the house of the mad man

It is the local name for Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation (or Cité Radieuse). Inspired by a culture of resistance to architectural innovation that endangers the typical southern French style, this building is known by most residents as the butt of a joke. But the building, one of France’s first high-rise social housing complex, has what I would call the typical complicated relationship with the legacy left by its mid century maker.

To preserve or not? In this case, the answer is obviously “yes,” but it brings to light some of the issues I have found elsewhere in cities that need to carefully craft the potential straight jacket of preservation controls.

From the outside, nothing can change. Residents must maintain even the paint colors on their balconies, and cannot add or delete any façade elements. Inside, anything goes. I was told that if the residents have the means, they update their apartments extensively. Unfortunately I could not access the apartments themselves, but I was able to explore the residential hallways and the commercial “street” inside the building. Hallways maintain their original aesthetics, though some of the functional elements, like two way grocery delivery cupboards, no longer operate.

The commercial street contains some shops, but they are nothing like the shops intended. A gourmet Le Corbusier themed restaurant takes advantage of the beautiful view on the Mediterranean while an architecture bookshop anchors the neighboring commercial wing.

So, the shell of the building is preserved, the apartments even in their alterations make use of the innovative duplex design, but the commercial functions fail to maintain any vitality with respect to the daily uses of inhabitants.

Beyond the building, the view of its copies, mostly designed quickly and cheaply to create cheap housing, presents another scenario, one the France has been attempting to deal with almost since its inception.

Here the social housing projects, or cité in French, suffer from two major issues: strict regulation and thin socioeconomic diversity. The first prevents both residents living in undifferentiated apartments and entrepreneurs in repetitive shops from changing things to fit their needs. The second stems from the French policy of pushing its lower income residents to the fringe of the cities, into these large housing projects with little commercial attractors to bring in other civilians even on a daily basis. The lack of a diverse economic environment prevents a difficult situation for commerce to grow.

As I post more on my time in France I will deal with both of these issues in more detail. In Marseille in particular, the haphazard placement of the high-rises away from viable public transit and major commercial centers has further reduced their capacity to adapt to the city’s growing economy.