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Le Corbusier's beautiful scapegoat

As the discussion about new housing models for the twenty-first century rumbles on, it is worth revisiting the most influential prototype of this century - Le Corbusier's Unite d'habitation in Marseilles, now a historic monument some 50 years old, simply known as Le Corbusier.

Situated outside the city centre on the tree-lined Boulevard Michelet, the first sight of the building belies its notorious reputation. Even when commissioned in 1945 by the French government, as a prototype for post-war reconstruction, it generated intense antipathy, especially among young architects. It was suggested that it would produce mental illness in its occupants; and, of course, it is widely regarded today as the fount of all the social ills attributed to high-rise living.

The Unite is set back from the avenue, screened from the traffic by mature trees, in a cool green park. It reinforces the model of the elegant nineteenth- century villas in their grounds which punctuate this length of the boulevard and its environs, forming a leafy suburban landscape which has grown out of rural-coastal topography. The structure only gradually reveals itself to visitors as they are drawn round into the semi-public, protected space behind it, where cars are parked under the trees. The first view of the northern end elevation, appearing almost diminutive among the trees now, with a magical glimpse of shadowy space underneath, is quite beautiful, while the projecting entrance canopy at the south end establishes a strong sense of arrival.

The overwhelming impact of the Unite is in its generosity of space, and the way that space is clearly defined without the imposition of barriers and obstacles. There is a tremendous sense of freedom of movement that flows from the outside to the inside , and back outwards in the line of vision towards the mountains and sea on the horizon. The corridors giving access to the flats are long and have little daylight, but are broad, with a play of low-level, coloured light across the ceilings, and shiny, well-polished floor surfaces which combine to invite exploration. On the third floor the space opens up to accommodate a supermarket, patisserie, offices, hotel rooms and a restaurant, generating a gentle buzz of people and activity. The recreational spaces, including the roof terrace with its stupendous views, pool, and gym and the park below, are well used by children of all ages, grandmothers, mothers, men playing petanque and dog-owners.

On the noticeboard in the entrance hall the various types of apartments are listed, with numerous notices by residents seeking exchanges within the building. A person can pass through all the stages of life here, from carefree singledom to parent of an expanding family and on to a dignified old age. It provides an inspiring model for civilised communal living which allows easy access to essential social amenities and sheltered space, without which city life can become a misery. But as soon as the specification for space standards, quality of materials and detailing, and daily maintenance, is reduced, the model collapses in ruins.

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