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Up on the roof: Architectones exhibition at the Marseille Modulor

Art pieces establish a dialogue with the Corbusier’s architecture on the renovated rooftop of the Unité d’Habitation

‘I couldn’t buy a Picasso but I could buy a Corbusier building.’ It’s an unlikely confession, but Ora-ïto is an unlikely person. Also known as Ito Morabito, he is the 35-year-old scion of an architectural family who, a decade ago, began amassing a personal fortune (plus requisite art collection) after designing a suite of infamous fake ads that successfully marketed luxury brands.

The Corbusier building in question is the gymnasium on the roof terrace of the Unité d’Habitation, 56 metres above Ito’s home town of Marseille: ‘The first manifestation of an environment suited to modern life,’ declared Le Corbusier when he handed the building over in 1952. Alongside the gym was built a nursery, paddling pool and raised solarium deck − later built over with an inapt pitched-roof structure.

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Looking like an escaped member of omnipresent irritants The Blue Man Group, this bust of Le Corbusier by sculptor Xavier Veilhan occupies the roof of the Marseille Unité

‘Ever since I was a kid I have been crazy about Le Corbusier’s work,’ says Ito. ‘He was my Superman, my Batman. I couldn’t believe it when the gymnasium came up for sale − I had to have it.’

Following intense negotiations, trying to meet the competing demands of contemporary building regulations, the Fondation Le Corbusier and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the pitched-roof addition has been removed, the Modulor-proportioned timber glazing bars of the gymnasium reinstated, concrete shuttering repaired and the space restored as an art gallery, bookshop and apartment/studio for a resident artist − all carved out of the existing volumes.

The €7 million restoration funded by Ito, the Unité’s owner-occupiers and the government, is now known as MAMO − Marseille Modulor. Central to the gallery’s programme is an artist’s residency each summer where the artist installs their work on the roof terrace in dialogue with the architecture.

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The recent restoration of the Unité was by Ito Morabito, who lives in the former gym

Winter months will see a local mix of poetry, dance, fine art and design. This June saw the arrival (along with truckloads of Corbusian chaises for the interior) of the work of French sculptor Xavier Veilhan, whose series of  Architectones site-specific installations have had previous incarnations in California houses by Lautner, Koenig and Neutra.

‘At first I thought it was a dialogue with the buildings but it has [also] ended up a dialogue with people,’ says Veilhan. ‘They always have something in common and it is this interest in architecture that is almost a devotion to a building; to something bigger than yourself in scale and in time.’ This presumably extends to Ito.

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Veilhan’s outdoor interventions include a giant blue bust of Corb drawing directly on his own building (‘a short circuit’) and new framing planes created by stringing parallel wires between architectural elements and building a stage where models of boats by Buckminster Fuller and Pierre Jeanneret sail past each other. ‘As a viewer, I wouldn’t want something in the way − I don’t want to impose,’ explains Veilhan. ‘My work is an optical tool − something you look through rather than at − it is about celebrating rather than appropriating fame. ‘

Inside the gallery, where the shell form has been relined meticulously in Eraclit panels and a self-supporting balcony inserted, items include a large mobile whose counterweight is a figure of Le Corbusier smoking. The cigarette smoke is actually the mobile’s supporting wire.There is also an imaginary euro note featuring the Unité and a musical piece by Nicolas Godin, former architecture student and half of French synth-pop duo Air. It is one of a series that Godin has composed to accompany Veilhan’s interventions. The music will eventually be released on vinyl alongside a set of books charting Veilhan’s progress. Next up are installations at Claude Parent and Paul Virilio’s St Bernadette du Banlay and, in all likelihood, Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion.

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Veilhan’s opening work at the Unité is a sincere if curious and at times somewhat literal-minded response but it also clearly sets out the gallery’s programmatic stall. The real gain, however, is the restoration of the terrace and the gallery space itself, adding to the rooftop’s already considerable magic.

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‘It’s a dream come true,’ admits Ito. ‘Three years of hard work. I put everything I have into this. I even sold Xavier’s piece from my collection − he was so mad with me. ’The project has coincided with Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture so the opening has come in the same month as a clutch of new museums including Rudy Ricciotti’s mannerist MuCEM (AR August issue p54) and a quayside folly with a mirrored soffit by Norman Foster that owes no small debt to SANAA’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion.

Marseille’s slow and troubled but perhaps inexorable gentrification continues. Ito will be part of it once more − his next big project is a land art park on a rocky island offshore that is visible from the Unité’s roof.

Architectones: Xavier Veilhan at the Mamo, MAMO − Marseille Modulor, Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, until 30 September

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