Modulor Man welcomes two visitors to the Cité Radieuse in Marseille. We are all imperfect versions of Modulor but despite this he offers us shelter in an ideally proportioned structure and an accelerated progression into an inconceivably sublime future. The question is – are we really worth it? To fully inhabit the universe of Le Corbusier demands that we submit to the will of the master with a joyful elevation of spirit and transform ourselves into worthy descendants of Modulor. How dare we blame the architect if we lack the self-discipline to live up to his vision?
J M Richards was editor of the Architectural Review from 1937 to 1971 and two of his books, High Street (he wrote the text that accompanied the superb illustrations of Eric Ravilious) and An Introduction to Modern Architecture (Penguin Books, 1940, revised 1953 and 1963) have left a mark. High Street has become the Holy Grail for collectors of illustrated books, exceedingly difficult to find and astronomically expensive. While the Penguin book was my introduction to Modernist design at the impressionable age of 15 – its pages resonated with an innocent belief in the ultimate triumph of Modernism in transforming the post-war built environment, a process, it was felt by many, that would endure for generations as a new era of conflict-free prosperity unfolded. Another key message was that Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, as it was then known, held a very special place in this narrative.
After 1945 the French government established a Ministry for Reconstruction and Urbanism and Le Corbusier who had spent the war beavering away on projects without a client, getting uncomfortably close to the Vichy regime at one point before returning to his Parisian studio, was invited to design a housing complex for the city of Marseille. The hidden agenda here was to keep Le Corbusier as far away as possible from projects in the Val de Seine and the Paris region. The grotesque pre-war Le Corbusier Plan Voisin that would have replaced a vast swathe of central Paris with 18 massive tower blocks and an urban expressway had clearly not been forgotten. Thus the implacable Calvinist (as Richard Cobb rechristened him) came to test his urbanist theories in Bouche du Rhône. With him came Modulor Man, the brise-soleil, béton brut and the doctrine of the house as a machine à habiter.
Construction of the Cité Radieuse began on the Boulevard Michelet site in the autumn of 1947 and the completed building was handed over in August 1951 after a protracted and difficult build. The finished block had 19 floors supported by 36 reinforced concrete columns and accommodated 337 apartments (of 23 configurations) accessed via seven internal street levels. Each apartment was spread over two floors with a double height room and windows to both sides of the building. Spatial provision was generous and the physical proportions embodied the Le Corbusier philosophy of golden section guided harmonics. The package came with an internal retail zone, a restaurant and a roof deck providing community facilities including a gym, a pool, a running track and a nursery school.
With a building as exhaustively examined as this one the chances of coming away with new insight that will illuminate the thinking of future generations are negligible. But there is some value in testing some of the more common assumptions and interpretations. Le Corbusier’s public enthusiasm for maritime architecture and the great ocean liners of the inter-war decades has encouraged many observers to note an affinity between the building and an ocean going vessel. The distant view across Boulevard Michelet as the nautically inspired roof structures become visible confirms this interpretation, as does the way in which the mass of the block is visually uplifted by the reinforced concrete supports when seen at close quarters. There are arguments about the efficacy of the brises-soleil in capturing winter sun and restricting summer sun and the alignment of the building gives rise to some uneven results. The dimensions of the projections are identical on both east and west facing façades, which additionally undermines their effectiveness though in visual terms the repetition of shadows, colours and forms delivers an animated façade that engages the eye.
Modulor Man, armed with fifteen controlling dimensions was the orchestrator of formal harmony – every space and every linear dimension was subordinate to his power to impose proportion. His British counterpart, Parker Morris man, was no match for his expansive generosity and when equivalent developments were planned in Britain (Park Hill in Sheffield for example) the occupants found themselves in much more cramped accommodation. The third member of Le Corbusier’s entourage, béton brut, generated the most significant legacy. The coarse finish of rough cast concrete left an indelible mark over two decades, in equal part esteemed by the construction industry for whom it was a commercial bonanza and loathed by the public for its ubiquity, its physical repellence and its insensitivity. Le Corbusier was measured in his use of concrete surfaces and had the ability to handle it with delicacy and balance. This lesson was lost on many lesser practitioners whose crude and unforgiving buildings, offered to us as paragons of Modernism, did so much to bring the profession of architect into disrepute.
No pilgrimage to a Modernist landmark would be complete without some abuse or obstruction. On this occasion, the much venerated rooftop ensemble was in the process of restoration - thus no public access and the weekly guided visits were suspended due to fire damage in the show apartment. The ritual harangue from an enraged local duly took place – how could anyone in their right mind travel so far to look at such an eyesore? With his glacial uncompromising personality, Le Corbusier continues to be a convenient hate-figure and scapegoat for the excesses and conspicuous failures of Modernism – frequently blamed for social breakdown, racism and delinquency – see any discussion thread on the subject of Le Corbusier. As for the triumph of Modernism, it has been a melancholy episode. The world of conflict-free prosperity and leisure is as far away as ever and many of the places where Modernism has truly prevailed (Dubai, Las Vegas, Brasilia) have added the least to the sum of human happiness.