A Surge in Cultural Capital Is Remaking France’s Oldest City

Marseille, France’s oldest city – and one of its poorest – uses its year in the spotlight to reinvent itself.

MuCEM, with a slender footbridge connecting the seventeenth-century Fort Saint Jean to Rudy Ricciotti’s dazzling new extension, is an exciting symbol of Marseille’s cultural initiatives.

Courtesy Lisa Ricciotti

The man kicking our minivan and yelling threats through the firmly closed windows resembles the French film star Romain Duris. His lantern jaw is smudged by dark whiskers, and a pugnacious sneer contorts his street-tough features. You can’t blame him, entirely. It’s a June rush hour in Marseille, where my fellow journalists and I have just arrived, and to escape the traffic jam along the Vieux Port (the city’s original harbor, now a forest of pleasure-craft masts), our driver has swung a quick illegal U-turn, nearly knocking the man off his bicycle. Even so, the violent rant continues far longer than most such confrontations, and I realize I’m not surprised. France’s oldest and second largest city, and one of its poorest, Marseille has long had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble backwater, known for its French Connection heroin trade, gang violence, and street crime.

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It’s partly justified. According to an article in the UK’s the Independent last September, the city has a huge divide in life expectancy: The risk of dying before age 65 is 23 percent below the national average in its affluent areas—and 30 percent higher in the impoverished northern districts. Yet these statistics belie a metropolis in transformation. Since the Euroméditerranée urban renewal project—the largest in southern Europe—began in the mid-1990s, Marseille’s long-dormant waterfront has become the centerpiece of a thriving new business district. The arrival of the high-speed TGV in 2001 cut rail time from Paris from four and a half to three hours, and 17 trains now arrive daily; this year, XL Airways introduced twice-weekly nonstop flights from New York City during the May-through-October high season, making Marseille the natural entry point for the surrounding Provence region. And as this year’s European Capital of Culture, the physically graceful city—with its expansive bay and high hills, reminiscent of San Francisco—is hosting an expected eight million visitors and hundreds of events, many in new, architecturally distinguished venues. How did Marseille go from the French Connection to this?

The story begins in the early 1990s, when the city’s situation was similar to that of once-great maritime capitals the world over. In the nineteenth century, with thriving French colonies in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, Marseille’s proximity to North Africa made it an ideal link to all of Europe. With the original port confined within the city and unable to expand, a new commercial harbor was built in the mid-1800s just to the north and west, along the open waters of the Bay of Marseille, ushering in the city’s golden age. But the end of the colonial period in the 1960s, persistent dock-workers’ strikes, and the relocation of most port activities to Fos-sur-Mer, some 30 miles to the north, put an end to the glory days. By the 1970s, “Marseille was dirty, gray, and dangerous,” according to our guide, Mika Biermann, a German who came to the city three decades ago to study art and never left. “As a student, I could rent a 200-square-meter flat on the best street in the city because no one wanted to live there.”

Inspired by Barcelona’s transformation surrounding the 1992 Olympics, Marseille decided to convert the harbor zone and its environs into a modern city center, with updated community services and infrastructure, new housing, and recreational activities. Supported by a coalition of regional, national, and continental partners, the initial Euroméditerranée development push—encompassing a roughly 200-hectare triangle from Arenc to the north (everyone uses Zaha Hadid’s CMA CGM corporate headquarters as a reference point), the J4 waterfront esplanade to the south (where the nineteenth-century harbor and Vieux Port meet), and the Saint-Charles TGV station to the east—was ambitious and comprehensive. “The program demolished the barriers between the harbor and the city, offered tourists an attractive new waterfront, and started developing a new business district around the TGV together with new dwellings,” says François Jalinot, the current head of the Euroméditerranée project. Les Docks, an enormous complex of maritime structures housing a mélange of companies, and Le Silo, a musical venue imaginatively carved from a former grain storage facility, led the adaptive-reuse parade.  “It’s been so successful that we extended the project in 2007, and we are starting development of another 200 hectares,” Jalinot says.

