Unité d’Habitation

Marseilles, France

It has been accurately claimed that Le Corbusier’s most influential late work was his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. The eighteen-story apartment building, universally admired by architects but unloved by the people who live in it, is the first realization—it was followed by three others elsewhere in France and one in Berlin, Germany—of the famous Swiss architect’s theories of urban design formulated twenty years earlier. It also expressed the socialist housing ideals of CIAM (in English, International Congresses of Modern Architecture), developed after 1928, and spawned imitations throughout the world. It was, although perhaps for the wrong reasons, an important architectural event.

Between the early 1920s and the end of World War II, Le Corbusier’s most significant work—albeit theoretical—was in urban planning. In published plans like La Ville Contemporaine for a population of 3 million (1922), the Plan Voisin de Paris (1925) that proposed replacing the historic city with eighteen superskyscrapers, and a spate of “classless” Villes Radieuses of 1930–1936, he expounded ideas diametrically opposed to the low-rise cities projected by the international Garden City movement. Le Corbusier was not the first with such notions. For example, Hendrik Wijdeveld’s projected Amsterdam 2000 of 1919–1920—a radial city in a greenbelt around old Amsterdam, with towering hexagonal apartment blocks, each for 2,000 inhabitants—anticipated the Swiss by at least a couple of years. Le Corbusier, building on Tony Garnier’s concept for the Cité Industrielle and the forms of Antonio Sant’ Elia’s Cittá Nuova, proposed a complex vertical city with separated functions (living, working, recreation) and a carefully designed transport infrastructure. That he physically resolved into what was almost a diagrammatic plan with an orthogonal grid with wide green open spaces between high-rise buildings that had separate access for vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It was simple but soulless and—luckily—never built.

After World War II, the government of France’s Fourth Republic established a program to house the thousands of people displaced by the conflict. The program was managed by Raoul Dautry, an admirer of Le Corbusier. In 1946 he commissioned the architect to build a prototype of his Vertical City on the edge of Marseilles. Le Corbusier seized the chance to give substance to his beliefs about social integration and the relationship between a high-density housing scheme and the wider community. L’Unité d’Habitation (literally, Housing Unit), characterized by one writer as a utopian “tower in the park,” was the result. The houses are stacked in a block, leaving the remainder of the site for open space to serve the whole community.