If you’re thinking Marseilles is a rat hole riddled with gangsters living of drugs, well … you’re not entirely wrong 😉 But you’re not entirely correct either and the city also has beautiful features, a fantastic setting and interesting history.
After WWII, so many people had no houses that the minister in charge of housing asked architects to build huge council buildings. Le Corbusier was one of these architects, and the work he did in Marseilles makes you think twice about council flats 😉
At the time, the construction, located 2 miles from the city center (and now bang in the middle of it), was not all that well received. That vast block of multi-coloured concrete mounted on huge pillars jarred with the mostly rural environment and the locals named “La Maison du Fada” (the crazy bloke’s house).
Today, however, visiting it instills nostalgia for a time were quality was the norm, even for poor people. And the sheer creative genius of “Le Fada” (our national pride, Le Corbusier) simply awes you when you visit.
Before receiving its derogatory nickname, the building was officially baptised “La Cité Radieuse” (The Radiant City) and everything inside it is organised to provide the feel of living in a self-contained, autonomous city.
Indoor corridors are called streets and the whole layout is organised around the inhabitant’s life. And man (a 6″ tall man) is the actual unit of dimension used throughout the planning.
Shops, restaurants, art galleries are found in common places and quieter parts of the streets are dedicated to apartments.
Every flat in the building is designed around a two level plan. Those on the left of the street enter via the top mezzanine and lead down to the main room, kitchen and bedrooms. Those on the right are the opposite, entered from the bottom and leading to the level above. The logic being that every flat in the building, small or large, has views on either sides and windows exposed to the rising and setting sun. And what a view it is, believe me.
It is rarely cold or wet in Marseilles, but in those rare occasions, a “winter garden” was designed to host conversations in the winter sun.
The genius doesn’t stop there. All apartments are separated from adjacent ones by 40 cm of air between respective concrete walls. This was meant to provide great sound insulation (it does), great thermal insulation (it also does) and to let pipes run freely. Grey water was thus taken from every flat to the outside of the building, the collective stream being used to power garbage shredding unit. Eco-friendly housing half a century before its time !
Possibly the most amusing part is the roof. All around the rooftop, 6 foot walls prevent you from falling and a jogging alley is provided. Inside this aerial stadium, a gymnasium, an elementary school (with swimming pool, and still used for classes) and an open-air theatre occupy most of the remaining space.
The whole building was conceived as a sort of ship and nowhere is this more apparent than on the roof, where decks jut out over the city, pointing towards the sea and chimneys mirror those of the large cruise vessels docked only a couple of miles away.
All along the rooftop walk, it’s difficult not to feel trapped inside a painting by De Chirico or a Bunuel film.
If you’re ever in Marseilles, do take a couple of hours to visit this landmark of genius and generosity. The ol’ man wasn’t so crazy after all.
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