Marseille—A Global Port City in Vision and in View

For the second module of the course, I did my research on the Euroméditerranée Project, one of the ongoing inner city redevelopment projects in the city of Marseille. A typical “top-down” project, the Euroméditerranée Project is brought forward by the French government and the EU with the main purpose of maximizing the capital of this geographically important port city and reshaping its image as a competitive global city both in terms of economic and cultural development.

My paper on this topic looks specifically at the implementation of the Euroméditerranée Project from an architecture and urban planning standpoint. I view architects and planners playing the role of agents and middle men who seek ways to bridge the “top”—the grand state vision of revitalizing the city and the “bottom”—opinions of citizens involved in the project.

To realize the big political ideas of the project, architects are called in to create attractive new urban areas. The Euroméditerranée Project is consisted mainly of two parts: the revitalization of the underutilized waterfront and the renovation of the relatively poor northern inner city. For the waterfront area, reutilizing and reprograming the brownfields and former industrial vacancies in a meaningful way will not only help reenergize the area but also improve the city image by creating an inviting gateway to visitors all over the world. As for the northern inner city, the Euroméditerranée Project intends to improve the living quality of people there by upgrading the area to a more commercial and high-quality mix-use residential zone, where new businesses move into the area to create a more dynamic urban setting.

Cathedrale de la Major: relics landmark. An elegant Byzantine interior of the cathedral

I then developed my own category of the various architecture design strategies in use to carry out these political vision. In my mind, the space that architects design “contains both material/physical and symbolic/mental attributes.” (Lefebvre 1991) The improvement of the public transport infrastructure at the waterfront area, such as the rerouting of A 55 motorway underground, serves as a good example of the physical function of urban design, while creating city landmarks contributes to the symbolic function of architecture design. And under the symbolic category, things get more complicated. I break down the city landmarks into three sub-categories: relics, semi-relics, and newborns, with each corresponding to the methods of historical preservation, interior reoccupation, and architecture innovation.

During my stay at Marseille, me and Nick, both obssessed with beautiful old buildings, checked out the Cathédrale de la Major, which was under my category of relics landmark. This nineteenth century church is a complex mixture of the heavy masonry of Romanesque and the intricate ornamentation of Byzantine style. Mesmerized by the level of crafting of the church, we were a little dissapointed to see the surroundings of this historic site taken over by cranes, scaffoldings, and dust. This view of the raw and heated construction site can be spotted almost every scenic spot in Marseille. The smell of the redevelopment process is so overwhelming in the whole city that it made me start wondering if it is really the best policy for Marseille.

La Joliette Docks: semi-relics landmark with palm trees reaching out to the sky.

We also went visit the new business district La Joliette docks for our guided tour. For me, the docks fall into my second sub-category of semi-relic landmark, which is a historic building whose exterior form is preserved as an indication of its past use while its interior is reprogramed into modern use. The transformation of the underutilized docks into modern office buildings is a good example of the architecture strategy of “new wine in old bottle.” The new plant-in palm trees in the open courtyard of the docks not only add to the visual richness of the area but also bring in a sense of nature. Sadly, most of these nice and innovative office areas seemed empty. According to our guide Phillip, not only the new business areas but also the old residential areas have low occupancy rates because of the renovations going on in the residential buildings. The lack of use of the commercial and residential areas of the city made me feel like the project focused too much on the glorious resulting image of the city rather than the problems it brought about during the redevelopment process.

Skyline of Marseille consisted of relics and cranes

As for the new-born landmarks, they are usually designed by world famous architects. And there is no exception in Marseille. Zaha Hadid was invited to design the CMA-CGM high glass tower which will be the monument of Marseille’s economic development. The intention and expectation behind such actions are that this brand new city profile will bring about the Guggenheim effect Frank Gehry had brought to the once mediocre city of Bilbao. However, when I saw the city skyline on a boat ride, this twisted CMA tower sticked out so much from its surroundings in terms of its height and its material that it made me wonder if the building actually belongs there. And what shocked me more was that even if the tower is not half filled right now, the building of a second one is on the agenda.

My impression of Marseille from my visit is that, with all the redevelopment projects overlapping on one another in this city, Marseille seemed to be a little lost in its direction. The pursuit of the quantity of monuments rather than more attention towards raising people’s life quality prohibits Marseille from achieving a balance between global and local. From the standpoint of the steady state economy model, as I discussed in the previous blogs, in order to achieve a more steady and sustainable city development, Marseille has a long way to go.



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