A Brutalist Architecture Tour of Marseille, France

Corbusier's 'Cité Radieuse de Marseille' is simply stunning | © Emmanuel Rémoleux
Corbusier's 'Cité Radieuse de Marseille' is simply stunning | © Emmanuel Rémoleux
Photo of Alex Ledsom
20 March 2017

Brutalism is the name for a certain style of architecture pioneered by the French architect Le Corbusier. He created many buildings in this style, but perhaps the most famous is in Marseille. Here’s our guide to the wonderful structure that is affectionately called ‘The Nutter’s House’ and ‘Le Corbu’ by locals.

The building has a number of names (officially, l’Unité d’habitation de Marseille) but the idea was simple: to create an entire city within one space. Construction began in 1947 and was completed in 1952. It was built very close to the sea and still has completely unobstructed views across the bay and the city itself.

The Corbusier city in Marseille | © Alan Wylde/flickr

Originally this was innovative social housing for the many people who didn’t have homes after the war; now the 238 apartments inside are highly sought-after and very expensive. The name Brutalism comes from how Le Corbusier constructed his buildings. They are made from béton brut (hard cement) – hence the word brutalism. By using cement, which was much cheaper than more traditional building materials, Corbusier was able to build social housing on a mass scale. The building rests on pillars of cement, each apartment has split levels to make sure they get maximum light, and balconies are painted bright colors. It’s certainly a unique building with breathtaking attention to detail; Le Corbusier carefully calculated the exact dimensions each person would need using the Fibonacci sequence.

The entire building was constructed on struts, supported by columns | © Juan Lupión/flickr

Each floor is constructed along corridors that stretch the entire length of the building, with brightly colored mail boxes that are very cool, and which look a bit like they’re out of a movie set. There are different facilities on every floor – the point was to build a place where the inhabitants had everything they needed for modern life – so there’s a creche, a primary school, several shops, a restaurant, a café and even a doctor’s surgery inside.

The inside corridors are symmetrical | © Cyril Caton/flickr

The roof is the main star of the show. It was created as a social area for its residents, and has a bookshop, an events room and a small paddling pool, as well as those amazing views.

The Cité Radieuse is amazing and the roof offers amazing views over Marseille | © Emmanuel Rémoleux

The ‘city’ represents a pioneering response to the social problems of the time and was a huge success – so much so that many others were created around France, in London and Berlin (but not all of them had the same levels of success). The Cité Radieuse is a place that should definitely be seen on any trip to Marseille; the structure became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. However, if you can’t make it so far south, there’s a very large model, to scale, in the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris.

The view from the roof takes in the entire bay of Marseille and much of the city | © Vincent Desjardins/flickr

The building runs tours every day in French and English (although you can visit the roof at any time) – check out the website for up-to-date listings.

Opening hours: 9AM to 6PM daily to non-residents.

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