Mixing sensuality and gesture, Rudy Ricciottiʼs new museum of Mediterranean civilisation is less about content and more about adding to Marseilleʼs thrilling palimpsest
Marseille, France’s principal Mediterranean seaport, is European Capital of Culture 2013. Of the many new buildings opening this year, by far the most prestigious is the €191-million Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, or MuCEM. Conceived in 2000 as part of the €7-billion Euroméditerrannée redevelopment of the city’s docks, the MuCEM as an institution has a curious history.
Its ancestor is the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires (MATP), founded in 1937 as a national museum of ethnography that collected everything from guignols (puppets) to rural interiors and regional costumes. By the end of the millennium its location in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne (far from the city centre) and itsageing building were taking their toll on visitor numbers and on the quality of displays.
It was at this point that the authorities decided to ‘decentralise’ the MATP and move it to Marseille in the hope of achieving a brilliant symbiosis: the moribund museum would be reborn in its new setting, while the troubled regional capital would benefit à la Bilbao from the presence of a prestigious national collection in an eye-catching building.
To this end the museum was allocated a spectacular site: the historic Fort St-Jean (13th-17th centuries), which guards the entrance to the Vieux Port, as well as the adjacent J4 pier, right on the water’s edge with sweeping westward views to the setting sun.Thirteen years, three French presidents and six culture ministers later, the MuCEM has finally opened. And more than just a French folklore museum, it aims to be a pluridisciplinary, multi-textual institution of a type never seen before.
The MuCEM actually occupies three buildings: as well as the aforementioned Fort St-Jean and J4, there is also another new building (by Corinne Vezzoni et Associés) in Marseille’s Belle-de-Mai quarter, where the MATP collections are conserved, and these reserves can be visited. But the main exhibitions are held down on the waterfront, partly in the beautifully restored (by François Botton, architecte en chef des monuments historiques) Fort St-Jean, but mostly, given the latter’s poky spaces and complicated layout, in the giant new J4 building.
‘Starchitects Hadid, Holl and Koolhaas were thrown overboard in favour of an almost-unknown local based just up the coast in Bandol: Rudy Ricciotti’
J4’s design was the object of a 2002 architectural competition, which resulted in general surprise when starchitects Hadid, Holl and Koolhaas were thrown overboard in favour of an almost-unknown local based just up the coast in Bandol: Rudy Ricciotti. Little-known back then, Ricciotti is now ineluctable in the French scene, partly because of high-profile projects such as the Pavillon Noir dance studios in Aix-en-Provence (AR February 2007), the Musée Jean-Cocteau in Menton (2011) and the Islamic-art galleries at the Louvre (2012), but also because of his colourful and conspicuous public persona, which has made him a media darling that many in the architectural profession love to hate.
His provocative, impudent rants have become legendary − for example on Minimalism: ‘The miracle of the Anglo-Saxon-style neo-Modernist project … One can really call it architectural fundamentalism, because architects and Salafists could be said to have in common the same hatred of the face’; ‘The minimum is a dick, the minimal is a dildo’ − all delivered in a strong regional accent by a self-proclaimed sudiste, a child of the south naturally suspicious of Paris and of northern-European ways in general, whose image embodies the regional macho clichés of contrariness and love of the corrida.
But things are actually a little more complicated than that, since Ricciotti was not born in Provence but in French Algeria, to Italo-Gypsy parents, making him a true representative of that particular chapter in Mediterranean history (moreover the J4 pier was one of those onto which thousands of pieds-noirs disembarked following Algerian independence).
As a practitioner, ever since his bunker-like sports/concert hall in Vitrolles (AR February 1996), Ricciotti has been an ardent apologist for concrete, whose advantages, he claims, are manifold: it is a ‘patriotic’ material in that concrete has long been a French affair and France is a leader in concrete research and development; it is eco-friendly since water, sand and aggregate can all be found locally, reducing CO2 emissions (he always omits to mention the steel); and it is humanly responsible too, in that it requires a local, highly skilled workforce to realise the form- and steelwork.
For his detractors, this is all posturing intended to justify his 15-year-long relationship with construction giant Lafarge − exactly the kind of rapacious multinational, they claim, that in the interests of profit destroys marine environments in its hunger for sand and develops working practices abroad requiring unskilled low-paid labour. (It should be noted that the love affair is mutual, for it was Lafarge that sponsored the exhibition of Ricciotti’s oeuvre currently on show at Paris’s Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.)
‘I undertook the MuCEM in a state of anxiety. I wasn’t worried about losing [the design competition], I was afraid of winning with a scheme that would be a mistake. I designed it with fear in my guts, under the pressure of that metaphysical horizon that is the Mediterranean, of that cobalt blue that becomes Klein blue then ultramarine, that drives you mad after a while and turns silver when the wind gets up. It’s violent …’
Who, given his background, could be more sensitive to the pressure of this particular site than Ricciotti? But as well as to the site he had to respond to the brief which, given the all-embracing vagueness of the MuCEM’s curatorial ambitions, offered few cues. He therefore opted for the Centre Pompidou solution − pure, neutral, ‘supermarket’ space, entirely free of clutter and intermediary supports, in which an ever-changing array of objects could be exhibited as the curators wished.
This choice also allowed him to indulge his interest in exoskeletons, a structural solution he had treated with bravura at the Pavillon Noir. But what about the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep? Impossible to ignore in a museum dedicated to the culture of that very sea, but how to bring it into neutral exhibition space where light-sensitive objects might be displayed?
