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European Capital of Culture: A capital experience in Marseille

Cultural calendar steams ahead after innumerable delays
  • @mary_novakovich

After a sluggish start and innumerable delays, Marseille's year as European Capital of Culture is steaming ahead. The year was nearly halfway over before some of the flagship projects finally opened. Two of the biggest happen to be neighbours on the revamped Joliette docks near the city's neo-Byzantine Cathédrale de la Major. These two enormous blocks of glass and concrete – one black, one white – have turned their backs on the city to focus on the sea.

Smoky glass covered with charcoal concrete latticework make up the Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM), the first national museum outside Paris. Permanent exhibitions showcase the history of the peoples of the Mediterranean – fittingly so, as most of these races have been absorbed into Marseille's multi-ethnic population over the centuries since the city was founded 2,500 years ago.

Even its architect, Rudy Ricciotti, personifies the mish-mash that is Marseille: he's French, of Italian origin and born in Algeria.

The latticework covering parts of the building screens a walkway around the perimeter that is open to the public. A stroke of genius was to connect this walkway to a bridge linking the ultramodern MuCEM to the 17th-century Fort St-Jean on the hilltop behind it.

In MuCEM's more audacious neighbour, Villa Méditerranée, Italian architect Stefano Boeri has created a giant chunky letter C, with the lower curve submerged under a newly created moat and the upper curve a 40m-long cantilever jutting towards the sea. Glass-bottomed patches of floor-space in the overhanging level give glimpses of the pool of water beneath. The panoramic viewpoint and permanent exhibitions are free, but the very French nature of the cultural events scheduled (debates, documentaries, concerts) could make it less inclusive for those without a decent grasp of the language.

Even with delays and ubiquitous construction cranes, Marseille could end up doing a London Olympics and surpassing everyone's expectations. That's already evident in the Vieux Port, where traffic has been tamed and the waterfront teems with people rediscovering their own city. Norman Foster's Ombrière, a giant, flat, mirrored sunshade (pictured) 6m above the ground at the water's edge, instantly captivates as people can't help but stare up and marvel at a world turned upside down. Which is exactly what the city of Marseille needed.