke us in the morning and I had stood on the tight balcony looking down on lime green parakeets circulating in packs, making a sound like an angry baby squeezing a squeaky toy, I felt I already had a better understanding of the architects genius. Southern France is a place, like India, that assaults you through multiple senses. We dodged the midday heat by deliberately walking within deep magenta shade, the constant rattle, almost industrialized, sound of cicada’s is unrelenting, the sight of the Ocean with its diamond like reflections, above us an absolute, cloudless, incandescent blue. Not forgetting the aggressive taste of southern French food, the real and slightly worrying smells of the seafood, at least to those of us used to maximum refrigeration and overly conservative health codes. The wind was welcome, sometimes more than that, craved for. We sat on the balcony of the restaurant eating fresh bread and drank rich coffee each morning.
Familiar for a long time of the positions of both the detractors and fans of the work of the architect Charles Edouard Jeanerette (known as Le Corbusier), but rarely spending any time inside one of his buildings, the presence of a small hotel in this one provided an opportunity to touch and breathe in the atmosphere, sense the spirit of his work.
A passerby however might think of this building as being unremarkable, but only because some version of this building exists, often in groups, in almost every major city in the world. It was proposed, and readily accepted, as a solution to the housing crises after the Second World War, a way of housing and perhaps containing a large displaced population. And in theory it was an inexpensive solution, creating modular units, frequently in concrete that reached for the sky. Beautiful views and interior light could be achieved, shared green space around the units would allow for socializing and exercise. The problem was that the people who were supposed to live in the units saw things differently. When this building opened it was almost empty for a year, and if architects viewed it as a radiant city; the locals had a phrase which translated to the house of fools. It could house 1,600 people in its 337 apartments, it had a school, shops, a restaurant, a pool on the roof for children; a self-contained world, part manifesto and part utopian experiment.
Jeanerette has the distinction of being so cool that he is known universally by his nickname Le Corbusier and amongst those who really feel intimacy with his life and practice, simply Corbu. He was Swiss, French and paradoxically like many great architects, never trained as one. A visionary and a theorist, it is incredible that until he was almost 60 he never had fully realized his vision in the form of major buildings. There is a famous graphic of a man with his arm outstretched which was intended as a guideline to how much space is required to live in. This is at the heart of the criticism, a sense of de-humanizing the lives of residents and its authoritive proposition, a simplistic standardization, at the core of his practice materializes again and again when considering his work. In one sense a beautiful and celebrated almost cubist drawing and in another sense could be used as a basis for the creation of a prison cell.
The building itself is a horizontal grid-like structure made of reinforced concrete set above the ground on squat legs. As already mentioned, something like this might be seen in most western cities, but the exception here are the bright colors on the face of the building, recently repainted, but dating it instantly as a product of the 1950’s mid-century movement, it opened in 1953 and this was attended by a who’s who of influencers, artists and architects.
The Devil is in the details, but so is God. A visit to an apartment where a tour is given reminded me of the critical attention given to seemingly minor interior finishes. The resident and her teenaged daughter (looking up briefly from her homework in detached amusement, appearing like a young PJ Harvey) allowed us to walk through the space for 13 Euro’s a head. The mother is clearly a fan of the building and lovingly talked through the experience of living in such a tight space with her daughter, but in French, to Mary’s annoyance. My own French would embarrass a five year old, but strangely not me, and so I launched into slightly comedic exchanges which proved to be highly energizing. She showed us the gorgeous heating valve positioned high on the wall like the art object it really is by Jean Prouve. The kitchen was largely replaced but the Charlotte Perriand saucepans in a space maximizing overhead drawer were still there with detachable handles. The windows were by Prouve, as was the steel perforated staircase. But the best feature, because it was so expressive and nostalgic, was the generous slab of wood that folded over the industrial sized water heater making a bench and the window ledge curved to provide an arm rest so that two people could have a conversation by the window. The resident and I acted out this fantasy and I imagined beret wearing socialists and workers plans being formulated in this highly designed, but rather uncomfortable spot. I asked her if she was an architect and she shook her head in regret and said she is just a fan, me too I replied, and we smiled in recognition.
I do have a tenuous connection to the architect never the less through a friend who knew him as a child as his mother was a close to Le Corbusier and an early resident. Many years ago he astonished us at a dinner party in his New York loft by digging under his bed and producing a group of birthday cards, hand drawn by the architect. But my friend is someone who loves scandal, not in a malicious way, more as a raconteur than a gossip and he whispered to me that Le Corbusier loved prostitutes and even married one. And once something like that is heard, whether it is true or not, it is difficult, impossible even to un-hear. And while trying hard not to be judgmental towards any consensual desires; it does make you think of a person who might fear commitment and intimacy, someone who might lack empathy and not like women (and therefore mankind generally?). Can we read some of this in his building? He described the living unites within the building as “cells” and once again the prison like feeling was always close, the slamming heavy metal doors, the uniform colors, the rough concrete walls. Walking through the main corridor I said to Mary that it felt like going through an empty fairground at night with a flash light, blackness with occasionally garish primary colors, but I was being charitable.
In London where I lived for a while, I would walk around the East End and look up at these concrete tower blocks, reduced to their most inhuman and basic forms and ask myself if this his legacy. That would be trite and unfair; it was clearly the actions of town planners and building firms working within tight budgets and to meet immediate and massive housing needs. But the dehumanizing aspect of this type of brutalism was very apparent. It was amusing in a deeply cruel way to laugh at the cheap Tudor or Georgian style front doors, a Victorian style carriage lamp that some residents personalized these spaces with, the comforting colors they used on the outside of their cells to fight against the uniformity of the buildings, an attempt to make their own mark on the space rather to be a defeated participant in the on-going standardization of life.
Like all fastinating people, Corbusier was a man of deep contradictions, a devout atheist he made extraordinary churches, criticized for being inflexible but also a huge collaborator, a humanist and socialist who could also hold racist views. The biggest legacy, and perhaps most compelling irony, is that the housing, furniture and details of all his endeavors, style and politics, has become highly desirable and now are expensive object d’art, found in the auction houses of the world, in chateaux’s and the finest homes. A natural balance occurred, he predicted it himself when he said that the more cultivated people are the more décor disappears. Now his homes are full of the cultivated and the intellectuals, occupied not by the working class but by the professional one.