Stephen Bayley: The impossible dream of French perfection

Something to Declare

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker showed a couple glumly facing each other across a kitchen table and the caption read: “Exactly when did all the things you love about me become all the things you hate about me?” I am beginning to think that way about France. The idea of France was always a dream. And in dreams begin responsibilities and, it turns out, disappointments too.

A few days in Provence, in what the French so didactically declare “one of the prettiest villages in France”, has finally taught me that trying to recapture my Gallic dreamworld is like trying to embrace fog. In this hilltop village, there is a fine collection of medieval buildings and each one has been pitilessly molested by either the tourist authorities or middle-brow junk art galleries.

I turned into a dark chapel for respite only to find it booming with sub-adult HD video about an “experience” on offer. Oiky gap-year French youths, escaping the imminent reality of real-world unemployment, walked around officially dressed as troubadours (with trainers).

Nearby was something impressive, the La Coste wine estate where Irish entrepreneur Paddy “Claridge’s” McKillen has created a hugely ambitious sculpture park. By the time it is finished, with the golf course and hotel, it will be a World of Adventures with vines.

So we went on to Marseille, the 2013 European Capital of Culture, to see the new MuCEM (the politically correct and wearyingly inclusive Museum of the Civilisation of Europe and the Mediterranean), perhaps France’s very last grand projet. Local architect Rudy Ricciotti says he wants to “demuseumify museums”. Not, if you ask me, a felicitous expression that promises calm and clarity. Still, if you want to find an architectural demonstration of what France has become, visit the Fort Saint-Jean complex on the Vieux-Port.

I kept on trying to translate “mink coat and no knickers” as we sweated and jostled through vapid exhibits at MuCEM, trivialised by big swinging architectural rhetoric. And if “culture” means vast queues of listless tourists gazing at plasma screens, personally I want none of it. At least there were no troubadours.

We stayed in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse which has a number of apartments available for brief stays. I am no doctrinaire opponent of strict-observance Modernism, far from it, but here was another test of French dream vs French reality.

The cheerful “vertical garden city” of the propaganda has a haunted and sinister quality. Not sinister in the sense that a demandeur d’emploi troubadour might knife you in a dark corridor, but more that it is solid with a sense of failure. It strikes me as significant that the Toulouse riots of 2005 began in a banlieue designed by pupils of Le Corbusier. Fact: they don’t have riots in Le Panier, the crumbly dense old quarter of Marseille.

I reflected on this as we left the city to meet friends for lunch in Peter Mayle country near Ménerbes. Marseille is a difficult place not, I think, at ease with itself. Sweaty and desolate in turns, sullen and grumbly, despite the City of Culture wash ’n’ brush-up.

Then we hit the D99 between Saint-Rémy and Cavaillon with its lovely arbres and the dream came rushing back.

Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk