Travel Guide: Marseille And Vicinity

by | 29. May 2014


Vieux Port Canopy by Foster + Partners. Photo © Edmund Sumner

By Kirsten Kiser

Marseille, located in the Provence region on the southeast coast of France, is the perfect base for visits to other cities in this part of Provence.  The city is steeped in history with a wealth of monuments. Starting with the Greek and Roman periods cities have been built on top of each other over the centuries. The Vieux Port has been the natural harbor since antiquity.

Selected Cultural Capital of Europe in 2013 prompted an array of new buildings by well known architects, as well as the transformation of the Vieux Port by Foster + Partners, with landscape design by Michel Desvigne. The project included a canopy of highly reflective stainless steel by Foster + Partners.


Vieux Port Canopy by Foster + Partners.  Photo: Kirsten Kiser

The Fort Saint-Jean was built in the 17th Century at the entrance to the VIeux Port. The name stems from the sites former occupants; the Military Order of the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John.

The new MuCEM by Rudy Ricciotti is connected to the Fort Saint-Jean by a footbridge, thus tying Marseille’s architectural history to the 21st Century.


MuCEM by Rudy Ricciotti. Photo © Lisa Ricciotti

The main body of the museum is framed on two sides by a concrete lace mantilla that also shades the restaurant on the rooftop.


MuCEM by Rudy Ricciotti. Photo © Lisa Ricciotti


MuCEM by Rudy Ricciotti. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

Kengo Kuma’ new FRAC, situated in the port quarter on a triangular site, connects to the exterior via a continuous “inner walkway.” The building is clad in glass panels, with changing opacity, that reflects the variations in light.


FRAC Centre by Kengo Kuma. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

FRAC Centre by Kengo Kuma. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


FRAC Centre by Kengo Kuma. Photo: Nicolas Waltefaugle

Another new building on the water front next to MuCEM is the Villa Méditerranée by Boeri Studio. The building features a cantilevered exhibition floor and an underwater conference suite.

Villa Méditerranée by Boeri Studio. Photo © Edmund Sumner

Villa Méditerranée by Boeri Studio. Photo © Edmund Sumner

Between the port and the city Zaha Hadid’s 468 feet tall tower for CMA CGM Headquarters rises in a metallic curve towards the sky.

CGM Headquarters by Zaha Hadid. Photo © Iwan Baan

CGM Headquarters by Zaha Hadid. Photo © Iwan Baan

There is a great view from the MuCEM bridge of Villa Méditerranée next to MuCEM, CMA CGM in the background and the Cathédrale de la Major to the right.

House of Chutes-Lavie  by FDC Studio. Photo courtesy FDC-Studio

For architecture aficionados the perfect place to stay is the Hotel Le Corbusier, located on the third and fourth floor of the Unité d’habitation.


Hotel Le Corbusier. Photo courtesy Hotel Le Corbusier


Hotel Le Corbusier. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


Hotel Le Corbusier. Photo courtesy Hotel Le Corbusier

Or Philippe Starck’s eclectic Mama Shelter in the center of the city.


Mama Shelter by Philippe Starck. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


Lunch at Mama Shelter by Philippe Starck. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


Lunch at Mama Shelter by Philippe Starck. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

In Nimes, about an hours drive from Marseille, the Carré d’Art by Foster + Partners was completed in 1993. The site faces the Maison Carrée, a perfectly preserved Roman temple.


Maison Carrée. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

The challenge was to relate the new to the old, but at the same time to create a building that represented its own age with integrity.


Carré d’Art by Foster + Partners. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

Half of the nine-story structure is cut into the ground, keeping the building in scale with the surrounding  buildings. Daylight permeates all floors through a glass  roofed atrium.


Carré d’Art by Foster + Partners. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

A new Museum of Romanity by Elizabeth de Portzamparc will be situated on the edge of Nimes’ ancient Roman wall, opposite the famous Roman amphitheater.


Nimes’ Roman wall. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

The planned Museum of Romanity by Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Photo © Elizabeth de Portzamparc

Draped in a pleated glass robe the building will create a strong dialogue between the two architectures separated by over 2,000 years of history. Completion is estimated in 2017.

In Arles, about 30 kilometers from Nimes, the Musee of Antiquity, designed by Henri Ciriani, added a new extension in 2013 to house a 31 meter long Roman barge that dates from 50 – 60 A.D.


