A village turned on its head, Cité Radieuse offers timely insights into our future.
Many are familiar with Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. A hallmark of brutalist design, this building — designed in collaboration with Nadir Afonoso — epitomizes the famed architect’s vision for a meticulously engineered and perfectly functional urban dwelling. See the concrete, color-blocked building for yourself in Marseille; there, the structure remains distinct as ever: a modernist vision perched on the cusp of an ancient, Mediterranean seascape. This post-war experiment fares well despite salty winds and shifting tastes, in some ways resisting long-term aesthetic critique by virtue of its originality and evergreen uniqueness.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, Cité Radieuse was the first of Le Corbusier’s famous Unités d’Habitation, modernist residential housing units centered on communal living. Today, Marseille’s Cité Radieuse is arguably the best preserved of these brutalist blocks. Originally designed to house 337 apartments, the building’s space is divided up a little differently in 2021 than it was upon completion in 1952, though the structure’s vertical village concept remains thoroughly intact. Le Corbusier imagined Cité Radieuse based on the overarching idea that industrialization could improve lives, and more specifically, that an ideal residential building would have everything its dwellers could need on a daily basis within its own walls. In the case of Cité Radieuse, this meant public spaces located strategically on every third floor of the apartment building — these traffic- and apartment-free “streets” included various shops, a primary school, doctors’ offices, a bakery, a café, and even a supermarket. Today, this grocery space has been converted into a disco, while some of the other commercial/residential spaces now make up a hotel and restaurant, but much remains the same. On the building’s roof, what was once a playground and outdoor gym is now a contemporary “art space” complete with 180 degree ocean views.
It’s safe to say this pejoratively nicknamed “Maison du Fada” (the “madman’s house” in the region’s Provençal dialect) has attracted many a normal man — there is something about the building, as well as its cultural aura, that resonates with residents and tourists alike.
Much of this is due to Le Corbusier’s mystique and the past century’s zeitgeist (it remains cool, in many circles, to mention Le Corbusier in passing with a certain debonair nonchalance), but also to the building’s ideological foundations. If the apartment building of our nightmares is sterile, hospital-like, and isolating, Cité Radieuse presents us with an inviting alternative. Thanks to its vertical village design, this building functions as a multifaceted space for living around and interacting with a group of aesthetically-inclined people — all in a simple, minimalist-by-design environment where you can raise your kids, re-watch your favorite movies, relish coastal sunsets, and run around the massive park at the building’s base.
Given its current state and continued popularity, even Le Corbusier critics would have to admit that Cité Radieuse remains relevant, and not just in a “the MoMA bought an entire Cité Radieuse kitchen” kind of way. There’s something about the everyday sort of living available within this building’s concrete walls that speaks to everyday people, and this — thanks to real, breathing proof — is undeniable. The building’s residents must remain there deliberately for the authentic love of this particular place and the lifestyle it proffers.
To some, the idea of a building like Cité Radieuse remains too Soviet Bloc, but visitors quickly understand that mid-century concrete can — especially figuratively speaking — come in different shapes and sizes. This building’s interior is so obviously not Soviet Bloc that its exterior soon sheds that subjective association. Regardless, the space’s details don’t matter as much as the feeling its totality imports, which is brightness and conviviality to the max, made possible through practical, lived-in rationalism. Of course, it’s impossible to take Cité Radieuse completely out of its context — its particular “success” is undoubtedly linked to its geographic location. This is precisely what makes it difficult to compare with its sister buildings elsewhere in Europe, all of which also continue to attract eager residents and visitors — for reasons both overlapping and opposite.
What is it, all things considered, about a conceptual apartment building like Cité Radieuse that makes more and more sense to a growing number of people in a decade as individualistic as the 2020s?
The rise of community-oriented living spaces with shared kitchens and bathrooms; the propagation of mid-sized American city apartment complexes with coffee shops and nail salons on bottom; shared gardening plots and co-ops — shifting preferences in how and where we live suggest that even in the wake of post-COVID metropolitan and WFH diaspora, many people still want to stay “close together” in unique, community-oriented ways. While this might not mean heading to the office everyday (or ever) it could very well mean seeing more of your neighbors, or at the very least, saluting them as they do 100 burpees on your shared rooftop.
We all have that one friend who might quit their job and move to rural Romania to live and work on a self-sufficient organic farm. Maybe for the rest of us, something like Cité Radieuse could be that comfortable middle ground.
Surely, no apartment building could ever have everything residents need — or could it? At the very least, it could answer to the basic necessities of life, just like Cité Radieuse continues to do. No reason to order something on Amazon when you can just go get it. In some ways, the internet has made things so “easy” that the experience of exploring, interacting, and physically spending is regularly lost on us. A vertical village is that happy medium between thoughtless convenience and quotidian chore: it places everything within relative proximity, promoting both mindfulness and movement without the hassle of true inconvenience. In the world of tomorrow, this could prove therapeutic. None of us want to become robots, but most of us don’t want to trek across town for toothpaste.
The irony in this entire conversation is that a vertical village, at its base, is really what a true “village” was, not even 100 years ago.
Le Corbusier just put some high gloss, super streamlined version of it on stilts for modern sensibilities. However, something about the traditional village concept in such high concentration (literally, within the same enclosed rectangle) makes all “village-like” qualities so much more immediate. Le Corbusier wasn’t the first to do this (the Romans created the very first apartment + shopping mall combo sometime around 100 AD) but he was the first to do it with that characteristic, mechanized touch of his, outright promoting Cité Radieuse as its own self-contained vessel: the answer to post-war displacement and population paranoia.
Was his vision too utopic? Probably so. But Cité Radieuse and its Unité d’Habitation counterparts emphasize a number of standout principles the industrialized world would be foolish to forget. Namely, that developing technology of all sorts can enhance lives when it's employed mindfully, though its benefits are irrelevant when person-to-person interaction and mutual understanding play second fiddle. For Le Corbusier, the direct juxtaposition of these two elements — technology and people — in suitable doses was the raw material for this entire project.
Compared to when it was officially completed in 1952, today, Cité Radieuse takes on new meaning. The expanding nature of technology, work, and general human interaction posits this experiment as something with enduring resonance, and a resonance even more prominent in the wake of major societal shifts and challenges unique to the 2020s.
A suitable blueprint for the future or not, this high-rise invites us to reflect on what we’ve lost and gained since its completion, as well as how we can factor its various successes into our future endeavors.
Made to spend.