Interviewed in Marseilles
Unité d’Habitation is an isolated realization of Le Corbusier’s cité radieuse (Radiant City), possibly the last relevant urban vision. Life in the Unité happens within a unique spatial frame that no other building after the same model has ever surpased. An important part of this life is the Hotel Le Corbusier and the Restaurant Le Ventre de l’Architecte managed by Dominique and Alban Gérardin. For them, the House of the Mad, as the citizens of Marseilles call the Unité, is also their home, passion and business. From the insider’s perspective Alban tells us about the history and the perception of the building, the ways it influences the daily life and, of course, about the hotel.
ORIS: How did you enter the hotel business?
Alban Gérardin: Le Corbusier planned guest rooms for the visitors to the residents of Unité from the very beginning, but there was no hotel. There were only 16 small rooms, these you are looking at as we speak. The first owner of hotel was Mr. Keller. He bought not only the restaurant, but the building in which these rooms were situated as well, and that was the beginning of the hotel. That was in 1959–60. He ran the hotel until 2003 when my wife, Dominique, and I bought it. We do not have a background in hotel or restaurant business. I was running a small company, and my wife was a lawyer. I told to my wife: I want a change. I want to create real things. I would like to have a restaurant or a hotel. So we spent some 6 months looking for it. We found one which was in the vicinity, but the deal was not very clear, so we decided to go directly to the real estate agency. The gentleman who was running the agency was an architect, and we asked him about the options. He said: I have two, one I do not wish to talk about, and another building which is quite old and you need to restore it. But, first of all, I would like to acquire an understanding of your connection with architecture. We are not architects, but approximately 10 years earlier we bought the only Art Deco classified monument in Marseille. It was built by the architect Gaston Castel who was running a regional agency for architecture for 30 years after the First World War. Castel built that house for his family. So, we have a connection with architecture. And the real estate agent said: It is unbelievable, because I was an architect myself, and I wrote about Gaston Castel, and yet, I have never been in that house. Could you, please, show it to me? I said yes, and the agent said that he is now convinced that we are good candidates. We met the owner, and 9 months later we bought the hotel. We began on 1st July 2003.
ORIS: However, you did not stop there. Having bought the hotel, you also bought several other housing units in Unité, and integrated them into the hotel.
Alban Gérardin: At the beginning we had 21 rooms on the 3rd and 4th floor, but two of them were the property of the previous owner of the hotel, and he wanted them back. So in 2003 we found other two apartments, one here. Three years later we bought yet another place. There were different shops in the side street, now they do not exist any more. Three years ago one was still in operation. Casino at the end of the street was a small shop, which had been there since the early years of Unité. The Casino Company decided to close it down, and we were worried about its future. We did not want to have another office here, so we decided to buy it. And at the same time we bought an apartment, and we connected it with the business, so that we have a large apartment within the hotel complex now.
ORIS: You bought a classic duplex apartment?
Alban Gérardin: Exactly, type E. When we visited the hotel with the intention to buy it, we saw different types of rooms. Some of them, for example the small one you are in now, were in a very bad condition. The larger ones were in good condition. In the course of the first year we did not have enough money to restore all the rooms, so we decided to get the resources first, and we were quite successful in it. The previous owner did not speak English or any other language, and did not use the internet. We were young, we have improved the operation, and very soon the business increased, we have earned the money, and gradually renovated the place. We wanted to do it slowly, because many architects approached us and wanted to explain what we have to do. We would ask them: Do you have the money? No, we have the money. So we decided to do what we wanted to do, and when we wanted it. For instance, the restaurant and the terrace had only plastic chairs and tables, such as those on the beach; three different types of chairs, tree different types of tables, it was very eclectic. Then one day somebody brought us a table, and it was a Charlotte Perriand table, and we said that that was the one we want to have. We went to a carpenter and we asked him if he could make something in the same style, and so we got a new table. Next, we bought a chair resembling the Jacobsen chair, and we had new chairs made. The table is a Jean Prouvé table. I found 40 famous French Tolix chairs and bought them. I often visit the antique market in Marseille, we have visited a street fair just this morning, and bought four lamps for the rooms. Gradually, the place assumed its present look. People often say: Oh, it looks quite original! And that is good; it is a compliment to us, because they have the impression that they are enjoying the ambience of 40–50 years ago.
ORIS: You managed to reconstruct the original atmosphere, but most of the furniture is not original.
Alban Gérardin: Exactly. When people come to our hotel they feel the original atmosphere although some things have been either reconstructed, or bought by us. In the small room we had to demolish the shower, because it was in a very bad shape. There were three different types of materials on the floor. But we have kept some elements.
