A Walk in Marseille: Will a Once-Rough City's Cultural Makeover Take?

A Walk in Marseille: Will a Once-Rough City's Cultural Makeover Take?
Marseille Vieux Port / Photo: Claudio Vandi
(Photo: Claudio Vandi)

Creeping through traffic on Marseille’s revamped shopping mile, the Rue de la Republique, I ask the driver if the economic drivers of France’s second most populous city have changed in recent years. “Shipping and drugs,” she responds, echoing the long held stereotype, qualifying thereafter that she actually lives in Aix en Provence, some 30 kilometers to the north.

It’s a rap that the city is having a hard time beating. In early September, the shooting death of the Olimpique de Marseille football club president’s son along with another man in a single night reignited a call to clean up France’s so-called crime capital, begun after a onslaught of deaths last fall. However, despite the spooky rhetoric, deadly crime remains relatively isolated to gang and drug-related violence and the overall murder rate about equal to that of New York City, if around five times higher than most major Central and Western European cities.

Most readily, Marseille suffers from a (self) image problem: a difficulty to reckon with — both internally and from the perspective of the rest of France — its cultural and racial melting pot brought on by the still semi-taboo Algerian war and centuries of trade throughout the Mediterranean and further afield. It leads to a lack of word of mouth promotion of Marseille’s upsides and a constant funnel of tourist dollars to the more classical French Riviera experience to its east.

But, that’s changing. Thanks to European Cultural Capital initiative, Marseille-Provence 2013, which will dump a projected €98,000,000 into the city by the end of the year, its cultural scene leads the charge for Marseille to be the thinking-person’s destination on the Med.

Most splashy among these additions is the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM), a new Rudy Ricciotti-designed structure located between the Vieux Port’s picturesque tourist hub (it also received a facelift thanks to Marseille 2013) and the long swath of shipping and cruise terminals to its west. Directly integrated into the former citadel via a sleek metal footbridge, the museum’s glass box façade is obscured by an outer layer of near-black metal that forms what almost looks like an organic vine structure. It shades the galleries and the outdoor walkways that connect the museum’s various floors. From the street, the building stands as a piece of statement architecture, one which some voiced they hoped could transform the city center’s self image in the same way as Jürgen Mayer H’s Metrapol Parasol has done for Seville.

As for the interior, a debate rages among critics as to whether the architecture undermines exhibition possibilities. The glass walls necessitate exhibition walls within the rooms that divert one through the museum in a snaking fashion. It’s in the content of those walls, however, that Marseille’s future aspirations and past reconciliations can be read. Like the museum’s name suggests, the history rewritten here merges French Marseille with its Mediterranean roots, the enduring quip of it being Algeria’s northern-most city.

What may sound like an obvious identity for the Marseillais has been previously shunned to a large extent due to the city’s economic difficulties during and after the fight for Algerian independence and the endemic guilty conscience fostered by some of that war’s practices, the numerous forced migrants left behind with little to support them, and the crime that comes with poverty. But, like its fellow Mediterranean ports Genoa, Naples, and Palermo, recent problems are being pushed out of their base identity in exchange for a focus on a golden era of trade and culture, a prophesy much more of the self-fulfilling variety than rooted in denial.

Marseille's changing face isn’t just behind a single façade however. A few minutes walk away, at the newly inaugurated FRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, a similarly architecturally impressive building, drops the MUCEM’s identity politics in exchange for contemporary art. On view at the time of my visit was their second exhibition, a solo by Yazid Oulab. In several floor sculptures, Oulad piles polished steel nails on top of one another, an allegory for the basic building blocks of society. For a more understated series of works on paper, he places graphite in an electric drill instead of its bit, running it in circular tracks along the paper sheets. The resulting tangled confluence of dotted lines look like archetypal designs, equally primal and technological in their aim. 

Another three kilometers or so inland, the Friche la Belle de Mai has turned a former tobacco plant into a thriving arts center. Though the initial swap from cigarettes to culture took place in 1992, it’s only in the last few years that the buildings have properly bloomed. Home to the annual Art-O-Rama fair, which runs for two weeks at the end of summer, the complex also houses two exhibition spaces, and a rooftop that floods with youth and the hipster Marseillais each weekend for drinks, DJs, and merguez sausages.

In the complex’s current highlight, “The Butcher,” Atelier Van Lieshout has imagined a hyper-rational city that is simultaneously utopian and dystopian. In it, two million “slaves” live in only 60 square kilometers and work in mainly service industry jobs to produce an estimated €7.8 billion in profits per year. The hyper-rationality follows through to ecology as well; the city is entirely self-sustaining. And, amidst its brothels, “for good slaves,” and luxury brothels, “for really good slaves,” a monstrous museum modeled after a human digestive track provides food for thought as well. The whole thing, according to van Lieshout, intends to create a dialogue regarding where on the spectrum of ultimate freedom to profitability and sustainability we wish to fall.

Among these gems and older ones — Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, has recently had its rooftop gym transformed into a gallery with Xavier Veilhan opening the space and is a definitive must-do if in town — there are cracks in the new lacquer. Even some museums haven’t quite received equal love, falling prey to the propensity of festival initiatives such as Marseille-Provence 2013 to focus on new construction rather than improving current infrastructure. The city’s Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC) has a fantastic survey show of 145 artists from international stars like Douglas Gordon, Francis Alÿs, Mona Hatoum, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, William Kentridge (and a kind of oddly thrown-in Basquiat) to relatively unknown finds such as female Iranian video artist Ghazel. However, the facility’s relatively low ceilings and rigid layout could have used some love to pass muster if placed next to the MUCEM and FRAC. 

Institutions aside, habits such as the population’s love for the automobile despite the city center’s fairly walkable scale, a recently revamped public transport system, and constant lack of parking leave a lack of street life aside from the most touristy areas directly surrounding the Vieux Port. It’s a point-a-to-point-b kind of place, not one in which to find your next café or bar by stroll and one in which you might spend triple the time driving to that next spot as you might have walking the kilometer or two.

Whether Marseille-Provence 2013 will be looked back on in ten years as the rebirth of a vibrant Mediterranean capital or a valiant effort that didn’t quite pan out remains to be seen. At this point, the former looks to be more the case, led by a new generation: gallerists like Arnaud Deschin, market invigorators like Art-O-Rama’s Jérôme Pantalacci, and an increasing number of young artists, some of whom were camped out for the summer for an exhibition in the seaside cabin of Paris-based organization, Jeune Création’s president, Jérémy Chabaud. Euros from the port may still fund several of the city’s more prominent private collections, but it’s cultural, not container-held, capital set to make Marseille France’s second city for more than just headcount.

See images of the museums and exhibitions mentioned in this article in the slideshow.