A "city within a city", the iconic l'Unite d' Habitation, commonly known as La Cité Radieuse, was designed by notable Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret Le Corbusier and inaugurated on October 14th 1952. The concept of La Cité Radieuse formed the basis of several Le Corbusier-designed developments. A total of five such residential housing developments were constructed throughout Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Other Unités were built in Nantes-Rezé 1955, Berlin-Westend 1957, Briey 1963 and Firminy 1965 but his most famous creation is his first, the 1952 La Cité Radieuse in Marseille.
As seen above, the external walls of La Cité Radieuse feature drawings of Le Corbusier's "Modulor Man". Le Corbusier developed La Cité Radieuse on the concept of "Modulor", whereby the unit of measurement is the height of a man. This measurement system is based on the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers (1,1,2,3,5,8,13). The Modulor was supposed to provide "a harmonic measure to the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and mechanics". In the spirit of Vitruvian man and the general philosophical commitment to discover a proportion system equivalent to that of natural creation, the Modulor was based on human proportions. Le Corbusier suggested that the Modulor would give harmonious proportions to La Cité Radieuse, from the sizes of cabinets and door handles to its buildings and urban spaces. Le Corbusier once said that "mathematics is the majestic structure conceived by man to grant him comprehension of the universe".
La Cité Radieuse has 18 levels and houses about 1,600 inhabitants over 337 apartments in 23 different styles. Inside its premises, La Cité Radieuse features expansive interior walkways, communal rooms, shops, a theater, a hotel and a rooftop kindergarten with swimming pool. This "living city" is supported by 36 pairs of concrete stilts that contain the supply cables for water, gas and electricity.
La Cité Radieuse displays Le Corbusier's futuristic vision for communal living and the needs and realities of France's post-war population boom. The basic idea behind this construction was to provide a collective housing complex for a larger number of people within the smallest possible area and to leave plenty of room for green open spaces. Each apartment has two levels and is comparable to a standard European villa, just smaller in size.
La Cité Radieuse's resembles a work of modern art, a purist and perfectly composed masterpiece. To behold La Cité Radieuse against its natural backdrop releases the same emotions one experiences when observing a masterpiece in a museum. It is a unique and spiritual experience that uplifts the soul. This brilliant architectural masterpiece was conceived and composed with concrete (béton brut) as its main building material. Unique primary 1950s color accents on the terrace walls, courtesy of modernist painter-architect Nadir Afonso, provide the finishing touch.
"Faite pour des hommes, faite à l’échelle humaine, dans la robustesse des techniques modernes, manifestant la splendeur nouvelle du béton brut, pour mettre les ressources sensationnelles de l’époque au service du foyer". Le Corbusier in his inauguration speech of October 14th 1952.
Le Corbusier's masterpiece is situated along the Côte d'Azur in the busy port town of Marseille. Although Cité Radieuse has attracted criticism by some for being too imposing, it continues to be a timeless monument of modern architecture at its best. In particular, it is its sparing use of materials (béton brut) and austere design that make La Cité Radieuse one of the greatest icons of mid century modern architecture. It is especially important to retain the idea that Le Corbusier developed this housing complex with the goal that it was to completely- and harmoniously adapt to all the needs of the modern man, which is the exactly the opposite of the notion of dormitory suburbs.
If you are planning a visit, please note that Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse was severely damaged after a fire of February 9, 2012 that destroyed several apartments. The south wing of the building is currently inaccessible pending restoration.
l'Unite d' Habitation (La Cité Radieuse)
280 Boulevard Michelet
Text Credits: © Lucia Fontana for Modern Design Interior.
Image Credits: © FLC/ADAGP Paul Koslowski, Francis Tellier