MARSEILLE, Olivia Snaije interview with Rudy Ricciotti, architect of MUCEM
Jean-Claude Izzo wrote: “You can’t understand anything about this city if you are indifferent to light.” What do you think about that?
As the beautiful provençal quote says: “The best under the sun, is the shadow.” It’s true. In Marseille the light is not soothing, it’s imposing and tyrannical. It’s only in those places where there is a lack of light, like Paris, Genève or Lille, where it brings happiness: as soon as there is some sun, people are happy. It is its rareness that makes it desirable. But here, we live under this light continuously, and it can be excruciating. On a day of mistral, in summer as well as in winter, it becomes impossible to open your eyes, even a few millimeters.
How can you take advantage of this particular type of light? There must be some moments or locations that you find more favorable.
The ideal moment here is the sunset, because of the orientation of the city towards the west. Regarding location, without doubt it’s by the sea, going up along the coastal route, which is twenty five kilometers from L’Estaque until the gulf of La Baie des Singes. On this coast, you will cross a range of urban settings: industrial, harbour docks, marine traffic and bathing. There is something for everyone. I especially like the tip of the Baie des Singes, where the coastline turns towards the south. All of a sudden the light becomes very different and you get the impression of being in a different continent. It’s not the same sea anymore, the waves and the colors look very different. The water gains a specific tone of cobalt blue, very dense, without any tones of grey.
Blaise Cendrars has written on the phocean city: “It’s one of the most mysterious cities in the world and one of the most difficult to decipher.” Do you share this view?
It’s not wrong to say, it is mysterious. I know Marseille since a very long time: I came here when I was still at school and then studied architecture. But to be honest, I’m a little tired of the city. It can be like a heavy weight boxer in the style of poet Arthur Cravan [ the nephew of Oscar Wilde, born 1887, considered to be a precursor of the surrealist movement] ; it can take the hard blows and keep going.
Even if you look for the essence of the city, it’s not easy to find. This city makes me think of a novel by Dino Buzzatti [Le Désert des Tartares]: you are waiting and you can hear the sound of the troops coming and see the dust rising, thinking that’s it; they have arrived. But then you realize they will never come…
In France, Marseille has a unique setting: the center is very popular, and the fringes are more chic. Is there a risk that this particular feature will disappear?
Even if the working classes are being chased out of the sea front, there is no real reason for this to happen. And there isn’ t any place for snobbishness here, it would be considered ridiculous. But from an economic point of view, Marseille is suffering. This city is also fed by violence, even by an aesthetic of violence. Its complex identity – the city is born of several waves of immigration: Italians, Jews, Algerians, Greeks, Armenians, Spaniards etc. – resembles New York. However, apart from Gaston Defferre, we haven’t had a mayor as smart as Ed Koch or Rudy Giuliani (New York Mayors, 1978-89 and 1994-2001), who have been able to increase safety in a cosmopolitan metropolis.
Why do you say that working in Marseille is a “crushing” responsibility?
The responsibility in building here, is to find ways to integrate without being ridiculous. It’s a little bit like warfare between ferocious tribes, where you have to be careful and not act like a champion. The difficulty in Marseille is that it’s not a city of nuances. There are no margins in the landscape: to fix an architectural work there, it’s better that it’s violent and demanding, rather than polite and subtle.
Extensive works have been under way all over the city. Did the architects have any dialogue between each other during the process?
No, because that doesn’t relate to our responsibilities, it’s more that of the city planners: they need to consider the problems of coherence and visibility. Let’s not think the architects have more power than they actually do.
Which ones are your favorite spots in the city?
I like the fishermen’s market, in the Vieux-Port; it’s one of the last authentic views of the city of Marseille. Before I moved to Cassis it was a place of pilgrimage for me. I went there every morning to watch the men unload the fish in all colors; it’s a powerful spectacle and a source of inspiration, as I do a lot of cooking myself. Here it’s one of the last corners of Europe where you can taste the seasonal products of the harvest, game and seafood. I eat salads grown in the wilderness and a friend provides me with game from the forest. The hills outside the city are like a pantry! There is also a magnificent area in Estaque, where I go to buy panisses [a speciality made with chickpea flour] and sit on the terrace. I also like the great space in the port, which is a prohibited area; I don’t know why there is no public access, as you could easily imagine people walking there on a Sunday. With a bit of cheating I once entered this forbidden area: the long sea wall, made of stones is magnificent.
Do the Marseillaise people have an identity of their own? What in particular do you like about them?
It’s the last nation in Europe standing up to political correctness: excessive, carousing, loudmouthed. And above all, they resist to all forms of globalization. In short, it’s not possible to colonize this city; and that’s exactly what its heart and soul is about. Besides it’s not a coincidence there are so many artists as residents in Marseille, willing to rebel. I hope all these new constructions, these urban developments, won’t change this particular soul of the city.
by Olivia Snaije for GEO Magazine, France, February 2013