The Marseille heritage
Zoom to the South
First broadcast date
Daniel Leschi's investigation about the quality and importance of the built heritage in Marseille.
Like many other cities, Marseille began to worry about its architectural heritage and the means to preserve it.
France 3 - Own production
Urbanism and cities
- Tourism and cultural sites / Architecture
Credits / Cast
- Leschi Daniel - Journalist
- France - South East - Marseille
Covering more than 22,000 hectares (nearly 55,000 acres), Marseille has been the biggest commune in France since the French Revolution. In the early 19th century the town itself only represented a small fraction of this area, but progressively it has spread, absorbing first the countryside then villages until it reached its present shape and size, leaving few traces of this heritage. To Marseille's unusual size as a commune must be added its particular form of urbanism, characterised by a lack of unity. Over the period of its history, development has been haphazard, guided by a series of incompatible logics, rarely in harmony with each other, sometimes quite obviously antagonistic.
The historic heart of Marseille is on the north side of the port, going up the hill to include the district known as Le Panier. In the 17th century in what was Marseille's first major urban planning project, the architect Pierre Puget extended the town south of the port. The streets he planned, whose alignment is quite different from the medieval plan of old Marseille, are lined with middle-class houses. But it was really in the 19th century that the town was transformed. Trade and commerce were increasing fast, bringing new riches to an elite of merchants and industrialists, all concerned about their life style, but also bringing work to a large labour force. The result was that the Provencal capital was a building site for nearly a century. At first the thrust of this urbanisation was inland, not towards the sea. Applying the principles of physiocracy and hygene current at the time, resulted in spacious boulevard-promenades and wide avenues towards the east beyond the Allées de Meilhan (Boulevard Longchamp, Boulevard Chave) and the south, on the same axis as the Boulevard du Prado. Apart from the fine buildings and bourgeois residences, these districts presented a certain social mix which, for the in-between classes, was expressed in plots of land and a fairly uniform building style. The result is an architectural unity, characterised by the famous "Marseille building", a facade of 7 metres, 15 to 30 metres deep and three windows wide. During the 19th century the "Bastides marseillais" were also built, large middle-class houses surrounded by gardens and used as holiday homes.
But turning its back on the sea and industrial areas was not the only urban dynamic. Marseille's architectural heritage is also very marked by the rise in trade and commerce. On one hand there were major works to improve the town's infrastructure: building the Gare Saint Charles, opened in 1848, digging out the new ports and docks from 1854, driving the Rue Imperiale in the 1860's, today called the Rue de la République, Marseille's only real Haussmannian axis lined with buildings which match its scale. On the other hand, having become the biggest port in France, gateway to the colonial empire, Marseille also gave itself prestigious functional buildings during the Second Empire: the Palais de la Bourse, home of the Chamber of Commerce, opened in 1860, is the best of these. However the town never had a coherent urban policy of any great size. The explosion of industrial buildings was mirrored in spread of working class districts, progressively filling in the gaps in between. There are a few architectural buildings, as symbolic as they are rare, like Fernand Pouillon's buildings (begun in 1949) and Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse (1945-52), but they do not balance the anarchic spread of communication networks plus the steady delapidation of the central districts. In the 1980's successive town councils, conscious of the problem, decided the town's policy should include programmes of urban intervention, such as the renovation of Le Panier and Belsunce, but the results are only partially successful, and the attempts somehow fit into a list going back to the beginning of the 19th century of worthy projects soon aborted.
Marcel Roncayolo « La croissance urbaine » in Marseille au XIXe siècle. Rêves et triomphes, Musées nationaux, Musées de Marseille, 1991, p. 21-42
Marcel Roncayolo, Les grammaires d’une ville, essai sur la genèse des structures urbaines à Marseille, Paris, éditions de l’EHESS, 1996.
Gaston Rambert, Marseille, La formation d’une grande cité moderne. Étude de géographie urbaine, Marseille, Société anonyme du sémaphore de Marseille, 1934.