Unite d’Habitation

On the 14th of July of this year, Bastille Day – the important French holiday – we inhabitants of the mathematics “monastery” at which I was staying in Luminy in the South of France (see a CV post about this here) were forced to wander out into the outside world. There was no food and no lectures, you see. So off to Marseille! The plan was to go up to have a look around the city and stay for the fireworks in the evening if we were not too exhausted. I was accompanied by Ilarion Melnikov (a postdoc at Chicago) and Claudine Chen (a postdoc at Penn State) initially, and the plan was to wander up to the city, and meet up with David Kutasov (professor at Chicago) to wander around the port.

I found Marseille a big surprise in one major respect, which in retrospect I should have anticipated. (1) It is huge. Larger than Paris geographically, and among France’s cities it is second only to Paris in population. I did not get that impression from walking around it. (2) Given fact (1), there are no great museums or galleries that you might expect for a city this size!

It’s quite remarkable in a way. I imagine it is because France’s organization may be even more highly centralized than I’d realised. Perhaps even more so than England was not so long ago, back in the day when if you wanted to see that type of thing you had to go up to the “big city”, London. Perhaps that’s the same here and now, given the Marseille observation (confirmed by locals, I hasten to add), but I should not generalize.

le corbusier buildingThe absence of big museums showing art from around the world, etc, is not a shortcoming in an of itself. That is not what I am saying. It was just interesting, as one has got more used to a much more decentralized model of how things are distributed in a country. What is just great about Marseille and the region is simply that it does not matter. The attitude seems to be: Just come, wander around the port, look at the work of the local artists here and there, swim in the nearby excellent beaches, and go find a good restaurant and sample the Bouillabaisse with a good beer or glass of wine. What more do you need from life? Well, when the temperature is high and the sky is blue, it is hard to disagree. Just do as the local do.

But there are, as with any city, hidden treasures. (Or not so hidden in this case; I’f I’d read my guidebook I would have spotted it….) Ilarion wanted us to get off the bus early (not quite all the way into the center) since he wanted to stop to see a building. When I heard it was a Le Corbusier building, I was excited too, since I’d never seen one with my own eyes before. It is in fact, quite famous (at least in architecture circles), and it is easy to see why. It is this sort of work that shows you how to take grey concrete and inject imagination into it, making it seem light, organic and almost delicate as bamboo or mahogany. Sadly, lesser architechts who followed in the decades after were all too good at showing us how to make depressing monoliths out of grey concrete.

le corbusier building bikesIlarion and I wandered around the building and the lobby purring with delight at some of the shapes and vistas to be found. (I think Claudine was a amused by this, and was taking her time to warm up to the building.) The huge structure is on legs (like all of his buildings, Ilarion told me), which somehow adds to the lightness of the feeling of the building, and in my opinion is a wonderful way of allowing such a large buiding to integrate itself with the surroundings, since its footprint is reduced considerably and people can wander through and under it with ease.

lobby detail of le corbusier building

We did not summon up the courage to ask the security guard in the lobby if he woould mind if we took an elevator up to the living spaces and poke our noses about the residents’ busines, so I cannot report upon the apparently rather interesting ideas that Le Corbusier had about living interiors and communal spaces. I found a website that might have further information if you’re interested. It also has a model of the building that you can view in 3D. Have a look at all of that here. I’ll borrow a quote from there to give you an idea of what was intended:

“Le Corbusier’s most influential late work was his first significant postwar structure—the UnitÈ d’Habitation in Marseilles of 1947-52. The giant, twelve-story apartment block for 1.600 people is the late modern counterpart of the mass housing schemes of the 1920s, similarly built to alleviate a severe postwar housing shortage. Although the program of the building is elaborate, structurally it is simple: a rectilinear ferroconcrete grid, into which are slotted precast individual apartment units, like ‘bottles into a wine rack’ as the architect put it. Through ingenious planning, twenty-three different apartment configurations were provided to acccommodate single persons and families as large as ten, nearly all with double-height living rooms and the deep balconies that form the major external feature.”

— Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p541.

exterior of le corbusier buildingInteresting-looking links to further reading can be found at that site too. Actually, there’s a lot about other great buildings at the site. I shall have to find some time to have a good look at it.

We walked deeper into the city from that point, which was rather a pleasant journey, since you make a transition from the residential area in which the Unite d’Habitation is located (surrounded by all srts of other buildings of a variety of periods and styles… and colours) to the core of the city itself, with its grandeur echoing in some ways the streets of central Paris in terms of style and functionality.

I was pleased to see a street market winding its way through several alleyways, and there was just time to get immersed in that for a while (as I love to do) before going to the port to meet David.

-cvj

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