Marseille’s year as European capital of culture has come and gone. But in the north of the city, an extraordinary cultural and urban experiment begun more than twenty years ago continues.
Friche Belle de Mai is far from the Vieux Port, the historic Panier district that draws tourists from around the world, and the spanking new cultural facilities designed by famous architects. But if you are visiting Marseille and are interested in seeing a living place that reflects the true pulse of the city, this should be your first priority.
To find Friche Belle de Mai, you will need to go to the quite downtrodden working-class neighborhood of Belle de Mai , north of Gare Saint-Charles. There, tucked away along the railway tracks, you will find a large complex of industrial buildings.
The buildings used be a tobacco factory, then were left abandoned for years. The reuse of the complex for cultural purposes began in 1992, at the initiative of Philippe Foulquié, founder of the Massalia Puppet Theater. Today, after what can only have been a long adventure with many ups and downs, the site comprises close to 500,000 square feet of space, houses 70 organizations, and holds 500 events each year that draw 150,000 people.
The complex houses a vast array of cultural facilities, including a huge multipurpose space (Le plateau), a theater (La Cartonnerie), plentiful exhibition spaces, a lively restaurant, a bookshop, a set of multi-color modular building units acting as temporary offices, a pre-school and a community garden.
The architecture is refreshingly unselfconscious, giving Friche Belle de Mai a rough but real beauty. The interventions are systematically simple and pragmatic, focused on making the place useable, rugged, and to code. There are no grand gestures beyond what the pre-existing buildings themselves suggested. As a result, it is a place where everyone can feel comfortable, where – unlike many cultural institutions built with enormous budgets – no one feels intimidated by the place itself.
Friche Belle de Mai maintains a vigorous program of events, spanning a broad range from art and architecture exhibitions to film, photography, theater, performance art and spoken word.
Unexpectedly, it is currently dedicating a cycle of events to Baroque Art. Another space is housing an exhibition dedicated to architect Rudy Ricciotti, on loan from the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris. American artist Erika Vogt occupies one of the contemporary art spaces. The web site gives a sense of the breadth and energy of the programming.
A skate park, with a food and drink stand and, during my visit, a live DJ working the turntables, provides for good animation and a pleasant diversity of people.
A huge roof terrace provides a generous space to walk and play with a lovely view over Marseille.
Unfortunately, the Friche does not seem to have had much of an effect on the adjacent neighborhood – not that artist-led gentrification would necessarily represent progress. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be struck by the state of neglect of the places in such close proximity with a complex that over time has benefitted from much investment – of people’s energies and affections even more than funds.
Friche Belle de Mai is certainly a place not to be missed when in Marseille, and we can only wish that this initiative will bring many good things to the city and its people.