The Radiant City

Le Corbusier's The Radiant City, MarseilleIt's known poetically as the Radiant City, prosaically as the Housing Unit and irreverently by locals as La Maison du Fada (The Madman's House). But whatever you call it, Le Corbusier's pioneering experiment is not just another block of flats.

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Set in 4 hectares / 9.8 acres of parklands, also landscaped by Le Corbusier, the building incorporates a pâtisserie, numerous other shops and galleries, a primary school, roof terrace and other facilities.

The scope of the concept still remains remarkable. Back in the bleak post-war years, it was revolutionary. Retrospectives of Le Corbusier's work often show a vision preserved as a museum piece. Here's a chance to see it in living, breathing action.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris was born in Switzerland in 1887, but his heart was, as he says, profoundly Mediterranean (he died at his cabanon, or beach house, on the Côte d'Azur in 1965).

Le CorbusierHe took the pseudonym Le Corbusier - adapted from his grandfather's name, Lecorbésier, and meaning, roughly "the crow-like one" - in 1920. Over the years, Le Corbu - as he's often known - turned his hand to very many things: painting, sculpting, furniture designing and, above all, urban planning. Published in 1935, La Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City) articulated his radical ideas.

In some circles, Le Corbusier, pictured, has a lot to answer for. He aimed to provide better living conditions in overcrowded cities. But many people came to regard his huge monoliths as paving the way for the shoddy, Brutalist tower blocks that blighted British and American cities in the 1960s.

Built between 1947 and 1952, Marseille's Radiant City is in an altogether different class. Designed to a very high standard, it was originally conceived as social housing but today is a fashionable middle-class Mecca and a vertical township in its own right. A handful of loyal residents have lived there since 1952, but other apartments come up for short-term lets or sale occasionally and are much sought-after.

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Piloti from Le Corbusier's Radiant City, MarseilleThere was both insufficient steel and a shortage of skilled labour in post-war France and so, making the best of the situation, Le Corbusier conceived the structure in raw concrete, raised off the ground by large piloti or "stilts", pictured.

But the concept, apparently stark and minimalist at first sight, is embellished with a wealth of subtle detail. The spacious entrance hall has such touches as stained-glass windows and shell designs in the concrete walls.

On the upper floors, the corridors - or "streets" as they're known - are much wider than in the average hotel or apartment block, where architects try to keep the maximum space for the private living quarters.

For Le Corbusier, the public areas are just as important. With their atmospheric lighting and richly coloured front doors the residential "streets" are an inviting place in their own right.

The unusual layout is intended to make maximum use of minimal space. 337 apartments are arranged over twelve storeys, interlocking, jigsaw-like.

Those on one side of the central corridors are entered at a single-aspect lower floor before ascending up to a double-aspect upper one (as in the plan below). Those leading off from the other side open into single-aspect upper floors before descending to double-aspect lower ones.

Cross-section of an apartment in le Corbusier's Radiant City, MarseilleEvery flat has a double-height reception room with mezzanine and a deep balcony, and stretches from one side of the building to the other, looking east towards the hills on one side and west towards the sea on the other. Twenty-three different layouts provide living space for between one and ten people.

Insider tip for The Radiant CityIt's now possible to see inside several of the apartments at the Radiant City. For a month in the summer between mid-July and mid-August, the owner of apartment no.50 - the actor Patrick Blauwart - opens the flat to the public after having put his own furniture in storage and invited a designer to redecorate it in his or her own individual manner.

In 2013 the guest designer was Konstantin Grcic from Germany, who decked out the apartment in neo-punk style, with posters of Sid Vicious and so on.

Previous guest designers have included Britain's Jasper Morrison in 2008 and France's Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in 2010, and the tradition is that each designer will nominate his or her own successor for the following year.

In 2014 the Apartment 50 is decorated by the French designer Pierre Charpin, whose installation also incorporates pieces by his predecessors. 15 July-15 August. Website for Apartment no.50

Cellule 516, based in the apartment of that number, is another experimental art space that hosts temporary exhibitions. The summer 2014 is an installation by the photographer Claude Levêque, who uses neon to illuminate his work. It's on until 30 August and admission is free.

And, at the end of 2013, a third apartment became available for year-round guided tours. Apartment no.643 is officially listed as an Historical Monument because it remains almost perfectly preserved in its original state.

Radiant City kitchenThis said, when the Insider visited in December 2013, shortly before it opened to the public for the first time, the apartment was empty of furniture and still in the throes of redecoration, with colour samples of paint all over the walls.

