living la vida modern
At NYU, inspired my cosmopolitan campuses in NY and Paris, I incorporated Urban Studies into my made-to-order major. I was, and still am, fascinated by how cities tick both architecturally and anthropologically, and particularly how their design affects the daily lives of their inhabitants. So when I learned that Marseille is home to Le Corbusier’s first and most famous foray into modernist apartment living: la Cité Radieuse, I was delighted. I was downright thrilled to discover the Radiant City still buzzed with the community spirit Le Corbusier intended. Visitors can tour an historically-preserved apartment, check out a bookstore, a rooftop museum MAMO, dine at a gastronomic restaurant, and even bunk at the hotel within the building’s walls. My fellow fans of architecture, design buffs, and curiosity seekers – this spot is for you!
Before we visit, a bit of backstory. A pioneer of modern architecture and urban planning, Le Corbusier was passionate about providing better living conditions for apartment dwellers in crowded cities. La Cité Radieuse is his utopian vision for a vertical village. More than the mixed-use buildings of our time, this “neighborhood in the sky” intermingles the residential and the commercial on alternating floors, converting hallways into vibrant streets. With this Brutalist behemoth, Le Corbu applied his theory that a house is "a machine for living in" to an apartment complex.
Fitting for Marseille’s nautical nature, la Cité Radieuse resembles an ocean liner both in form and function. Each area of the voluminous concrete vessel is designed for its specific purpose from sleeping to shopping. On the rooftop, where a jogging track encircles ventilator shafts shaped like a cruise ship’s smokestacks, you feel like you’re sailing through the 8th arrondissement.
The Cité Radieuse’s 337 modular apartments are cleverly designed, with 23 different configurations fitting together like a life-size Tetris game. Each two-story apartment feels more like a townhome. Though narrow in footprint, they benefit from ample light, thanks to high ceilings and large windows that evoke Japanese shōji doors. By spanning the entire depth of the building, this design ensures both sunrise and sunset views are included gratis in every lease.
Like the building’s exterior, the apartments’ interiors resemble a cozy boat cabin, with wooden built-in cabinets, multi-use, convertible furniture, and oval doors that open into small showers. Though practicality and efficiency dictates the design, the result is also quite aesthetically appealing. Take the staircase’s steps designed by fellow architect Jean Prouvé, which has slits that crawling babies can grasp and two levels of handles that suit little kids and adults. Le Corbusier’s only decoration was color. His Architectural Polychromy was carefully composed of 63 harmonious colors that evoked nature-- green for countryside, blue for sea. On the exterior, they burst with the energy of a Mondrian painting, bringing life to the drab gray concrete.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cité Radieuse is Le Corbu’s first Unité D’habitation—others were built in Nantes and Berlin. Though he created these self-contained communities to improve urban living, critics derided him for shuttering working class citizens into monolithic high rises. A seasoned apartment dweller myself, I’m on team Le Corbu, impressed with how he made the most out of every meter. He transformed concrete into a majestic material –using wood planks to create pretty patterns. He infused the Cité with details—airy terraces, 360-degree views from the rooftop, pops of color—that enhance daily life.
Makes me want to dust off my college textbooks and dive back into to my urban studies.
tip: For a full body experience, take a Gymnase Suedoise / Swedish Fit class on the rooftop. If you don’t want to splurge on a meal, the Ventre de l’Architecte is a stylish pit stop for a café or apéro.
fyi Guided tours in English are available Saturdays at 10. French visits are 10, 2 and 4pm daily except Sunday. They must be booked via the tourist office, in person or online. Cost: 10 euros.
nearby Velodrome - home of les OM, the Marseille football team
hours M–Su 9-18 MAMO T–Su 11-18
280 Boulevard Michelet