Exploring Marseille’s Architecture

Marseille—This is a city worth getting to know for more than its bouillabaisse, its dramatic relationship with the sea, and its inhabitants’ impenetrable accent. Behind neo-Parisian façades, the densely packed streets of the Old Port are as close as Europe gets to the teeming alleys of Hong Kong’s Kowloon. And for those who care about design, Marseille harbors the architectural equivalent of an all-but-extinct virus locked in cold storage. It’s here that the Swiss-born French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, built what some critics claim was the most dangerous architectural project of the 20th century: his Unité d’Habitation.

A concrete cliff of hundreds of apartments, the Unité—also known as La Cité Radieuse—looms over the city’s eastern suburbs. Completed in 1952, it instantly captured the imagination of architects across the globe and inspired a multitude of copies, both good and bad. (Simon Jenkins, a former editor at the London Times, wrote of the “cruel brutalism” of Le Corbusier, “whose creations must have caused more human misery than any in human history.”) Today the Unité d’Habitation is a slumbering giant, quietly biding its time, waiting to infect another generation with the belief that architecture can change the world.

It was post–World War II reconstruction efforts that finally gave Le Corbusier the opportunity for which he’d schemed for more than half a century: to build his prototype for a new city. An ode to high-density living, the Unité has it all—streets in the sky (complete with shops, a café, a hotel, and a solarium) and an exercise track on the roof. An ingenious “scissor plan” gives each apartment the luxury of double-height spaces and views in two directions.

The building is a 15-minute drive from the historic Old Port, heading southeast along the Boulevard Michelet, past slabs of social housing. I finally made the trip last Christmas, and upon seeing the Unité in the flesh for the first time, I was struck by its extraordinary physical beauty. Le Corbusier, who was obsessed by the monumental austerity of the Cistercian monasteries, called architecture the masterly play of light on mass. With its heroic proportions and its deeply modeled façades, the Unité is certainly masterly. To see it even now, in its middle age, is to experience the shock of the new. It is as much a glimpse of another world as Stanley Kubrick’s obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And yet the Unité is not hostile. It is loved and looked after by its residents, mostly middle-class families who have in some cases handed their apartments down from one generation to the next. Visitors are welcomed: There are often a few architectural pilgrims in their black Comme des Garçons habits up on the roof, wandering freely among the awesome landscape of shell forms that Le Corbusier designed to accommodate the mechanical equipment. With views of both the sea and the mountains, it feels like a concrete version of Utah’s Monument Valley.

Staying at the Unité

Hôtel Le Corbusier has 21 modest rooms ranging from tiny cabin-like spaces to more generous 345-square-foot studios with original museum-piece kitchens decorated in Le Corbusier’s vivid color scheme. Service is friendly but no-frills. The hotel’s fourth-floor restaurant offers decent food and great views but is sniffy about people showing up without a reservation. Rooms, $90–$170; dinner, $80; 33-4/91-16-78-00; hotellecorbusier.com.