Musee of Antiquity by Henri Ciriani. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


Arles is a good example of the adaptation of an ancient city to medieval European civilization. It has some impressive Roman monuments, of which the earliest date back to the 1st century B.C.

The amphitheater, built around AD 90, ranks among the great amphitheaters seating over 20,000 spectators on three tiers. Gladiator fights and animal hunts took place here until the end of the 5th century. Today the arena hosts bullfights and other events.


Arles’ amphitheater. Photo: Kirsten Kiser


Arles’ amphitheater. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

The remains of an ancient Roman theater are located nearby. Built in the 1st century AD the massive structure seated 10,000 spectators.


Arles’ amphitheater. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

In 2008 the LUMA Foundation in Arles commissioned Gehry + Partners to create a landmark building to house the Foundation, as well as a master plan of the site; Parc des Ateliers. Several changes have been made since the first presentation, including the location of the tower which, because of its location, could threaten Arles’ Unesco World Heritage classification.

Photo © Thomas Mayer  (2008). Frank Gehry with Partner Edwin Chan

Parc des Ateliers masterplan by Gehry + Partners. Photo © Thomas Mayer  (2008)

Drive or take the train to Montpellier to visit Zaha Hadid’s Pierresvives building. The building was christened Pierresvives, the “City of Knowledge and Sports for all,” after Rabelais’ words: “I build only living stones – men”.

Pierresvives by Zaha Hadid. Photo © Iwan Baan

Pierresvives by Zaha Hadid. Photo © Iwan Baan

Also the new Georges-Freche School of Hotel  Management, located on 3.95 acres in the ZAC Port  Marianne area of Montpellier, designed by Massimiliano and Dorian Fuksas. The facades of the two main buildings, connected by footbridges in the central courtyard, are clad in triangular shaped anodized aluminum.

Georges-Freche School of Hotel  Management by Massimiliano and Dorian Fuksas. Photo © Moreno Maggi

Georges-Freche School of Hotel  Management by Massimiliano and Dorian Fuksas. Photo ©  Moreno Maggi

And the Jean-Claude Carriere Theater by A+ Architecture. Oriented perpendicular to the axis of Montpellier’s historic district, the theater expands on the forecourt and naturally amplifies spaces reserved for walking and strolling.

Jean-Claude Carriere Theater by A+ Architecture. Photo © Marie Caroline Lucat

In Aix en Provence, about 30 kilometers from Marseille, the Centre Chorégraphique National was designed by Rudy Ricciotti. Like the MuCEM in Marseille, the main glass volume is enclosed by a web of concrete.


Centre Chorégraphique National by Rudy Ricciotti. Photo: Philippe Ruault © All rights reserved.  Courtesy Rudy Ricciotti

While in Aix visit the Foundation Vasarely inaugurated in 1976. Vasarely himself designed the building, clad in aluminum plates, anodized in black and white, with a prefab system of 16 hexagon-shaped cells. He often used this geometric shape in his series ‘Hommage à l’hexagone’.


Foundation Vasarely by Victor Vasarely. Photo: GFDL file

Also, be sure to visit Chateau La Coste about 12 miles north of Aix en Provence. Château la Coste is a place of wine, art and architecture with projects by the world’s top architects and artists dotted around the estate. Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, Louise Bourgeois and Paul Matisse and many more have created specific works for the domaine.

I left Marseille by ‘Le Grand Escalier’ to take the train at the Saint-Charles station. The station, opened in 1848, was a stage on the voyage to Africa and the Middle-East before the popularization of flying.


Gare d’Avignon by Jean-Marie Duthilleul of AREP.  Photo: Kirsten Kiser

Gare d’Avignon by Jean-Marie Duthilleul of AREP. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

The Avignon Festival is one of the oldest and most famous theater and performing festivals in the world. Festival performances take place throughout three entire weeks in July. It was in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes, the largest gothic edifice in the world, that Festival d’Avignon began in 1947 and it has remained the main venue of the Festival.


Palais des Papes. Photo: Kirsten Kiser

An open-air theatre, for an audience of 2,000 people gathered in the Provencal night, at the heart of a monument on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


Festival d’Avignon at Palais des Papes. Photo © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Festival d’Avignon

Related arcspace features:

Hotel Corbusier, Marseille
MuCEM, Marseille by Rudy Riciotti
Zaha Hadid’s Pierresvives, Montpellier

Other links:

Mama Shelter, Marseille
Carré d’Art, Nimes
Arles Musee of Antiquity
The history of the Architecture of Provence