Yet if the city was taking its cue from Barcelona, it also looked toward Bilbao. Jalinot recalls, “The Euroméditerranée board decided we had to develop major cultural equipment, because without it you couldn’t attract very skilled people,” i.e. the world-traveling executive class for whom a city isn’t complete without important arts institutions. There was also the desire to reclaim Marseille’s postwar reputation for good architecture—personified by Le Corbusier’s 1952 Unité d’Habitation in the Cité Radieuse—which had waned during the city’s wilderness years. (In a case of architectural noblesse oblige, the Marseille-born designer Ora-Ito purchased Cité Radieuse’s famous rooftop gym and solarium in 2010, restored the spaces impeccably, and transformed them into an arts center and exhibition venue—MAMO, short for Marseille Modulor—which opened on June 8.)

The cultural capital designation proved pivotal, as it rescued a number of architecturally significant projects that had been back-burnered by the economic travails of the 2000s. Villa Méditerranée, a center for the discussion of regional issues, and the Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM)—which stand side by side on the J4 esplanade—exemplify its game-changing influence.

At the beginning of the 1990s, according to Jean-François Chougnet, the current general manager of Marseille-Provence 2013 (as the cultural capital initiative, which includes the larger region, is called), “the chairman of the [Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur] region decided to build a new conference place called the Centre Européen de la Recherche de Méditerranée,” the original notion for the Villa. “Around the same time, the Minister of Culture had the idea to transfer the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires [ATP] from Paris to Marseille, which was the beginning of the idea to create MuCEM.” The latter was particularly significant, says Jalinot, “because it was going to be the first time a national museum was developed in a regional city.”

The designation of Marseille- Provence (which includes the city and its surrounding environs) as the 2013 European Capital of Culture recognized the hard-won transformation of the city since the 1990s and provided a fresh urban impetus.

Courtesy Thomas Serriere

Competitions were organized, and in 2004, the Milan-based practitioner Stefano Boeri was selected for Villa Méditerranée, and Rudy Ricciotti, an Algerian-born French architect, received the nod for MuCEM. Then everything stopped. “There were many hesitations from the government and the regions to gather the necessary money,” says Marseille-Provence 2013’s first general manager, Bernard Latarjet. “They felt it was a good investment, but investments in other parts of the country were more urgent.”
Marseille’s selection as the 2013 European Capital of Culture, in 2008, provided the great unblocking. Though there were many reasons for the city’s victory over Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lyon, Toulouse, and several others, everyone cites the urban spadework already performed by Euroméditerranée, and the desire by the EU to recognize the strides the city had made, as the first winning factor. The second reason was what Latarjet calls “the Mediterranean dimension of the project”: the wish to build bridges to North Africa and the Middle East, and the understanding that Marseille, France’s most multicultural city—where, Latarjet observes, “52 cultural communities represent more than 50 percent of the population”—was the best place from which to do it.

Jalinot points out that hosting major international events “accelerates funding and development decisions,” and so it was in this case. “If Marseille didn’t win the competition, MuCEM and Villa Méditerranée, these important buildings on the waterfront, would never have been built,” Latarjet asserts. “Once we were selected, the national and regional governments were obliged to do it.”

Obligations begat obligations, notably the Musée Regards de Provence, a private collection of Provençal artworks from the nineteenth century through the present, exhibited in a former sanitary station (used for processing and disinfecting immigrants) directly across the boulevard from the J4 esplanade. The 1948 building, designed by the Marseillais architect Fernand Pouillon, had long been derelict and—despite its listing as an historically significant structure—was being used as a squat. When MuCEM and Villa Méditerranée got the go-ahead, the museum’s communications and development director, Adeline Granerau, drolly observed, “They couldn’t have this abandoned place so close to all the beautiful new projects,” and so a tenant was found and the building restored.

All in all, 15 projects, including new construction and renovations of existing buildings, were created for 2013—“the Group of 15,” Chougnet jokingly calls it—in Marseille and around the region. The buildings I visited were of uniformly high quality, beginning with Regards de Provence, which I admired as much for Pouillon’s modernist openness, elegance of detail, and use of natural light, as for restoration architect Guy Daher’s preservation and reintegration of many original decorative, structural, and even functional elements (the old steamers and machine room serve as a permanent exhibit).

