Corbusier's Cité Radieuse

In 1950 Le Corbusier's incredibly influential Unité d'habitation was well underway. Gio Ponti's record of his encounter with it marks a key event in modern architecture.

Originally published in Domus 242/January 1950


Le Corbusier in Marseille
The building that Le Corbusier erected in Marseille has reached, with its reinforced concrete structure, its summit. This event in Marseille is the most important one in the modern architectural world. It is in the wonderful French tradition that these technical, economic and social events create monumentum (it is not - meaning a monument made of size - that a monument to be so must not be large, but it must be so in terms of significance and its role in history). It is so for this building, a true monument in the history of French construction and within the overall panorama of the research into resolving the housing problem in that country.
The living and dining room of a typical dwelling unit  with the balcony on the main facade.
The living and dining room of a typical dwelling unit with the balcony on the main facade.
In Italy there is a financial plan, the Fanfani-housing plan, which quantitatively stimulates and promotes building activity. But how? The plan does not distinguish between houses; in no way does it insist on the best housing; it does not know architecture; it is indifferent and alien to an ambition of culture and – let's just say it - of civilization. As an architectural event, does this plan have the same resonance in the world that France achieves with the Marseille event? It is a mere financial mechanism, a diversion of capital towards housing. But it is no guarantee at all, in fact, that Italy - Holy Italy- by virtue of the plan's success will not be not covered one day with bad houses and unintelligent architecture.

If they want to leave a good name, why don't Tupini, Minister of Public Works, and Fanfani meet with Le Corbusier in Marseille? We professors at the School of Architecture in Milan plan to take our students and colleagues to Marseille, and we think other schools should join us on this journey.
Le Corbusier and the flag raised above the "Unité d'habitation," October 6, 1949.
Le Corbusier and the flag raised above the "Unité d'habitation," October 6, 1949.
In the meantime, we offer, to those who know this construction, a photographic dispatch: the typical dwelling unit, like a life-size model, is illustrated along with the finished structure. Here the living room with the upper balcony and the separate children's rooms. Le Corbusier's premise? Locate a building in a beautiful place (like ancient Romans with the sites of their monasteries, and the aristocratic their castles and villas – also "unité d'abitation") which, with green space, air, sunlight, perfect orientation and day- and sun-lighting, acoustic insulation and perfect visuals (freedom), creates carefully designed and independent housing units in a complex offering all kinds of services and facilities (garage, kindergarten, schools, physical culture, guest rooms, infirmary, medical and pharmaceutical assistance, restaurant, shops, postal service, etc.) All of this is done by using the modern means and methods, both in terms of design and construction, used (in a purely industrial analogy) for the realization of the great ocean liners, other "unitè d'abitation." The usual objection: it is a phalanstery, barracks, etc.
A true monument in the history of French construction and within the overall panorama of the research into resolving the housing problem in that country
Upstairs in the typical dwelling unit are the two children’s areas that can be separated.
Upstairs in the typical dwelling unit are the two children’s areas that can be separated.
I respond by referring to Via Boccaccio in Milan (a so-called 'noble' street!). One side of the street is made up of about 400 meters of houses. That they belong to different owners and have different kinds of ugliness, and ten separate entrances does not count; they are - like it or not - a continuous block of houses, even larger than Marseille. So, what's the difference? 1) That this unhealthy Via Boccaccio block, overpowered by oppressive paved roads, with no trees or visuals is uneven, heterogeneous, disjointed. One side of the building faces north so more than a hundred rooms never see the sun. 2) That, in order to send a telegram, the inhabitants of this block, on a noisy street and with no green space, must walk an average of 800 meters to the post office in Via Leopardi; 300 to a public telephone; 300 to a pharmacy, butcher, grocer, charcuterie; 500 to a stationery store; 500 to a garage; 1000 to a first aid post; 3000 to a small hotel; 1000 to a garden; 1500 to a nursery school; 3000 to a gym or a track, etc., crossing trafficked roads that are dangerous for children and the elderly.

Instead Le Corbusier located all of this in a complete and unitary complex with extraordinary unity/simplicity of structures and technological systems, in a construction that reveals - as I am always pleased to say - the form of its substance. Which is in the architecture.
The living room of a typical dwelling unit; the interior staircase leads to the bedrooms.
The living room of a typical dwelling unit; the interior staircase leads to the bedrooms.

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