Le Corbusier’s “La Cité Radieuse” or Radiant City is an undisputed masterpiece of modernist design. Designed way back in 1929, and built between 1947 and 1952, the block featured one of the first instances of the architect’s path-breaking Unité d’Habitation (housing unit), a modernist residential design principle he developed in collaboration with painter-architect Nadir Afonso. Considering what followed in the latter half of the twentieth century, the project was way ahead of its time.
At that point constituting Le Corbusier’s largest building, construction of the Marseille complex was delayed by budget problems, and the project eventually took five years to complete. In this context, while it was originally meant to form part of an ensemble of urban dwellings, the architect’s satellite plan for Marseille Sud never came to fruition.
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Nevertheless, as it stands the Radiant City had an influence way beyond its local context.
In a move that would influence countless other tower blocks in the following decades, the towers were supported by stout pilotis. It was also an early instance of the streets in the sky concept. But most importantly was the rough-cast concrete used in the structure, which provided the template for the spread of brutalist architecture in subsequent years.
Yet it was not only the building that served as a template for mass-produced housing. Furniture designers Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé were also employed on the Unité project, which was offered as a test bench for their simple, mass-produced furniture. In this role, they provided, among other things, components for the housing units, built-in cupboards and other furnishings, beautiful modernism at exceptionally low cost.
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It is difficult to stop talking about the Radiant City, and no doubt important details have been missed here. Suffice to say that, while the building could now be seen as a victim of its own success, the original Unité d’Habitation has few rivals.
Photos by Darren Bradley
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