Mediterranean metropolis makeover
How to create a new identity out of history, setbacks and some Parisian glamour

Extensive urban projects as the Euroméditerranée show that the city of Marseille is working hard to become the capital of the Mediterranean region and to find its own identity. Until 2013, when Marseille will be European Capital of Culture, this process should be finished for the most part and put the metropolis into a whole new light.

Four women, dressed in colorful African robes, wheel a baby carriage across La Canebière and steer towards the Capucines market located in the south of the main station Saint Charles. Here the aroma of juicy oranges, exotic spices and fresh fish is in the air and creates the atmosphere of a Moroccan bazaar. A few blocks away, street musicians play accordion in front of the Lafayette and hope for a small donation. The triumphal arch at La Port d’Aix provides a contrast to the small down-and-out houses behind where washing hangs in front of the windows. All this happens in France’s second largest city: Marseille. Some of these impressions might evoke Paris, some Northern Africa; the simple fact is that both are combined in this Phocean city, creating an exciting clash.

In 2013, this contrasting metropolis will be the European Capital of Culture and present itself to the entire world. The thrilling question is this: Where does Marseille focus on and how does it want to be seen: as a pale imitation of Paris or the “little Africa” of France?

The Euroméditerranée project

The city devised a master plan called Euroméditerranée to answer this question. This urban renewal and development project was launched in 1995 within the Barcelona Process, the starting point of the partnership between the European Union and the countries of the Mediterranean. It commits to renovating a 480-hectare area located between the commercial harbor, the main station and the Old Port. The four main zones are the Joliette-Arenc, the area around the main station St Charles, the so-called Cité de la Méditerranée and the quarter La-Belle-de-Mai.

The zone Joliette-Arenc, situated at the commercial port, will be converted into a new residential area with parks, schools, sport centers and a hospital. “The idea is to give this area back to the population and to meet its demand of a port quarter,” says Anita Leroux, urban architect of the Euroméditerranée project.

Since 2000, surveys among inhabitants have been carried out and indicated that there is a strong need for meeting places and cultural activities around Marseille’s seaside. The city reacts and invests 3.7 million in the construction of a dance center located in the heart of the emerging quarter. Named Le centre de Danse en Résidence Kelemenis, under the direction of the choreographer Michel Kelemenis, it is meant as a place of creation, dialogue and exchange with different artistic groups as well as with the public.

The fort Saint-Jean where the MuCEM will be located.

The museum of the 21st century

Near the Old Port, the Cité de la Méditerranée, with Marseille’s new landmark, the MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, will open its doors in 2013. This 21st century museum will be located on three sites within Marseille: on Pier J4, in the fort Saint-Jean and at La-Belle-de-Mai.

On pier J4, the former landing site for travelers coming from Algeria or the Eastern Mediterranean, the main building of the museum will be located and show the visitors the history and lifestyle of Mediterranean civilizations. At this place, where at the moment but a concrete fundament and steel scaffoldings can be seen, a cube building with a transparent façade and supporting pillars in the form of tree branches will be visible within 2 years. Then the fine granulate which the architect Rudy Ricciotti uses for the façade will seem to flow down the building like a waterfall and its silver shining color will add some modern glamour to the Byzantine “Cathédrale de la Major” which stands not far behind it.

In the fort Saint-Jean, which served as a depot for munitions in the WWII, a large park and terrace will allow the visitors to have a spectacular panoramic view over the sea and the city at one glance. Furthermore, exhibitions will be installed in the former caserne buildings and show a varied program of art collections from Paris as well as contemporary and alternative art from different European cities.

“We thought that bringing together a skateboard exhibition from Berlin with a classical collection from Paris just represents perfectly how Marseille can be described – completely heterogeneous,” explains Vanessa Hen, architect and program planner of the MuCEM.

In the quarter La-Belle-de-Mai, located north of the train station, a modern cube-shaped building, the Center of Conservation and resources, will be open in 2012 to store art collections from different cities in France. Additionally a library and an archive will turn this building into a public place of research and scientific interchange.

La Friche – the alternative culture scene of Marseille

Besides these more official plans, there is also an alternative cultural site in the quarter La-Belle-de-Mai. Since 2004, a former tobacco factory with three main buildings is used as a place where Creative Industry and arts of all kind can bloom. Visual artists and photographers, music bands and associations, theatre  and dancing groups, film and radio producers as well as a skateboard scene come together at La Friche, how the population of Marseille names this area.

When you step onto the site you can hear the rolling sound of the skateboarders practicing in the street park and see colourful graffiti on every wall. Much like the colorful graffiti are also the vibrant stacked containers where many of the 70 companies have their offices or ateliers. One of these companies which is located in the tower of the old factory is Art-O-Rama, a small association which organizes an international fair of contemporary art once a year in Marseille.

Colorful containers at "La Friche."

Skateborders at "La Friche" in the quarter La-Belle-de-Mai.



Founded in 2006 and located at La Friche since 2009, Art-O-Rama developed a unique exhibition format which attracts artists, galleries, collectors, art directors and the public equally. For 16 days, 13 international art galleries and four young artists of the Marseille-Provence region show their works at La Cartonnerie, the exhibition hall at the site; the first weekend exclusively to professionals and after that to the general public. “Our fair is intimate and a place of discovery, which offers young artists of the region the possibility to come in contact with international professionals,” says Jérôme Pantalacci, co-director of Art-O-Rama.

The special concept includes that the galleries have to choose one of the four artists who will get the possibility to produce and to present a special project at a solo booth in the next year and to print a monographic catalogue. The whole project is financed by the city, private investors and the state to promote young talents and to support creative activity in Marseille. Therefore also a renovation of the tower building and the construction of a small exhibition hall are planned and will be finished in 2012. All the offices and studios now located in the tower will then move into the former production hall which is under renovation.

The construction of La Cité de la Méditerranée is Marseille’s way to catch up with Paris where the Parc de la Vilette already contains a city of science and industry as well as a city of music. But Lou Colombani, director of the festival organization Komm’n’Act, warns, “The scheme for Paris does not work in Marseille, because it is developed for an intellectual, a bourgeois city which Marseille isn’t at all. Marseille is a Mediterranean, ethnically-mixed and relatively poor city which does not have the same broad intellectual class as Paris. However, it can be described as a cultural city, because numerous small associations, theaters and solo artists live and work here.”

If Marseille follows this recommendation besides the official “glamour” projects and also concentrates on its 2,600 years of history and its cultural diversity, it has a good chance to succeed in finding its own identity and becoming the leading city in the Mediterranean.

About Diana Schlaak

Diana Schlaak is studying Communications and Marketing in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. For the research and travel project she went to Marseille, where she learned that organizing meetings can happen very spontaneously, that German punctuality does not always matter and that the Mediterranean sea air let you take things much more easy. → About us