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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

The Electric Blue-Aid Marseille Test

April 23rd, 2017


‘From Paisley to Marseille,

Big blue buildings all day,

From Unitie to Corbusier,

Under a concrete bries soleil’

Went the pounding inpromptu student rap as we boarded the bus and waved bye bye to Alsop and Stormer’s Big Blue (1993), an impenetrable local authority headquarters. It was day two of Strath Arch’s 2017 annual third year field trip and as we headed on towards Arles my second steak tartar in under 24 hours started to kick in.

The trip started the day before when at dawn, Der Pierre (our leader) showed up in a black cab, joking with the driver about Groundhog Day.  Same price as last year Der Pierre barked, same tip growled the driver. The Groundhog is a close relative of the whistlepig or to the layman a large dog like rodent. To communicate the rat alternates between chattering, squeaking and hissing, whilst the dog barks, whines and enjoys a good sniff. So went their conversation all the way to the airport where we were joined from Ayrshire by Gordie and Sam ’n’ Isa who brought youthful optimism and a welcome dash of colour. Off we flew as Gordie explained how the winged dog was the official symbol of Marseille whilst the rat was the adopted symbol of their underground culture, this made in his opinion the Groundhog an appropriate mammal to bridge the class divide. Heard it before yelped Der Pierre who scratched his ear when he realised he had been allocated the same seat number as last year and demanded to be moved. Sit commanded Gordie, sheep dog trials being one of his hobbies.

The pain of the early flight was rewarded by a bonus afternoon in the city. The walk from La Gare Saint-Charles to our hotel took us past Port d’Aix, a monumental triumphant arch built in 1839 to celebrate French victories in search of colonial domination; perversely it now sets the backdrop for a make shift market where immigrants swap meagre possessions. Impressions somewhat stifled we dumped our bags and sauntered through the Le Panier an historic quarter which makes up the North side of Vieux Porte. Most of Le Panier was dynamited by the Nazi’s in WW2, in an effort to get rid of those they disliked a lot and rebuilt in the 1950s by a number of notable French architects including the likes of Auguste Perret. The frontage onto Vieux Port is strikingly simple whilst behind the lanes weave through a tapestry of cultural graffiti art. Statues commemorate the persecuted and sit uncomfortably next to posters promoting the French National Front. A bit of alright that Marine Le Pen purred Der Pierre gazing into her poster blue eyes, the inspiration for his noir sports range. For those not in the know, Der Pierre recently launched his underwear collection ‘hang to the right’ as a result of the success of his Adolf Boxer, that bit more slim fit for the gentlemen who boast a solitary testicle.

Fascist boxers also featured prominently in day one, as awakening from a feast of oysters, crab and clams the city had taken on a more changeable nature. Flitting between scorching sun and freezing wind, we started our day at Norman Foster’s L’Ombriere on the harbour front surrounded by a wriggling fish market. It is but a massive mirrored canopy under which you can look up. Frightened by what we saw we quickly moved on to the Abbaye Saint - Victor a nearby ancient religious site. Built high up on the South side of Vieux Port we entered to discover that originally the Abbey was built down from whence we came and a series of ancient arches and buttresses tumbled dramatically down through the carved interior. Startled by this revelation we climbed back out and struck ever upwards to the Bascilique de Notre Dame de la Garde by Henri Jaques Esperandieu (1864). The over proportioned golden Madonna and infant Jesus who feel a bit stuck on, are the best known icons of Marseille and look down over the city. Homage duly paid we headed off to the la Citie Radieuse better knows as the Unite de Habitation for some serious architectural pilgrimage.

In the same way you can’t hit a guy in specs whined Der Pierre as we laughed at a photograph of Le Corbusier boxing on the beach, you have to love his buildings. We all held our breath as we stared up through the massive pilotis at the textured concrete frame and patchwork of primary colours. Tadao Ando was also a boxer piped up Sam ’n’ Isa, he carried all the reminders of every blow that cut him until he cried out in his anger and his pain they sang. High above we heard a less harmonious screech, perched on the Unitie itself we caught sight of Dr J in full murderous black beckoning us up to Bar Corb. Sipping overpriced lager, overlooking Marseille from a Le Corbusier masterpiece was a fine way to end Day 1.

Back to day 2 and I boarded the big yellow bus for Arles realising I had overdone the steak tartar. My brain pounded to the Big Blue Rap as we headed into Arles and pulled up outside the LUMA by Frank Gehry (2018) half built on the outskirts, a kind off out of town cultural centre. ‘Are you on the bus or off the bus’ yelped Der Pierre as Dr J refused to even don Monsieur Gehry that level of respect and replied ‘Don’t look back, it will turn you to stone’. Weirdly Arles centre was a delight, cut from a beautiful jaune sandstone inter-dispersed with Van Gough tourist traps jumping out at you in distorted perspective. Hang on to your ears (Van Gough lost his here) was Der Pierre’s cry as we boarded the bus and my head spun towards a whistle stop tour of Nimes. By the time we returned to Marseille my time was due and a fevered three days of seafood and raw meat had to come to an end.

On the third day I rose reborn and we retraced our steps back into Le Panier to La Vielle Charite by Pierre Puget (1671), an early Ellis Island where immigrants from Africa where once housed. Strolling through the narrow lanes towards Fort Saint Jean the graffiti art took on a new form and blended in front of my eyes the mix of culture which made up the city. On reaching the Fort, home of the Foreign Legion, it was pointed out that the cannon did not face the sea but faced back to the city as it was from here which came the greater threat, I felt an inkling of an understanding of Marseille.

Built alongside the Fort Saint Jean is MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations  by Rudy Ricciotti (2013) through whose grandiose web like Bries Soleil one can stroll down to the quayside and marvel at the cantilevered structure which is the Villa Mediterranean by Stefano Boeri (2013). A right couple of modern white elephants which one can not help but like. Glowering over the pair of them is the massive Cathedrale de la Major by Leon Vaudoyer which for a Romanesque Cathedral is surprisingly new, constructed  as recently as 1896. I very much enjoyed this sequence of buildings however then made the mistake of taking the hike out to Zaha Hadid’s Tour CMA (2012). A twenty storey blue glass office tower built for the local ferry company, some would describe it as elegant, until one might visit and witness the building nestling into ring roads, horrendous pedestrian routes and meaningless art. I could not leave Marseille with this bad taste of neo liberalism in my mouth so I choose to take the even longer hike to Friche La Belle De Mai. In English, La Friche is the Fallow or Wasteland and Friche La Belle De Mai is a crazed, dystopian jungle of culture located in a former tobacco factory. If you ever choose to visit Marseille and need to quickly get to grips with the city, head here.

The final evening was rounded of by those ever brilliant Strath Arch students who this year took over the solitary restaurant open on the elegant Place de Lenche to enjoy some safe pizza, a little fine wine and dance the slosh. By the time we returned to Glasgow Airport I had begun to feel human once more and boarded my taxi with Pierre to be greeted by a familiar driver ‘anyone for a steak tartar’ he barked.


A huge thank you to Peter Welsh for organising another wonderful Strathclyde University Field Trip. Special thanks to the Strath Arch students for their reliance in adversity, their constant good nature and their never ending energy. Good luck to everyone in their exams.

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