I arrived in Marseille with a bleak view of the city. Staring down the steps of Gare Saint Charles, I saw signs of Dickensian squalor everywhere. Disorder reigned in the hilltop train station but it was immeasurably more structured than the alien chaos outside.
All the negative images from film and fiction seemed to be true. Marseille was an unruly metropolis, full of unemployed café braggarts planning their next crimes. In contrast to wealthy and very French Paris, France's second largest city was a poor port town, looking languidly across the Mediterranean. Immigrants dominated its centre; its buildings were faded and crumbling and there were few, if any, signs of gentrification.
I thought about walking back into that station and catching the next high-speed train to Paris. But I stayed - in part because of anunusual apartment tower.
The Unité d'Habitation is not just any building. It was designed by the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier as a social response to the growth of the industrial city. His innovative theories on urban housing date back to the 19th century, when crowded European cities were plagued by poverty and urban upheaval.
To create a sense of community, Le Corbusier builta self-contained environment with 337 apartments, a supermarket, bakery, gym, hotel and nursery.
Construction began in 1945 with a nod from the Ministry of Reconstruction and ended in 1952 to combat a shortage of affordable housing made worse by France's postwar boom. In keeping with Marseille's image as a populist city, the Unité was made of raw cement, a style that later became known asBrutalist.
More than half a century later, in the wake of the recent social unrest in France, the Unité is under verbal and written attack. Several critics have argued that it is the prototype for the HLM, the poorly conceived housing projects where much of the rioting took place, and called its signature concrete cheap and unfitting for the masses. Writing for Bloomberg, Colin Amery (who I later learned is director of the World Monuments Fund in Britain) called Le Corbusier an evil genius whose isolated buildings "helped to keep theproletariat at a distance".In the Toledo Blade news-paper, the architect was wrongly characterised as a Stalinist. "We are victims of our architecture," a French social scientist informed The Washington Post.
It is hard not to take all of this personally because during my time in Marseille - before I started work at a hedge fund in New York - the Unité was my home.
Living there has taught me that there is no causal link between cement and revolution. I am not sure how the grey material hasmanaged to unleash such unbridled passions. I ampersonally in favour of cement. It is raw and exposed, unpretentious.
As for the interior, the Unité feels more humane than brutal. From the outside it looks like a living machine; come a littlecloser and it feels like poetry in motion.
In truth, France's social problems have as much to do with its architecture as the Los Angeles riots had to do with its residents' homes or, for that matter, the war in Iraq has to do with the masonry of Mesopotamia. To blame Le Corbusier is to commit a reductionist error. As it turned out, Marseille - with an unemployment rate considerably higher than the national average - was largely untouched by the riots.
Le Corbusier built four other similar towers in Nantes-Rézé, Briey-en-Forêt, Firminy and Berlin. The Unité is arguably the most successful and many architects consider it one of the 20th century's most iconic monuments.
Today's residents are a mix of well-to-do families, bourgeois bohèmes and professionals. They pay a monthly maintenance fee that can be as high as €300. The building is located in the posh 8ème district, and there is often a waiting list to find space there.
Amery, who acknowledged to me in an e-mail exchange that he'd never stayed in the Unité, notes that Le Corbusier's "sterile buildings were cheap to build". This is not entirely true. There were at least a few cost overruns due to his obsessive attention to every detail, from the circular air ventilation ducts to the sun-drenched loggias, many of which overlookthe sea.
As for the glib charge that the Unité is devoid of human contact, I often resorted to taking the third-floor emergency exit when I lived there to avoid the throngs of well- wishers and tourists who would stop to talk to me in its corridors and elevators.
If this sounds like anidyllic vision, it is not far from it. My first impressions of the building are still very much with me. I remember stepping out of the cab with my suitcase and walkingup to one of the 30 triangular pillars, each eight metres tall. They looked like the fructifying blossoms of nature itself. I wanted to pluck them one by one and put them in my pocket.
As I marvelled at the structural virtuosity of the pillars, my head swirled - an inverted vertigo in my mind. There was a breeze, a slight rustle from the surrounding trees. My knees buckled, not so much at the power of nature, but at the power of man's experimental art. Then the Mistral, the savage wind of France's south, whipped into a frenzy. I picked up my suitcase and walked towards the electric glass doors that lead to the lobby. It is lit by ambient lamps located deep in the ground. I felt as if I were stepping into a dated version of the future, into another space-time that somehow felt unusually familiar.
For the next three years, I was in one of the most inspired and warm spaces I've ever known. I was bound to my neighbours, to the surrounding environment, to much-maligned Marseille. Now, I track the undulations of the stock market amid the steel-and-glass towers of mid- town Manhattan. But I am certain that one day I will return to Marseille to beginwork on another book inside the Unité.
Viken Berberian is the author of 'The Cyclist', a novel set in the war-torn Middle East