Moyra Forrest: Marseille model for urban housing

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Housing remains high on the political agenda. The excellent recent BBC1 documentary on Scotland from the Sky showed the importance of the aerial view to architects and planners.

But people live on the ground, and their needs and opinions should also inform any decisions. While out delivering political leaflets I am increasingly aware of overgrown weeds, concreted car parking areas, and astroturf and decking replacing the natural beauty of grass, flower and vegetable beds. Could this be telling us something about the role and size of individual gardens in our modern world?

Other people’s well-tended gardens and public parks suffice for some, often through necessity. Allotments remain popular.

Developers seem to have a greedy need for green belt land for large gardens for affluent buyers, but might we already have enough houses with gardens in our city? And are some gardens too large for easy maintenance? I have been thinking again about Le Corbusier’s Cite radieuse in Marseille which I visited with the Cockburn Association a number of years ago.

Built between 1947 and 1951, this was a tower block community with 337 dwellings of 23 different types; with lots of fresh air as each had a balcony. The site was green and spacious.

Internally houses were compact and functional (think caravans, narrowboats, prefabs) with sliding doors used to good effect. A simple mechanism provided a safe space for deliveries; a boon in these days of online shopping, although originally for daily milk, bread, mail etc. Importantly, there was also some school and further play space within the building; perhaps even more valuable to a family than an individual garden. The building is still there, but has moved on from its early artisan housing days. Now, there is a hotel, nursery school, gym, bookshop and very inflated house prices for the remaining housing units.The greenery and sense of space remain. Some balconies host a riot of colourful plants.

It might not be the answer to all current demands for housing but Marseille’s official website can claim “the site is reminiscent of an urban plot in the middle of a park” and offers tours to an apartment listed as an Historical Monument no less. It’s also on a bus route.

Moyra Forrest is a retired librarian and occasional book indexer.