Square in plan (72 x 72m) and box-like in volume − a deliberate rejection of Gehry-esque formal contortions (dismissed as ‘bling bling’) and a gesture of humility towards the Fort St-Jean − the J4 building comprises an inner volume of 52 x 52 x 18m containing a basement auditorium and two floors of glass-fronted gallery space. Around this inner box, on two sides, are wrapped bands of glass-fronted administrative spaces like sunshades, while the other two are veiled in a lacy concrete mesh, which also covers the roof, except for the open-air terrace.
As at the Villa Savoye or the Maison de Verre, the J4 comprises two circulation routes, one eminently practical − a central set of stairs and lifts − the other a long, meandering promenade architecturale, which takes the form of a ‘ziggurat’ of ramps running around the 52 x 52m core, behind the admin spaces and the mesh, linking all the levels from basement to roof terrace. The promenade then continues from the roof onto the Fort St-Jean via a 135m-long footbridge spanning a water-filled basin, and another footbridge connects the fort to the historic Panier quarter on the hill, making the promenade grandly urban and − if Ricciotti’s wish that it be open to all comers (not just ticketholders) is observed − generous in scale.
Approaching the J4 building from the dockside road, you see a generic-looking glassy box, and nor are the dingy entrance hall and poky internal circulation spaces encouraging. But as you enter the galleries the magic starts. This may be the cultural equivalent of warehouse or retail space, but no supermarket was ever so soigné, Ricciotti having gone to great lengths to devise a system of floor beams that allow lighting and ducting to be accommodated within them without false ceilings. And then there is the Mediterranean, veiled behind its concrete mantilla (and, on sunny days, diaphanous black curtains), tantalisingly present but never intrusive.
Stepping onto the ziggurat ramps, you enter a quite extraordinary space, bristling with stainless-steel tie and suspension rods whose pins-and-needles ballet is dappled with shade from the concrete mesh, behind which winks and scintillates the mythical Mediterranean. Arriving on the roof terrace, which is partly shaded by the concrete mantilla and serves the inevitable panoramic restaurant, you are confronted by the sensuously moulded footbridge, which shoots off across the abyss in a minimal (minimum? phallic?) marker-pen streak.
Once on the Fort St-Jean, you enjoy sweeping views of the J4 in its wider setting, a charcoal-grey shadow to the fort, its concrete shawl evoking not just flamenco Spain but the mashrabiyas of the caliphates, the pattern of reflected ripples on a sandy seabed, or the late-summer cracks of the Camargue mudflats where Ricciotti spent his boyhood.
The treatment of the J4 programme demonstrates a boldly simple logic, but the structure was anything but simple to build. Presumably, using steel, an elegantly slender building could fairly easily have been achieved. But Ricciotti wanted concrete, and not just any old concrete but ultra-high-performance fibre-reinforced concrete (UHPFRC), a cutting-edge material developed in France over the past 20 years, which he first tried out at Seoul’s Seonyu footbridge (2002).
Because of its density, UHPFRC is impermeable, unlike classic concrete, and can be made using either metal or plastic fibres, meaning that it suffers from none of the corrosion problems to which steel or classic concrete are subject in marine environments − ideal for this waterfront site exposed to the full fury of the Mediterranean. UHPFRC cannot be poured in situ but must be precast in moulds, leading Ricciotti to design an elegantly slender, tree-like set of columns for the J4 that branch out in Ns and Ys to form an exoskeleton that ensures wind bracing as well as bearing floor load.
But what Ricciotti had not solved was the problem of flexion, since although UHPFRC is six to eight times more resistant in compression than classic concrete, it is very weak in tension. As a result the engineers − led by Ricciotti’s son Romain − had to devise a complex system of non-linear post-tensioning with cables running through all the columns.
As Ricciotti later admitted, ‘When I designed the MuCEM, we didn’t know how to build it.’ The bravura footbridges could only have been done in UHPFRC (moulded steel would have been far too heavy and expensive), but a system of post-tensioning had to be devised for them too, and the assembly of their interlocking units necessitated precision to one-tenth of a millimetre and one-tenth of a degree to ensure even transmission of forces.
In interviews, Ricciotti describes the J4’s construction as a heroic battle in the manner of a corrida, a fight to the death to beat the material into shape, a race against the clock to finish on time (building began in November 2009, for completion at the end of 2012), as well as a Howard Roark-style stand-off with the authorities, who required no fewer than 11 appréciations techniques d’expérimentation (the standard French certification procedure for technical innovations, requiring the fabrication and exhaustive testing and analysis of prototypes) for the J4, including for earthquake and fire resistance.
The completed building is enigmatic and somehow slippery to grasp. For Ricciotti it is both masculine and feminine, macho and girlish; there is great subtlety in the handling of materials, yet it can seem slick (Ricciotti called it vulgar); where is the ‘architecture’ in a project that was ostensibly all about neutral space, construction and engineering? And despite Ricciotti’s protestations that Minimalism has killed off signs and symbols, the J4 is surely just as shallow in meaning as the sandy shores its rippling covering recalls, let alone the Playtime Modernism he professes to abhor.
But then how else to respond to a curatorial remit so vast and so vague (and that went through umpteen mutations following the architectural competition), and does it matter when the spectacular site provides all the depth and richness you could possibly desire, the point zéro in the bitter, thrilling palimpsest that is Marseille?
For the MuCEM is above all a response to this impossible site, and is perhaps best read as a brilliant piece of landscape design where questions of scale, monumental repetition and handling of light and shade are brought into play, a landscape whose presence both frames and enriches the experience of this exciting, difficult city.