/ 7 November 2008

Bauhaus boarding

For most Marseille residents, Le Corbusier is just another address — shorthand for the architect’s Unité d’Habitation, a nine-storey apartment and office building on the outskirts of the city. But to an architecture enthusiast, pitching up at Unité d’Habitation is like going to see your favourite band live when you’ve only heard them on record before.

An early realisation of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City theory (where apartment blocks complete with shopping streets and schools were touted as a modernist ideal), this 1954 building is the antecedent of much of today’s high-rise living.

But I’m not just on a visit to admire the concrete monolith before going back to a Provençal-style B&B in the centre of town — I’m actually staying in this rock star of a building. Open under its current owners for five years, the Hôtel Le Corbusier occupies part of the third and fourth floors.

The owners delight in telling me about the state of the hotel when they took it over — mould on the walls and “nasty blue vinyl curtains”. They have worked hard to restore its original features, only adding pieces that fit into context, such as exact replicas of the lampshades designed by Le Corbusier’s collaborator Charlotte Perriand.

I stayed in one of the smaller “cabin” rooms for a ridiculously cheap €59 a night. Although more expensive rooms feature en suite bathrooms and flatscreen TVs, the basic cabin, the manager assured me, is for the “real” Corbusier fans — they were based on the monastic cells the Swiss-born architect studied while designing La Tourette monastery near Lyon. As you might expect, there was no wasted space in its 15m2. The toilet was shared with the room next door, the shower was built-in, a bedside table fitted neatly into a wall divider between bed and sink and radiators were hidden in the step up to the small tiled balcony.

Le Corbusier once famously said that a house was “a machine for living in” and the machine Unité d’Habitation most resembles is an ocean liner. Up on the roof, where the nautical similarity is most marked, are the most beautiful air vents known to man, plus a pool, kindergarten and gym, all still functioning. Le Corbusier would be happy to know that the building is fulfilling its original purpose — as well as becoming a site of architectural pilgrimage, it remains a place where people live and work.

The third-floor walkway — originally meant as one of the building’s shopping “streets” — features a restaurant, a grocers and a modernism-themed bookshop and furniture store.

Reluctantly, I tore myself away from Unité d’Habitation and set off to explore the rest of Marseille, which has just been declared European Capital of Culture for 2013.

I took bus 21 into town and headed towards Canebière — an area where the cuisine of Marseille’s significant African population can be sampled. At lunchtime, that means couscous royale, served with a mix of sausages, chicken and vegetables for about €6. For a mid-afternoon snack, the same restaurants become Tunisian patisseries selling baklava-style nut and honey confections. Le Rif, on rue des Feuillants, proved a good choice.

I then wandered up to the Cours Ju area which, with its bohemian heritage and pretty streets, is like the Portobello Road of Marseille. Café Cours Ju, although a little touristy, is a good place to grab a coffee and get a feel for the area. I went shopping: Oogie (on Cours Julien, oogie.eu) takes a Le Corbusier-ish idea of putting clothes, a barber and a café under one roof, while the unnamed junk shop on the corner of rue des Trois Frères Barthelemy and rue de Fontangues is a treasure-filled remembrance of Cours Ju past.

For an idea of Cours Ju future — and to sample Marseille’s nightlife — I headed to La Belle de Mai. Its status as the city’s newest hip area is largely owed to La Friche (at rue Jobin, lafriche.org), a former artists’ squat and now a cultural space, with regular gigs from the vibrant local hip-hop scene (Wu-Tang Clan collaborators IAM hail from Marseille). Nearby club L’Embobineuse (Théâtre de Fortune on boulevard Boues, lembobineuse.biz) offers “la scène alternative à Marseille”.

By contrast, Musée Cantini (rue Grignan, marseille.fr) is all about established French culture — but at a bargain rate of €3. The building dates from 1694 and highlights of the permanent collection include Dufy, Derain, Léger and a brightly coloured Ernst that wouldn’t be out of place in Unité d’Habitation. And that was where I was heading back to, ready to live the modernist dream just one more time.

The lowdown
The website of the Unité d’Habitation is at www.marseille-citeradieuse.org and the official website of the hotel is www.hetellecorbusier.com. The website includes the rate of a cabin room at €59 a night, a studio sea view at €114 a night and a mini-suite at €120 a night. Breakfast is not included and costs €9. The hotel has a tennis club, rooftop health club facilities and a library. Tours of the apartment block can be arranged.–