For sheer delight, Kengo Kuma’s Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain (FRAC), squeezed onto a narrow triangular lot in the La Joliette district, proved hard to beat. Less a museum than what FRAC director Pascal Neveux calls a laboratoire, with exhibition spaces, a library, artist-in-residence studios, and a café, the building’s elevations are animated by some 1,600 translucent glass panels, variously angled to draw in light and reflect it onto the neighborhood. FRAC’s major pleasures, however, lie within: despite the utilitarian, stripped-bare aesthetic, the spaces feel welcoming, even sumptuous, in part due to their grand scale, but also because the inward-facing facade is expansively glazed and seems to embrace its everyday surroundings (which include much hanging laundry). Indeed, the amount of space that’s been given over to pleasure—two terraces and a water feature shared with a close-at-hand apartment house—suggest that, in Kuma’s view, the cultivation of both art and l’art de vivre needn’t be mutually exclusive.

A venue for dialogue between Europe and the larger Mediterranean region, the Villa Méditerranée’s dramatic cantilevered building, designed by Stefano Boeri, opened to the public last June.

Courtesy Paul Ladouce

As for the J4 heavy hitters, each went for the grand gesture. Villa Méditerranée is distinguished by a cantilevered exhibition and event space—at 118 feet, one of the longest cantilever in the world—suspended 62 feet above a comparably sized water-filled forecourt. The building is no less striking functionally: In addition to a three-story entry atrium, and office and meeting rooms on the upper floors, Villa Méditerranée incorporates an oak-lined, cylindrical meeting hall that spans two floors below sea level. Given its function as a venue for significant regional dialogues, the building seems deliberately iconic, an architectural expression of the importance of its mission.


MuCEM, too, has a hands-across-the-water agenda, but of a different sort. When we met on the building’s roof deck, the day before its June 7 opening, the museum’s director, Bruno Suzzarelli, explained that, rather than mounting exhibitions of art, “Our project is to study contemporary relationships between different societies, to look at the history of the Mediterranean to inform an understanding of the present,” the pressing, often volatile issues impacting upon the region. Essential to this, Suzzarelli stressed, are the avoidance of Franco-centrism and the need to see events from pan-regional points of view.

Appropriately, MuCEM is divided into two structures. The so-called J4 building, next door to Villa Méditerranée, forms the museum’s heart, containing the permanent collection and temporary exhibition galleries. Executed almost entirely in high-strength concrete, the structure’s signature element is a densely patterned concrete screen that completely covers two elevations and calls to mind the latticework mashrabiya window enclosures found throughout the southern Mediterranean. The other building, housing MuCEM’s historic collections, is the seventeenth-century Fort Saint Jean, built on a high reinforced bluff and separated from the new building by a narrow channel of water. Connecting the two structures (which total 40,000 square meters) is a slender, delicateseeming footbridge. “We are very much in favor of this bridge,” Suzzarelli said, sounding pleased. “It symbolizes the outstretched hand from France to the rest of the Mediterranean.” Indeed, when I returned the following day for the opening, the place was packed, with visitors traversing the footbridge, and circulating around the fort’s gardens, courts, and the catwalks hung between the walls and exhibition spaces—an open exchange entirely in keeping with MuCEM’s mission.

When I ask Latarjet what will happen on January 1, 2014, he laughs and cries, “Good question!” Yet all agree that, thanks to Marseille-Provence 2013’s undeniable success, a corner has been turned. “There is a lot of work to be done to transform Marseille’s image,” Jalinot observes. “But this event has shown the world a very different city than there used to be.” And, too, great possibility: If its link to the lands beyond France’s shores made Marseille’s first fortune, it may well do so—in a still-transforming multicultural, postcolonial world—once again. There may yet be truth to the quote, from the nineteenth-century French statesman Michel Chevalier, emblazoned on one of MuCEM’s gallery walls: ‘The Mediterranean will become the wedding-bed of the east and west.”

1,600 panels of glass form Kengo Kuma’s facade for the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain (FRAC), which was conceived more as a laboratory for art than a museum.

Courtesy Erieta Attali

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