ORIS: You have uncovered different superimposed layers because the interior had been reconstructed a number of times over the years…
Alban Gérardin: Yes. There were some hideous closets in the small rooms. We decided to talk to a carpenter who was also a designer. We told him to come here to get an idea of the building, and then present us with designs of office space for the room. We have added Perriand lamps, as well as the Brasilia lamps from Le Corbusier, and the atmosphere was re-established. It is not those you get in plastic hotels where everything is brand new, shiny, and perfect... When people come to stay here they need to accept that this is not a Phillip Starck Hotel... This hotel is now 60 years old, we try to keep it in shape, sometimes it is difficult, but mostly we feel that we are doing the right things. And the building itself is beautiful, it has an amazing view, staying in it you feel as if you were in a boat, sailing, or in a monastery cell, such as the one in La Tourette monastery.
ORIS: Indeed, very different metaphors come to one’s mind.
Alban Gérardin: We had to reconstruct the small rooms, but in the big ones we had very little to do, because there was marble on the floor, nice wood on the wall, quality ceramic in the bathroom, everything was in a very good shape, and made of quality materials. Thus we needed to restore certain parts only and, again, to put in Le Corbusier lamps, nice tables, different ornaments, so then, again, the atmosphere and the style were re-established.
ORIS: Is the interior of the building protected as a cultural monument? Do you have to negotiate with the authorities regarding the restoration?
Alban Gérardin: The building is protected, and so there are two apartments, the exteriors, all communal spaces, the roof, the window frames... You are not allowed to change things there. If you want to paint something, you have to negotiate with the Syndicat de copropriété. When we first came, everybody could do what they wanted. But then a young gentleman who was running the Syndicat came, and explained what is to be done. The people gradually started applying the right color and normal facades.
ORIS: However, during the 1960s, and 1970s, the building was quite neglected. And then, suddenly, everything started to change – is that right?
Alban Gérardin: I would say that things started to change in the early 1990s. The building was initially built for the people who have fled Marseille during the war. The old port has been bombed by the German, by the American, and even by the French army... So the whole quarter has been destroyed, and people have fled. Le Corbusier talked to the Minister of Reconstruction, because, as you know, Le Corbusier wanted to do big things, and, in order to do big things you need to negotiate with the state. He even tried to negotiate with the Soviets, perhaps even with the Germans… Following successful negotiations with the French, he built this building; it was his first big success. The building was planned to accommodate the people living in the old port; the craftsman, the fishermen; not necessarily poor, just simple people. However, when they arrived, they experienced a shock. They did not want to move in. In the 1950s the newspapers were saying that one could contract physic illness by living in this building. This is where the syntagm Le Corbusier’s Fada originated. In French Fada means a place for the nutters. The people of Marseille referred to the building by saying Ces’t la maison du Fada; it is the nutter’s house. If you take a taxi here in Marseille, and ask to be driven to Le Corbusier’s building, the taxi driver shall reply by saying: Aaah, la Maison du Fada! No one wanted to move in, so the State and the City did not know what to do with this building; no one wanted to live there, and yet a lot of money was put in it, approximately 2 billion French francs. It was approximately the price of an airplane carrier at the time. So they decided to move in the people working for the state, such as teachers and professors. Some of them received war damages from the Germans, and could afford to buy apartments or shops. I think the previous owner of the Hotel bought the restaurant, and other spaces in the building with the income from war damages. So the initial social purpose became bourgeois. And those people stayed here for years, the parents had children, the children stayed here and became almost a sect. If you wanted to move in, you had to be admitted by all the residents. In late 1980s and at the beginning of 1990s Le Corbusier came back en vogue, everybody wanted Le Corbusier chair, and the place became attractive again.
ORIS: Even posh to some extent...
Alban Gérardin: Yes, and gradually, the people who had been living there for 40 years died, the apartments were sold, and new people moved in.
ORIS: The value of property is rising now, is it not?
Alban Gérardin: It has been. Now it is stable for two reasons: as a result of the crisis, and because of the cost of restoration. Many apartment owners had no cash, and could not afford the renovations, and thus had to sell their apartments. The price is between 2500€ and 3500€, depending on the shape of the apartment, its size, and position.
ORIS: Is the roof kindergarten still operational?
Alban Gérardin: Yes, but it is not a nursery, it is a painting school for children. The school on the 8th floor, is also still in operation, and has three classes. It is, a so-called, peuple school, intended for children who live in the building, but also for children who do not.
ORIS: So many things are happening all around the building… there is the hotel, the restaurant, the school...
