Out of the shadows

Paris has long held France’s national museums in a tight embrace but the capital has recently made an effort to disseminate culture more widely. There was the clunky but well-stocked Pompidou satellite in Metz designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (2010), then the first Louvre satellite in Lens, which opened last year in an exquisite building by Sanaa, another Japanese practice.

Now comes the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe in the Mediterranean (MuCEM), whose title sounds like something created by a computer algorithm as the perfect magnet for European Union funding. And it succeeded, to the tune of nearly €200m.

This is certainly a museum that looks at home in Marseille, one of this year’s European capitals of culture. Designed by Algerian-born local architect Rudy Ricciotti (designer of the striking Cocteau Museum in nearby Menton), MuCEM is the expensive centrepiece of a massive programme of redevelopment of the waterfront. It exudes a strange, almost sinister, presence, its pierced, slate-grey concrete screen absorbing the brilliant Mediterranean sunlight. The encasing of the glass block in this layer of dark, dense mesh has a burka-like effect, veiling the interior. Its darkness is in stark contrast to the brilliant sparkle of the sea and the honey-hued walls of the Fort St Jean, to which it is linked by a slender black bridge.

The interior, unfortunately, is largely uninformed by the drama of the façade and turns out to be little more than a glass box. The exhibits are, at their best, mesmerising but the subject range is so vast that the museum just becomes exhausting, its flitting randomness a drag.

Relief is offered by a ramp that winds around the building between the glass façade and its concrete veil (which looks disconcertingly clunky close up and is already spalling). This makes a cool, shady walkway with seductive views of the water but the seemingly endless trudge up a shallow gradient begins to pall after a while. The high point, literally, is the rooftop restaurant, where the concrete veil wraps around the edges to create shaded areas in which the sun dapples the tables and you can look out at the city’s extraordinary neo-Byzantine Notre-Dame de la Garde, rising on a hilltop above.

Ricciotti, 60, with his salt-and-pepper floppy hair, mournful eyes, unmade-bed features and tight trousers, embodies the caricature of the media-conscious French intellectual. The building, he says, “expresses the existential question of architecture, which is the difficulty of living”. Of course it does. At the press conference Ricciotti expressed the difficulty of living by flouncing off stage after his microphone stopped working.

The exterior of the museum and Fort St Jean, showing the footbridge

If there’s something insubstantial about the clunky veil and the globalised glassiness of the contents, the work that has been done to open up the neighbouring Fort St Jean, parts of which date from the 12th century, has much more heft. The fort is a maze of spaces, some of which have been colonised by the museum, others left generously empty. The variety is enjoyable, chunky and substantial in contrast to the main MuCEM building’s slippery pseudo-transparency.

Along the waterfront, the museum’s neighbour, the Villa Mediterranée designed by Milanese architect Stefano Boeri, nearly steals the show. A striking cantilever pushes the upper floors towards the water, although to what purpose is never quite clear. This ambitiously titled “International Centre for Dialogue and Discussion in the Mediterranean” is an arresting bit of building and engineering but suffers from shoehorning spaces with ill-defined functions into its self-consciously sculptural form.

Further along the Vieux Port is an enigmatic structure by Foster & Partners. A shiny, stainless steel canopy supported on spindly columns, it looks like an elegant bus shelter hybridised with an anorexic Anish Kapoor piece. With no seats and no real function, this building could, like Boeri’s, have been a pointless city bauble. But it is, in fact, beautiful. The Mediterranean seems to bring something good out in Foster and arguably his most refined work, the Carré d’Art in nearby Nîmes, similarly reacts to its urbane, antique setting with subtle panache.

At the more industrial end of the docks is another work by a British architect, Paris-based Studio Andrew Todd (together with local architect Roland Carta, who also worked on MuCEM). Le Silo is a 1927 art deco grain silo, revivified as a concert venue whose very fine auditorium somehow overcomes the exigencies of the oddly shaped building.

Away from the docks, and alongside Marseille’s dense network of railways, La Friche Belle de Mai is a sprawling cultural centre in another abandoned industrial complex. Embracing everything from a skate park and theatre to a farmers’ market, the complex has the feel of a place genuinely alive at the heart of a community.

Just around the corner is another arm of MuCEM, situated in a low-slung, luxuriously modernist-looking building. This is CCR (Centre for Conservation and Resources), an archive building stuffed with objects ranging from outsider art to medicine bottles. Designed to a fiercely tight budget by Marseille architect Corinne Vezzoni, it is a delight, its austere and industrial interior providing a counterpoint to the slickly corporate spaces of the main museum. There are other things going on too: a terrible, pixelated gallery by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma for the regional contemporary art fund (Frac), and a rooftop art-space addition to Le Corbusier’s massively influential housing block, L’Unité d’Habitation, by French designer Ora-Ïto among others.

None of these projects changes the city as radically as might have been desired and they have all yet to find their true purposes. But they do create pinpoints of culture in surprising places, opening up previously inaccessible or undesirable blocks, starting to make the city more permeable and, like them or not, more enjoyable.

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