After five years of living in the South of France, we finally made plans to see the Le Corbusier building located in Marseille. In case you’re not familiar with his work, I’ll save you the trouble of going to the Wikipedia page:
“Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, who chose to be known as Le Corbusier (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965), was a Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modern architecture or the International Style. In his 30s he became a French citizen.
He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.”
With that said, I should note that this was the first Le Corbusier building I have seen in person and I was… I guess you could call it “underwhelmed.” I feel sort of badly about this, since they say that if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like Le Corbusier, it means that you’re the sort of person who just doesn’t get it. But on the other hand, that’s a terribly condescending sentiment, and to be honest, I resent being told that if I don’t agree with you, it must be because I’m a moron. Just because I don’t like it, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it.
But if you’re going to argue that I don’t get it, then fine. Guilty. I DON’T get it. At least, not when it comes to this particular structure, which is an apartment building, but looks like a factory that manufactures cement blocks and has cleverly managed to assemble itself. And then there’s the human element to consider. All art is about humanness, but I would argue that this is particularly true for architecture, since you can’t live inside the Mona Lisa. And when I contemplate the living participants in this art project, my vision is bleak. I picture them sitting at their kitchen tables, staring at vast, windowless expanses of wall while writing out enormous rent checks, their only respite being the time they spend standing on their tiny balconies staring at the long, boring shadow their building casts upon its neighbors.
Now, please don’t think that I have anything against Le Corbusier in general, it’s just that this building doesn’t do
it for me. I’ve seen photos of much of his other work and firmly believe that if he had put half as much creativity into this Marseille apartment building as he did into his Open Hand Monument in India or the Saddam Hussein Gymnasium (no kidding) in Iraq, we might have something, here.
But apparently, he drew his inspiration for this design from a Soviet Communal housing project called the Narkomfin Building. And man, oh, man, if you think the Marseille building is grim, you should get a load of this freakin’ thing. I picture tragic grey office workers, near-drained of their will to live, filing into this building in a “Joe vs. The Volcano” sort of way and spending their days processing driver’s license renewal requests from inmates of a nearby gulag. So, I guess, when you look at it that way, Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation isn’t so bad. In fact, in this context, it’s downright cheerful.
Touché, Le Corbusier. Touché.