Just came back from Marseille, where I tried to visit as much as possible while at the same time keeping some time for beaches, walks and restaurants. My conclusion is that a very good job has been done and Marseille has an outstanding cultural infrastructure, one of a real "capital" and one that many actual European capitals would envy. Here are my thoughts on the works.
Works done for the Cultural Capital:
- MUCEM is astonishing. Easily entered my top 3 of contemporary buildings I have ever visited / seen with my own eyes. Inside it, the curatorship is top notch. The permanent exhibition about the Mediterranean is small but dense and very interactive. The temporary "Black and Blue" exhibition is tremendous, one of the best I've ever seen. Makes me confident that the contents of the museum will be sustained at a very good level in the future. And the cafe at the top is just an amazing place to get a drink and relax.
- the Fort Saint-Jean is much more interesting than I would have expected, and it has been wonderfully transformed in a half museum space, half public space (it can be visited for free, btw, but it closes together with the museum, which is a good idea IMO). Together the fort and MUCEM make an amazing combo.
- Villa Méditerranée is fantastic and very spectacular right near the MUCEM, to which it serves as contrast. The curatorship at the inside was very good (two exhibitions, one about immigration in the Mediterranean basin and one about the future of the kids around the Mediterranean) and complemented really well that of the MUCEM.
- the Musée Regards de Provence is an old modernist utility building of the port that has been given an outstanding renovation and reconversion as an exhibition space. The content quality will depend on the foundation that runs it, right now one of the exhibitions was very good while the other one was quite unremarkable.
- the reworking of the port quays is very good, putting emphasis on pedestrians not cars. Norman Foster's pavilion is wonderful, I don't recall last time when I saw an architectural work made purposefully to enchant people being so successful.
- on the other side of the port, the restoration works for the Saint-Victor abbey seemed done (and well), and the new lighting work gives it a great presence at night.
Overall, the port area at night, starting from the Norman Foster pavilion, then to the right towards the Fort Saint-Jean, around it, then towards the three museums (MUCEM, Villa Med & Regards de Provence) with a view to the other shore of the port (Notre Dame de la Garde, Saint-Victor Abbey, La Criée, Fort Saint-Nicolas and Pharo) makes up for a mindblowing experience. I've never seen anything as beautiful, not even in Paris, Rome or Amsterdam. [Of course, these cities more than make up overall.]
Also in the port area:
- the Pavilion M is the headquarters of the Cultural Capital, in a beautiful wooden structure right near the City Hall. Didn't feel the need to enter it as I had all the information I needed from the website, did I miss anything? Also, will it remain there? The architecture looked like it could be a temporary structure, not permanent.
- the restoration works at the medieval church Saint-Laurent were supposed to be done for 2013, is that correct? If so then it's disappointing to find it completely closed (while last year, during renovations, it was open).
- same for the ancient Greek port ruins in the garden of the history museum of Marseille, weren't they both supposed to be done for 2013? I could see no progress from last year.
In the Joliette area:
- the FRAC (regional fund of contemporary art) headquarters is a tremendous little building that holds much more exhibition space than I would have expected from the outside.
- the J1 (a former port warehouse now an arts space) was closed so I can't comment. Was open with an exhibition in spring and will be open again in Autumn.
- the Château Borely (18th century classical palace near the Prado beaches) has been restored and looks absolutely gorgeous. Plus, it holds what is probably the best museum of decorative arts I've seen - not too big, and impeccably done.
- the Musée Cantini, a surprisingly good collection of modern art (if small) in a newly restored 18th century classical palace in the centre
- the Palais Longchamp (19th century eclectic palace with a spectacular portico) was beautifully restored and it hosts the Grand Atelier du Midi exhibition, which is very good (I've seen both the half there and the half from the Musée Granet in Aix). Will probably revert to being the arts museum of the city, when the exhibition is closed.
- the Cours Julien square was redone not as extensively as I imagined but the essentials were covered. The area is very successful, when I went there Saturday night the restaurants were full and a stage was set for music and a DJ set which really got the people dancing.
Other works and facilities:
- the Friche de la Belle de Mai is an artistic colony in a former industrial site. It's a brilliant place in its own way. It's a pre-existing facility but one of the exhibition spaces (Tour Panorama) was built for 2013. The exhibitions I saw there were very good and I loved the library and the bar/restaurant. The area between the railway station and the Friche looks bad but I guess that's the point, they're trying to regenerate it.
- unrelated to the Cultural Capital are the works for the road tunnels at the Prado roundabout (which are thankfully almost done, the area will benefit a lot when it's all over), the 4 Septembre square (completed) and other such works that were making life difficult in the city last year. Oh and there's also the commercial centre bellow the Notre Dame de la Majeur, which I don't know when it's supposed to open but it looks half done at best.
A couple of places I didn't get to visit:
- MAC, the contemporary art museum; I saw it last year but for 2013 I understand it uses the space in a different configuration for one big temporary exhibition
- the arts centre at the top of the Cité Radieuse
One more thing. I was told at the Vieille Charité (a fantastic 17th century baroque complex in the oldest area of the city) that a good part of the collection of the Archeology Museum there was taken for the MUCEM. In the freed space there was an excellent temporary exhibition of the 10 contemporary artists that have won the prestigious Prix Ricard. Does anyone know what's going to happen there, after?