Even the strongest constitution can find traipsing between stands and drinking into the small hours a bit much after a while. So how about playing hooky for an afternoon? Naomi Stungo suggests some great buildings to visit nearby
For a century and a half, artists have been drawn to the hospitable climate and clear sunlight of the south of France. Van Gogh summered in Provence, painting some of his most famous canvases while seeking treatment in the asylum at St-Rémy-de-Provence. The Côte d’Azur was home to many of the 20th century’s greats: Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and so on. The result is that pretty much all the area’s big towns have fantastic art galleries.
By far and away the most architecturally striking is the Fondation Maeght at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, inland from Nice. Designed by the Spanish-born American architect José Luis Sert, and opened in 1964, the gallery is as much a work of art as the collection of contemporary classics it houses. Sert studied under Le Corbusier in Paris before returning to Barcelona in the 1930s. With its clean white lines and dramatic roof scoops, the building’s debt to Le Corbusier is clear. Yet it has great integrity too, taking visitors on a wonderful architectural and artistic promenade. Set in a wood, the grounds and gallery contain artworks by everyone from Giacometti to Chagall, Bonnard and Braque.
In March, Fondation Maeght is open every day from 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-6pm. Tel 04 93 32 81 63.
LE PETIT CABANON
In 1952 Le Corbusier built a summerhouse at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin as a present for his wife Yvonne. Although he designed homes across the world for others, this is the only house he ever built for himself. Le Petit Cabanon is exactly that: a tiny log cabin just 12 x 12ft in plan. This was no sleek piece of modern design. On the contrary, with its rough cladding of half-sawn logs, it was as rustic as you can get. Inside, the house is basic but ingeniously planned. A table and chairs, two beds, a bathroom and cupboards are shoehorned into the space while still leaving room to move around. Le Corbusier spent his summers here, working in a studio he constructed next door, until he drowned swimming off nearby rocks in 1965. His self-designed grave is in the local cemetery.
Le Petit Cabanon is open on Tuesday and Friday mornings by arrangement with Roquebrune tourist office, 04 93 35 62 87.
ABBAYE DU THORONET
This is the place to visit when you really need some peace and quiet. Religious contemplation in the region goes back many centuries, and the 12th-century Abbaye du Thoronet, inland and west of Cannes, is the oldest of Provence’s three surviving Cistercian monasteries. In keeping with the Cistercian ideal of solitude and hard labour, it’s remote, set deep in the Daboussière forest.
Cistercian monasteries deliberately avoid displays of wealth such as gilt decoration, marble, ornamental columns and naves soaring towards heaven – trappings the Cistercians viewed as indicative of the moral decline of other religious orders. The power of buildings like the Abbaye du Thoronet comes from their monumental simplicity – which is why modern architects like Le Corbusier and contemporary minimalist John Pawson are so keen on them.
You need a car to get here – it’s off the D79 south of Cotignac. In March visit from 10am-1pm (noon Sundays) and 2-5pm daily. Tel 04 94 60 43 90.
Further afield from Cannes but definitely worth a visit is Marseilles, the rough diamond of the south coast. The real architectural draw – apart from the quirky charms of the bustling city itself – is Le Corbusier’s experiment in social housing, the 1952 Unité d’habitation.
This 17-storey ocean liner of a housing block raised up on stilts was the prototype for thousands of apartment blocks the world over. Unlike these later blocks, frequently condemned for their inhuman living standards, human scale was at the heart of Corbusier’s design. At ground-floor level you can still see his famous Modulor – the man-sized figure used as a unit of measurement throughout. With 23 apartment layouts, the Unité was intended to allow for different types of living arrangements. Communal activities were also catered for with a roof-top kindergarten and laundry drying space and a gym. Today the roof-top sculpture park is off limits but you can stay in a hotel created out of several apartments on the eighth floor.
Also worth a visit is Marseilles’ contemporary architectural statement – the regional government headquarters for the Bouches-du-RHône district, designed by Will Alsop (and then partners John Lyall and Jan Störmer) in 1995 and universally known as the “big blue” on account of its size and colour.
L’Unité d’Habitation is at 280 bd Michelet in Marseilles. Guided tours of an apartment can be arranged through Hôtel Le Corbusier – call 04 91 16 78 00 or see www.hotellecorbusier.com