Concrete paradise still firm favourite

Jon Bryant visits the Cite Radieuse in Marseille, where Le Corbusier’s vision of community living is selling faster than ever.

Marseille's Cite Radieuse, or the 'House of the Madmen', as it is affectionately known, was Le Corbusier's original concrete vision for communal living. Fifty years on, as residential tower blocks are being flattened across Europe, people are keener than ever to own a little piece of collective housing.

'Buyers will pay a third more per square metre just for the opportunity to live there,' says Rene Ancelin, director of the Foncia estate agency. 'There's a certain snobbery about it; you are buying into a unique lifestyle.'

Most flats in the Cite change hands privately but an increase in service charges this year (due to repairs to the plumbing and the original facades) mean a few more have found their way on to the market. 'Usually around four or five are sold each year,' says Patrick de Rozario, head of maintenance and an observer of the Cite's comings and goings for the last 20 years. 'It's mostly done by word of mouth or handwritten notes put up on the foyer notice board.' However, estate agents can generally get their hands on a couple of apartments a year, particularly if the owners do not live in the building. Two are currently up for sale.

Each apartment unit is a mirror image of its neighbour. They run crossways through the building, so that you either enter upstairs and go down or have a front door downstairs with narrow bedrooms one floor up. Every apartment therefore has 'duplex' views of the seafront on one side and the mountains on the other through enormous windows.

The Cite was built between 1945 and 1952 and was Le Corbusier's answer to France's severe housing shortage. The design was meant to provide the perfect residence for families, and - with its integrated school, hotel, restaurant, baker, butcher and hairdresser - be a place for social interaction and collective happiness. The press slated it, re-christening it the droguerie (hardware store). But the public loved it and the place soon filled up, mainly with young couples who wanted to be part of something different (and also a few squatters, who slept in unfinished flats knowing they would have running water and electricity).

'It was so exciting,' says Mme Julienne, one of the first occupants in 1952 and still living in her sixth-floor flat. 'In 1952, this area was in the middle of the countryside. There was a dairy farm next door and a tram passed every half hour to take you into the centre. Each flat had an intercom service so you could speak to anyone in the building, and every floor used to have a drop shaft so you could post things through to the ground floor.'

The president of the residents' association, Christiane Billion, reckons there are about 15 'original' residents living there still. She puts it all down to the soundproofing: apparently you can't hear anything from next door even though there are 1,600 people in a building the size of a large department store. Each flat is separated by a 60cm-thick wall and detached from the structure by lead casing and girders. Walking along the corridors, whose concrete is imprinted with the texture of wooden planks from when it was poured, it is startlingly quiet.

The facades and communal areas are protected by the French national heritage organisation, but inside your apartment you can decorate any way you want. Most flats have some of the original features - for example, oak cupboards and panelling - and a few of them remain untouched.

Most residents are keen to talk about 'Le Corbu' and why they decided to live there. 'There's a ready-made social life. It's a village within the city and for children it's a paradise - there's a nursery school, parkland and a library, cinema, gymnasium and paddling pool on the roof,' says Billion. There is not a scrawl of graffiti in sight and the only unattended trolleys have been carefully parked near the supermarket door on the third floor.

And it's not just the Marseillais who compete to grab the flats. In a city where house prices have risen 30 per cent in the last five years, Parisians have started coming down on the TGV - looking for a trendy holiday home with a twist of Mediterranean concrete.

· La Cite Radieuse (280 Boulevard Michelet, 13008 Marseille) has 337 apartments. There are 23 different types, but 80 per cent of them are 98 sq metres in size. You can stay at the on-site hotel (00 33 4 9116 7800; www.hotellecorbusier.com).

· A 'Type E2' 98 sq metre apartment is for sale through Rey, Charriaud and Genet-Spitzer (00 33 4 9114 0196) for euros 310,000 plus euros 10,636 fees.

Jon Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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