Still, you get a strong sense of the sheer brilliance of its interior design. Though it's one of the larger apartment in the complex, no.643 isn't huge, but every surface and spare corner has been used efficiently and ingeniously.

On the entry-level floor is a fitted kitchen, pictured above, with service and delivery hatches opening to the dining area and outer corridor respectively. It boasts an compact array of - at the time revolutionary - built-in units and appliances (an ice cupboard rather than a fridge). The blue swing door in the photograph marks it off as a separate space within the open-plan lower lever.

The living area opens on to a loggia, with a concrete sun-screen, Le Corbusier's trademark primary-coloured walls and surfaces decorated with bright ceramic insets. The large, stylish door handle is perfectly ergonomic and the heating ducts are neatly concealed under the step to the balcony.

Radiant City staircaseA staircase, pictured, leads to the upper level: note the clever idea of two hand-rails, one at adult height and one for small children.

Le Corbusier designed a "Modulor" or gauge to calculate the optimum dimensions for each aspect of everyday living. A replica of the modular can be seen on the third floor of the Radiant City.

Upstairs are two long narrow bedrooms for children, each with its own washbasin.

They're linked by a sliding door covered in a slate for the kids to draw on and share a single bright yellow ship's-style shower cabin. At the other end of this level is the large master-bedroom with en-suite bathroom and separate WC.

There are two tours of apartment no.643 each afternoon from Tuesday to Saturday. It's promised that the tours will be given in English as well as French (Italian is available too) and the guide will also take you through the entrance hall, the commercial street on the third floor and the roof terrace. You can book a tour of the Radiant City here.

You can also visit the building on your own, though you won't be able to see inside an apartment. The residents are justifiably keen to preserve their privacy, and so individual tourists are requested to check in with the concierge in the entrance hall and to confine their visit to certain areas: the lobby, the third and fourth floors and the public part of the roof terrace.

On the third and fourth floors are rows of shops. Initially designed to cater to all the residents' needs, making the Radiant City a totally self-contained community. Facing competition from the nearby supermarkets, the food shops gradually moved out and today only a bakery remains (its owner has been there since 1969). The other commercial units are now occupied by galleries, bookshops and estate agencies.

Also on the third floor is the Hotel Le Corbusier, which offers small but perfectly formed rooms in Le Corbu style. Originally intended for friends and family visiting the residents, it's now open to everyone. The Radiant City's proximity to the Vélodrome makes it a good bet for Olympique de Marseille fans.

Next door is a gastronomic restaurant, Le Ventre de l'Architecte, decorated in 1950s retro-chic in Le Corbusier's original spirit.

Marseille Radiant City roof terrace MAMOOriginally designed as a gymnasium, the roof is a huge 600 square metre / 6,460 square foot terrace, pictured, with sculpted ventilation stacks, a paddling pool, an open-air performance space and sensational panoramic views.

It was purchased in 2010 and restored by the cult Marseille-born designer Ito Morabito, also known as Ora Ïto, and reopened in summer 2013 as an exhibition space, bookshop and café.

There is a small entrance charge to enter the gallery but access to the open-air terrace - where artworks are also displayed - is free. Ïto calls the terrace MAMO, short for Marseille Modular ("Modular" was the name of a design gauge devised by Le Corbusier).

The big 2014 summer show at MAMO is called Défini, fini, infini and features seven brand-new works by the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. As these very large installations are displayed on the outdoor terrace, admission is free. Until 30 September. During the summer a series of evening events is also planned featuring artists such as David Walters or Arthur H. Website for MAMO

Note: In the night of 9-10 February 2012, a fire swept through the Radiant City and inhabitants had to be evacuated. In the aftermath, a number of apartments remained empty and part of the building was closed to the public. The fire was probably caused by an unattended heating device.

Decorative details from Le Corbusier's Radiant City, MarseilleWhere: The Radiant City, 280 Boulevard Michelet, 13008 Marseille.

How to get there: Metro line 2 (stop: Rond-Point du Prado). Then bus 21 or a 15-20 minute walk.

Find further reading on Amazon:

Le Corbusier: L'Unitae d'Habitation de Marseille (Corbusier Guides)image! by Jacques Sbriglio.

Towards a New Architectureimage! by Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier, Unite D'habitation, Marseilleimage! by Alban Janson, Carsten Krohn.

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