Photos:Bruno Planchais/AFP/Getty Images
A fire has damaged what is arguably the greatest Modernist building of the past century. A portion of Le Corbusier's seminal Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, the greatest claim to be found in the world for the architect's "Ville Radieuse," was engulfed by flames Thursday afternoon. As the Guardian reports, firemen struggled well through the night and into the morning to quench the blaze which originated in a first floor apartment before spreading to several nearby apartments. The full extent of the damage has yet to be assessed, but it has been confirmed that three apartments have been completely gutted, while others have been seriously damaged. All of the building's 1,600 residents were evacuated Thursday night, with five people admitted to a hospital for treatment.
Conceived as a solution to social housing, the Unité d'Habitation has now become a fashionable place of residence in which celebrities, architects, and middle-class teachers alike call home. The structure, which was completed in 1951 and was recently restored, was envisioned as the constituent element of the Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier's most lucid urban scheme in which all citizens, regardless of class, were guaranteed the "joys" of light, space, and greenery. While Le Corbusier's utopian model may have influenced the soulless concrete housing blocs subsequently erected throughout the world, from the inner cities of American and European capitals to new Chinese metropolises, they have nothing to do with the Unité at Marseille, nor with its clones at Nancy, Firminy, and Berlin. With the Unité Le Corbusier managed to transform the bleak, bare bones welfare models of post-war social housing into vibrant monuments to communal life, cast in lively Homeric forms throbbing with a peculiar, and entirely original, mix of raw sexuality and melancholy poise that has yet to be surpassed.