Alban Gérardin: When Le Corbusier designed this building he had a transatlantic boat in mind. On such a boat there has to be a swimming pool, a roof gymnasium, shops, restaurants…
ORIS: What is the average profile of your clients; do you have a lot of architects visiting?
Alban Gérardin: In the beginning, it would often happen that our only visitors were architects. However, having completed the renovation, we now have a wide range of customers. There are organized visits by different schools of architecture; there are architects, people engaged in the arts, marketing, publicity, design. There are also tourists looking for something different. Generally people do not come here without a reason. And when they, by some chance, do come without a reason, and, especially if they are open-minded, the say: Wooow, Le Corbusier! If they are not open-minded, they will not be impressed! There are also businessmen coming, and because the hotel is in the vicinity of research institutes and an exhibition park, and each week there is something happening, typical businessmen come, and they like it here, because it is different.
ORIS: Perhaps there are people who come to the football matches, the Olympique stadium is quite close?
Alban Gérardin: Sometimes.
ORIS: The restaurant is also an important part of your hotel. You are promoting it intensely; therefore I assume you are also interested in the cuisine?
Alban Gérardin: Yes, you are right. That is, actually, a separate story. At the beginning we did not cook, but then somebody asked for a sandwich, next for a salad, a soup, we would make everything by ourselves. And thus for three years my wife, Dominique and I, cooked both, lunch and dinner, for 20 to 40 people every day. It was homemade cooking, and people liked it. But then we decided to stop, because we could not go on that way; it was too much, too exhausting. Then we brought in the first team: a maître d’hôtel and a good cook, who ran the restaurant with us for three years. Then the maître d’hôtel left, but the chef stayed with us. He left four years ago. Now we have a new chef Jérome Caprin, he is an architect. He is very, very good. And that is the reason why we wish to promote him, because the dishes he makes are truly unbelievable.
ORIS: The people who come here for lunch or dinner are not necessarily hotel guests? Do the people from the Unité also come here?
Alban Gérardin: Yes, sometimes. In the beginning I thought we needed only 10 people, if only the 10 who live here would come to the restaurant it would be enough, but it is less than that. I understand that, because you want to go out for dinner, and not stay in same building. When you have nothing in the fridge you say to yourself: All right, perhaps I could go out and see what the restaurant has on offer.
ORIS: So Le Corbusier’s idea about having a restaurant for the residents was perhaps not realistic?
Alban Gérardin: It was a matter of principle. In the beginning he wanted to have two restaurants, a gastronomic one on the roof, and an economic one intended for the people living in a building. This restaurant was a sort of a snack bar, a restaurant serving take away dishes. However, the restaurant on the 8th floor was never in operation, so from the very beginning this was actually a gastronomic restaurant. Slowly, but surely it was failing, and when we bought the hotel, the restaurant had been closed for 5–6 years... Now the restaurant is well known; you can read about it in the New York Times and the Washington Post, you can read about it in Japan, as well, where it has a very good reputation. Sometimes it is hard, sometimes we feel as if we were its mécènes. Hopefully the hotel will earn enough money for the restaurant to survive.
ORIS: Do you think that owning a hotel here in Le Corbusier’s building somehow changed your attitude towards architecture? Do you find architecture and design even more attractive now? As you said earlier, you took interest in architecture even before, as is clear from your ownership of the Art Deco building, but do you think that this building had a certain influence on you, your aesthetic taste, and your affinities?
Alban Gérardin: This building sometimes resembles a jail; you can stay in it for days without ever going outside. It is very important that you understand this feeling. It is very nice to live in, you have beautiful views, even if the residents are very different, as they would be in any village.
ORIS: Le Corbusier described the Unité as vertical village...
Alban Gérardin: Yes, the entire life unfolds before our eyes. Regarding my feelings about architecture, I talk about them every day. I present them to the guests of the hotel, so sometimes I feel as if I were a salesman.
ORIS: Or a museum curator…
Alban Gérardin: Exactly, you need to sell the hotel to the people, because people sometimes do not understand it. In the beginning I knew nothing about Le Corbusier. The first time I came here, it was to see an apartment; that was in 2002, before I did not know about Le Corbusier. However, in order to sell something, you need to understand it. You need to read, to discover one thing after another... I think we have a broader view of Le Corbusier. Sometimes I am a bit critical. When you visit an apartment you always expect Le Corbusier chair, Le Corbusier meubles, but it is not so... When you enter an apartment, you see a table, furniture that does not fit the style at all. But that is the way it is, the apartment owners can do as they desire, and Le Corbusier agreed to everyone doing as they wish with his design. And it is very often that we have the people ask us why there is no Le Corbusier style...
ORIS: It does not have to be Le Corbusier style, because time passes and the building changes; it is a social process...