Museums and modernism in Marseille

Villa Mediterranean
Marseille: Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations (left) and Villa Mediterranean. Photo by Charles Pickett, 2013.

I’ve been holidaying in Europe recently; mainly Italy and Greece, but we also managed a day in Marseille.

France’s oldest and second-largest city is European City of Culture for 2013 so there is even more to see than usual. Focusing on Marseille as a cultural address is partly an attempt to stop the city being bracketed with the likes of Naples and Chicago: capitals of crime, corruption, poverty and drug gangs. There’s reality behind the negative image but it also reflects the long-standing rivalry between Paris and Marseille and resulting urban caricatures.

The recent upswing in Marseille’s reputation originated in part from the completion in 2001 of the TGV high-speed rail line to the capital and the 1998 World Cup, two events which brought Paris and Marseilles closer both physically and emotionally. It also helps that Marseille is both the most diverse and most socially integrated city in France.

For much of its life Marseille was the gateway to France’s African empire and by the mid-1800s was a wealthy city as evidenced by the grand avenues leading away from the Old Port, as least as impressive as those of Paris. The Port is also the centre of tourism and many of the cultural addresses including the new Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations (Mucem). The museum is the new home for the collections of the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, which you may have visited in Paris, so its focus is on culture in the broad sense, the collective creativity of the societies surrounding the Mediterranean.

Musem
Courtyard, Mucem. Photo by Charles Pickett, 2013.

However the star of the new museum is the building itself, designed by Italian architect Rudy Ricciotti. Accessed by a pedestrian bridge from the restored 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, it is enclosed within a cube of cast concrete latticework over a glass inner skin, creating a fine filtered light within the exhibition spaces. They also enclose a beguiling roof top entry courtyard. Inside, the exhibitions comprise a long-term gallery of Mediterranean cultures as well as two temporary exhibition galleries, plus theatres etc. When we visited the museum had only been open for a fortnight and the Marseillais were out in numbers – whether the new institution continues to thrive I think will depend in part on the ability of its curators, designers and others to create appropriate focal points for a rich but wildly diverse collection, and perhaps to transcend the current heavily themed and curated exhibitions.

mucem
Gallery of Mediterranean cultures, Mucem. Photo by Charles Pickett, 2013.

Mucem might take some inspiration from the neighbouring Villa Mediterranean, an unnecessarily indulgent building housing very basic exhibition spaces and exhibitions. These feature video art installations engaging with all manner of Mediterranean matters from tourism to trade. Satirical and unstructured, this gallery was an unexpected pleasure.

Marseille
Villa Mediterranean. Photo by Charles Pickett, 2013.

Before venturing downtown to the museums we spent the morning at an old favourite, Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation out in the suburbs. Since I visited two years ago the restoration of the rooftop has been completed, and the rooftop gymnasium now features a café, bookshop and exhibition space, suggesting that the Unite is finally recognised as the visitor attraction it has been for some time. The gymnasium has been sold to Marseillaise designer Ito Moribito, who has renamed the space MAMO (Marseille Modulor) and is now showing the first of a series of site-specific exhibitions and installations.

Unite
Unite d’Habitation, 2013. Photo by Charles Pickett.

As Le Corbusier stated at the Unite’s launch in 1952: ‘The 17th and last floor contains a kindergarten and a nursery, from where a ramp leads to a roofgarden and a small swimming pool for children. Besides the garden and the terrace, the roof contains a gymnasium, an open space for gymnastics, a 300 m sprinters’ track and a sola­rium with a snackbar’. The restoration has returned the rooftop to its original uses.

The Unite d’Habitation was innovative in several ways- the interlocking section apartments, the controlled use of natural light through the building, the modern kitchens by Charlotte Perriand, the beautifully detailed entry foyer, the shop, office and restaurant floor –  but the roof is the abiding pleasure of the place for the visitor. Although primarily concrete, it is my favourite park and its appeal, at once visual, sculptural and comfortable, is heightened its juxtaposition with the more generic park in which the Unite is situated. (Of course there will always be those determined to dislike it or its creator).

Gaudi’s Barcelona rooftops are as beautiful but not as serene and calming. The Unite’s design was partly inspired by the ocean liners of the 1930s and the maritime-inspired sculpture of the ventilators adds to the sense of remove from the nearby buildings on the Boulevard Michelet:  it’s wonderful to be sailing across the roofs of Marseille.

Unite
Unite d’Habitation, 2013. Photo by Toby Pickett.

Charles Pickett, curator

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