Hello, Fada: Le Corbusier’s Radiant Rooftop Revealed

Nearly 50 years after his death, Le Corbusier is the man of the moment. The Swiss-born French multitasker is the subject of an exhibition (on view through September 23) at the Museum of Modern Art and the creator of a lamp that inspired Kanye West‘s latest album, while across the pond, Corbu’s modernist housing complex has been reborn at the hands of a self-described “icon­o­­clas­tic artist,” aged 36. We sent our man in Marseille Marc Kristal up on the roof.

(Photo: Olivier Amsellem)

It’s been a big year for architecture in Marseille. As part of the city’s designation as 2013’s European Capital of Culture, fifteen major projects, including new construction and renovations, have been created in the city and Provence region—everything from Rudy Ricciotti’s magisterial Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean on Marseille’s J4 waterfront esplanade to the resurrection of the Eden Cinéma, the world’s first movie house, in La Ciotat (opening in October) to groundbreaking on Fondation Vasarély, set to open in 2014-15 in Aix-en-Provence.

But while benefiting from le hubbub surrounding the culture capital festivities, one of the year’s most exciting projects is an unaffiliated private undertaking with a major public component: the restoration and reopening of the rooftop gymnasium/solarium of Le Corbusier’s enormously influential 1952 housing complex, Cité Radieuse.

Despite its international reputation, Corbu’s original “Unité d’Habitation” is known locally as “La Maison du Fada”—Provençal for “The Crazy Person’s House”—as the people of Marseille responded less than enthusiastically when the Brutalist “vertical village,” with its 337 cleverly configured apartments, hotel, restaurant, shops, and school, was completed. The roof, which had been altered in ways that contravened Corbu’s intentions and fell into disrepair, was put up for sale in 2010 and quickly snapped up by the polymath French architect/designer Ito Morabito—known commonly by his nom de design Ora-Ïto—who has impeccably restored the interior and exterior spaces and transformed them into an art center he calls Marseille Modulor (in honor of Corbu’s human-scaled system of measurement) or MAMO (a playful tweaking of New York’s MoMA) for short.

(Photo: Olivier Amsellem)

When we visited, the day before the official opening on June 8, we found controlled pandemonium as Ora-Ïto’s team, along with the artist Xavier Veilhan, who created MAMO’s inaugural art exhibition, rushed to meet the deadline. At the center of it was the 36-year-old Marseille-born Ïto himself—slight, skinny, scruffy, and fueling his nervous energy (and non-stop verbal and actual motion) with coffee, OJ, cigarettes, and enthusiasm. “I’m a big fan of Le Corbusier since I’m a kid,” Ito said. “There is a social part of his work that is very interesting, the way he was thinking for the people, to live better. And also he was a global artist—a painter, architect, designer, a poet.” At Cité Radieuse, Ito believes, Corbu was able to put all of his ideas into practice—social, urbanistic, architectural. “I think it’s this that makes the building so iconic,” he declared.

When Ito first saw the space, much of it was in disrepair—beneath the gently curving roof of what had been the gymnasium structure, there were buckets to capture water from leaks—but, he said, “I grew up knowing this building, so I couldn’t resist owning such an important piece of it.” The meticulousness of Ïto’s three-year renovation is striking: even with workmen all over it, the roof, with its famous flared sculptural ventilation stacks, looked almost precisely as it does in vintage photographs. “We restored it exactly like it was,” Ïto said, pointing out what looked like an irregular line incised into the deck. “Even when sometimes the graphics were not well made, we left the mistake.”

Ironically, Ïto’s fidelity to the original brought him into conflict with an agency which should have been his ally, Les Architectes des Batiments de France, the office charged with protecting the nation’s historical monuments. Prior to Cité Radieuse’s classification as a protected landmark in 1986, Ïto explained, a 150-meter-extension was made on the upper solarium deck behind the gymnasium, a peaked-roof structure that destroyed the Mondrianesque design of the gym’s rear façade. “When they classified the building, they classified the extension, too, even though it wasn’t original—and I had to have it de-classified to lose it, to restore it like it was,” Ïto said. “The most difficult part of this project was convincing people to change the law.”

Though Ïto ultimately prevailed, he made his own significant change by converting what had been a recreational area into an arts center. “I felt guilty because I changed the function,” he said. But the Fondation Le Corbusier was on his side. “They said his work can be reinvented, it can adapt to a modern condition. I think it was more important to follow that, instead of leaving it like a museum that was dying.” In reference to the original program, he said, “A visitor told me, ‘Before, it was culture physique—now it’s just culture.'”

(Photo © Xavier Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2013 & Ars, New York, 2013)

For four months a year, during the summer, MAMO will serve as an indoor/outdoor exhibition venue, for a site-specific show by an established artist. (A café and shop will supplement the enterprise.) In winter, MAMO will have two artists in residence in small apartments behind the main gymnasium space, host smaller indoor exhibitions by up-and-coming artists, and offer lectures and seminars. The initial single-artist show, “Architectones,” is an inspired choice: a continuation of a series of dialogues between art and architecture begun by Veilhan in Los Angeles, where he created installations in Richard Neutra’s VDL Research House, Pierre Koenig’s famous Case Study house number 21, and the Sheats-Goldstein residence by John Lautner. Veilhan’s pieces appear throughout the roof’s interior and exterior spaces, the most of striking (and piquant) being a powder-blue sculpture of Corbu from the waist up, in which the architect, pencil in hand, appears to be drawing on his own rooftop. Gesturing at the piece, Ito said, triumphantly, “He’s back!”

We couldn’t get an answer regarding how much all of this has cost—”If I talk about it, I’ll have a heart attack, because I’m dead broke,” he said—though estimates run about 6 or 7 million Euros. But running around the roof and exclaiming “Ah! C’est bien!” over the last-minute details, Ïto was clearly a happy man. “I had two options,” he said. “I could make this my house and have fun. Or open it to the public and make something everyone could enjoy.” We asked if he’d considered the former. “Who would not think of that!” he said. “But it was impossible.”

New York-based architecture and design writer Marc Kristal’s books include Immaterial World, The Great American House, and Magni Modernism.