Marseille is the second largest city in France and one of the poorest, an international metropolis enfolding many different immigrant groups, grungy and renewing and finding its footing culturally. I arrived at night and walked to my (first) hostel down a busy thoroughfare on narrow sidewalks. My impression was one of grittiness and speed. Later as I wandered the city in the daylight I liked it better although, unlike the other European cities I’ve visited thus far, its best buildings by far were the newest and its historical areas were (less than charmingly) rundown and dilapidated.
This city is at its best in white, modern apartment blocks, both near the city center and further out in the sprawling districts. The historic area is has a small business center, a healthy tourist business area with shopping and restaurants and a lot of immigrant neighborhoods. I scaled the heights into Le Pannier, one of the oldest neighborhoods and a traditional immigrant entry point. It actually felt more like a village than city, with smaller buildings only three and four stories and centered on the Ville Charite, a former charity hostel for the poor, now a cultural arts center and home to several museums. The area between there and the port seems to be gentrifying into an arts community with tile mosaic on the walls and painting and pottery studios lining the streets.
The harbor cathedral was stunning from the exterior. Much to my regret the interior was closed (major renovations seemed to be taking place around it) because it seemed in intriguing mix of cultures, minaret-like towers surrounded the lesser domes and the tile work and other iconography seemed to reference both African Muslim and Jewish symbols.
After I stopped for lunch along the harbor (managing a passable interaction in kindergarten level french to ask for a vegetarian panini with tomatoes and goat cheese) and picking up a handful of satumas from a fruit vendor (I can’t get enough of the cheap fruit here and if one is what one eats I may shortly begin to turn round and orange) I paused in a cheerful if windswept plaza to contemplate an interestingly rare site: a wooden structured building in this city of stone and plaster. At first I thought it was constructed of large glue-laminated struts over frosted glass but on closer inspection they turned out to be mere plywood boxes (probably over steel) supporting a structure enclosed with multi-layered plastic. I’d actually already realized the building must be temporary before I approached it because one of its entry ramps passed right over (and was clipped back around) one of the benches that scattered the plaza. After I finished eating I went to look inside and found that it was the “M” Pavilion – a temporary gateway to the regions cultural events and possibilities. I’d meant to stroll through but my attention was caught by a really stunning video of a modernist local ballet production of Snow White which glued me to my bench seat for nearly an hour.
I ended the day with a pilgrimage to an architectural hot-spot, the Unite d”Habitation (aka ‘la mason du fada or house of the foolish) by modernist starchitect Le Corbusier. I rode the metro out to its furthest stop and then walked several blocks more through an area of large mid-rise apartment blocks and car dealerships to approach it. The building is unprepossessing from the road – a slightly broken grid of primary colored boxes interrupting a grey concrete facade and lifted off the ground by two stories of angled concrete pillars. From the south, in sunset light, its window wells were more charming. I walked all around evaluating and snapping and then followed a resident into the lobby hoping to sneak further in. I thought I was getting away with something when the elevator opened and took me to the 8th floor, still more when I followed a stairwell up to the roof access and found it unlocked, but apparently they keep it open all time. Perhaps the only people who’d be interested enough to go up and investigate are harmless architecture nerds like myself.
Corbusier intended the building to be all encompassing – a village in a box and it contains a shopping street, a church, a school, a library, and, of course, many apartments (some on one level and some stretching across two). I don’t believe one CAN manufacture a community so I can’t give it a real stamp of approval – I don’t think I’d want to live there myself, but it is certainly an interesting attempt. I wandered down the stairwell peeking into each corridor and I was really much impressed by the business level which was light-filled and lovely, combining wood, concrete, glass and paint in energetic clean lines. The rooftop area was lovely – a high parapet left it feeling both private and protected and the chapel, tiny garden boxes and kiddie pool were exuberant designs in tile and concrete. The view of the city and surroundings was similarly impressive. On the other hand, the housing corridors were grimly dark (a higher wattage would kill the management) and had no access to daylight which seemed a ridiculously rookie mistake. The ground under and around the building was un-lovely grass and gravel. Again, a garden would be impossible to manage? In all, it was well worth the metro fare to visit. I wish I could have gotten inside an apartment. I think it must have been truly stunning in its early days but I wonder how well it will hold up over the years, especially when compared with the much older buildings in the city center.