Other versions built at Nantes-Rezé, 1953; Briey-en-Forêt, 1961; Firminy-Vert, 1968; and Berlin, 1958
The building for which a generation of architects waited almost a decade to give them a vital sign - the sign under which the real post-war architecture was to be born was LeCorbusier's Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles. Few projects have so accurately summed up the aspirations of their day, or so aptly; few can have so fully satisfied a body of disciples while disappointing their leader. Corb’s disappointment stemmed from the fact that he intended to build a whole suburb in a cluster of such blocks, but politics and economics thwarted him in this particular case (and never gave him a proper chance anywhere else he tried). The satisfaction of his followers stemmed from the fact that it was the largest building completed as he had designed it (his UN project was being progressively coarsened and diluted) and because it showed that he was still making architecture anew.
The design, famously, called fora single compact rectangular block (descended directly from the Pavillon Suisse) containing apartments (mostly duplexes) and certain day: today social services such as shops and créches subsumed within the block. The scale was immense over three hundred apartments but was halved visually by expressing the double height of the duplexes by single openings on the outside, and putting the whole thing up on legs two storeys high (but looking only one). But something else happened to the scale in the course of design: originally conceived in terms of steel construction, the project had to be reconsidered from the ground up when the usual post-war shortages required concrete to be used instead. Somewhere in the consequent delays and re-appraisals, the Master reappraised also the aesthetics of reinforced concrete, abandoning the pathetic fallacy that this was a smooth precise machine-aesthetic material, and once more enquiring after it’s true nature. Instead of putting up a delayed pre-war building, he produced the first truly post-war one, monumental, not mechanistic, in the scale of all its parts.
Beginning with the legs Le Corbusier's original concept of pilotis, as he called them, had been slim smooth cylindrical columns: at Marseilles they were massive pachydermatous stumps, tapering towards the foot and patterned all over with the impress of the plank-work of the shuttering in which they had been cast. So was all other concrete that had been poured and cast directly in place, and as the eyes of a delighted generation scanned the immense facades they saw concrete expressed by an architect almost for the first time as what it was, a moulded plastic material that could not exist without form-work in which to cast it. Further, Corb was visibly possessed of an aesthetic capable of dealing with this revelation: the surfaces showed the accidents of grain and knot in the unplanned planks that had been used: but the arrangement of those planks was no accident, and they had been laid in patterns as carefully as those of rusticated stone-work or a tiled floor. The first of the ‘more crumbly aesthetics' of the fifties had been born.
This exterior was beyond dispute - there was some argument about what went on inside. Not about the two floors of social facilities half-way up, but about the flats themselves and the access to them. Each duplex apartment occupied the full thickness of the block on one floor, and half of it on the other, the deep narrow apartments being Chinese-puzzled in pairs around the central corridors that occurred on every third floor. Although both ends of the long floor of each apartment reached the outside air, even with a two-storey opening for the two storey living-room, it was at the expense of a plan that was little better than a Bibby cabin, and the bedrooms in the long ‘tail’ of the flat were like a railway van. The access corridors, in turn though dignified by their creator with the name rues intérieures were, after all, little better than very long corridors without natural lighting. Characteristically, disciples who would hear no criticism of the master were soon at work improving both concepts, the improved apartment appearing in the LCC's Loughborough Road flats, the improved rue intérieure being partially exteriorised in the street decks of Park Hill at Sheffield.
But there were no second thoughts about the roof: even the rather gratuitous running track round its perimeter could be forgiven, forgotten in the state of aesthetic euphoria induced by this fantastic collection of functional megaliths, looking as if the children of giants had left their educational toys on top of the toy-chest. Seen against stunning views of mountain, sea and sky, the powerful shapes of the ventilators, lift-motor houses, play sculptures, platforms and stairs modelled by the sun, distilled for a generation the essence of ‘the Mediterranean thing’ and gave substance, triumphantly, to Le Corbusier's most famous definition of architecture - ‘the cunning, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’.
Banham R. Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row., 1975. P. 110-111.