An interview with Jonathan Meades

My France

My France - Credit: Archant

The journalist, film-maker and architecture expert tells Carolyn Boyd of his long links with France and how it feels to live in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille

When did you first fall in love with France?

My grandfather worked for Southern Railway Company, which ran the ferries from Southampton to Saint-Malo and Le Havre, and we got preferential fares. It was very unusual in the 1950s for a lower-middle-class family to go to France for a week, but we did it quite often.

You’ve lived in France for eight years, how do you like it?

We lived for four years in the countryside north of Bordeaux where we found a wonderful converted mill, but we found it difficult being car-dependant all the time. The demographic of a French village is different from an English one. They work in the local industries; in this case agriculture, silver culture and quarrying. There are only so many conversations about combine harvesters that one can have. We moved to Marseille, which is more like it.

I believe you live in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse.

Yes we do. There are only two flats of this size and it is very big... almost 2,500 sq ft. There’s only one other apartment [out of 330] this size. It’s a building that I have been preoccupied with since I first saw it in the 1980s.

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Is it how Le Corbusier intended?

No it isn’t. It was intended as a social housing for the working class. However, the workers didn’t want to live in the apartment block, they wanted small houses with gardens, so it’s always been predominantly occupied by functionaries, teachers, academics, doctors... it’s essentially a very middle-class society here.

Which other buildings by Le Corbusier do you admire?

I particularly admire the architecture in Chandigarh in India as well as the Maisons Jaoul in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, the priory of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette near Lyon and the church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy. The first Corbusier building that I saw was Notre-Dame de Haut in Ronchamp, when I was 15.

Do you admire the new architecture in France?

France is tarnished by these awful pavillons, which crop up in fields everywhere, as local mayors have extraordinary powers and can decree change of use to a particular site quite easily. The reason is that the greater the number of people they can fit into their commune the better their stipend.

How has French cuisine changed since you were The Times’ restaurant critic?

French cuisine has not got better or worse, but other countries have got a lot better. French cuisine went downhill a little as they fell in love with nouvelle cuisine. They misinterpreted Paul Bocuse’s concept, which was to simplify French cooking, and got fixated on creating fiddly portions of everything. One thing I have observed is that a lot of French people are not great cooks and they have traiteurs everywhere.

Which Marseille restaurants would you recommend?

We go to Chez Vincent, which is run by an ancient and delightful lady called Rose. A place that we go to

a lot is Chez Étienne, which is a fantastic pizza restaurant. Marseille pizza wipes the floor with that of Naples;

it has a much thinner crust akin to a tarte fine and is much more pastry-like.

Is there anywhere else in France that you like to visit?

We go to Aix, Nîmes and the Camargue, and we used to visit Rodez a lot. The countryside north of the town is some of the most spectacular I have seen. We don’t go to the Côte d’Azur; the south-east isn’t really my taste. I like places that you can visit by yourself and not ones which have been presented to you on a plate.

Will you ever return to the UK?

It’s very nice to not have the British winters, but I think I will end up coming back at some point.

Jonathan Meades’s memoir An Encyclopedia of Myself is out now in paperback (Fourth Estate, £9.99).