Architecture Road-Tripping: Marseille

Earlier this August, I went on a roadtrip through southern France and spent two nights in l’Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, by Le Corbusier, together with my partner in crime. This landmark building has a small hotel in it — named Hotel Le Corbusier, of course — that is reasonably priced and has plenty of free parking, so I thought: hey, why not go there? Besides, I always wanted to visit the French city most diametrically opposed to Paris: Marseille is not full of snobs, has almost no luxury stores, it is not overrun by tourists, and its urbanism is chaotic while its architecture is modern, which is how I like my cities. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Paris. “I have plenty of Parisian friends”. So we set out in the morning from Barcelona, a crime-ridden Mediterranean port city, for Marseille, another crime-ridden Mediterranean port city.

Road trips are the best way to travel and to get to know a country. No advanced reservations are required, there’s no airport stress, and security checks are only a matter of really shitty luck. The land, perfectly framed by the windshield, can also be smelled, touched (during pit stops), and heard. There is much more interaction with local people, local customs, and local cuisine, and the lay of the land becomes apparent even through such trivial minutiae as local driving habits. And to say nothing of re-fueling: the true measure of the level of civilization of a nation lies in the quality of the food that is to be had by the proverbial side of the road. Never mind the number of Michelin stars or Restaurant Magazine rankings: those don’t reflect the larger picture in the least (London comes after Paris in a ranking of European cities by number of Michelin stars. Need I say more?). The architectural analogy might be: the number of Pritzker prize winning architects a country can brag about having does not necessarily reflect the general quality of that country’s architectural landscape. Roadside architecture, by which I mean built stuff you come across by surprise, in a random and unplanned manner, says much more about the current state of architecture in general (with all due respect to my Pritzker prize-winning friends).

The thing about a roadtrip is that it’s not the destination that counts — it’s the road itself. The destination is just an excuse. The Unité d’Habitation is really just a pretext to hit the road, Jacques. This provides the advantage that upon arrival, the trip will still be less than half-over, and we might even be pleasantly surprised by the building (which, in fact, we were).

Only one thing disappointed about the Unité: its location. To be precise, severe difficulty was encountered, after arriving and getting settled in (by which time it was evening), in finding a bar to quench our thirst. L’Unité’s own restaurant (named Le ventre de l’architecte — the Belly of the Architect, no less) was closed for August holidays and the hotel’s own café had just closed, so we had to venture out of the incredible hulk of a building that is the Unité. To our disappointment, the neighborhood outside the building was dead. What little there was in the way of a commercial fabric was firmly fermé, either for holidays or because it was…nine o’clock in the evening(!). I mean, it’s known Le Corbusier was an uptight Swiss Calvinist, but this is ridiculous. After two hours of walking around (I guess we should have driven), and as the thirst became unbearable, I started to miss Barcelona.

The next night, it was decided that drinking a bottle of wine on the roof-terrace of the Unité would be a much better idea than looking for some nightlife in this dull end of town. Le Corbusier would undoubtedly approve of this. And this is when the best thing that happened on the roadtrip happened: as we looked for a garbage receptacle or a recycling bin into which to toss the empty wine bottle and call it a night, we noticed that a group of people was seated on a terrace at the top of some stairs that were off limits to non-residents. I approached and asked where I could dispose of my empty bottle properly, and the answer was: “Ici, sur la table, along with the dozens of other empty bottles. You two look like you could use a refill.” What followed was a pleasant evening of wine-lubricated conversation with a dozen or so residents of the building, only one of whom was actually an architect. I learned more about the building from these residents than I have from all the texts I’ve read about it: the community association is apparently very active, and the rooftop gallery space a success. Most importantly, these residents seemed to be enjoying each others’ company and happy to live where they live. If that’s not the best measure of the success of a work of architecture, then I really don’t know what is.

The Unité may have been merely an excuse to embark on a roadtrip, but it turned out, in retrospect, to have been a highlight, albeit not exactly for the reasons we expected.
Mailbox in one of the rues of l’Unité. Brad Pitt??

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