Appreciating concrete in Marseille

One of the thing things that I like about Marseille is the quality of the concrete tower block design. I’ve been riding in taxis back and forth across the city with my father who is undergoing cancer treatment in various branches of the city’s healthcare system and appreciating the architectural tour I’m getting.

In the centre of town these blocks remind me of bookcases: two monolithic, slick sides between which span the concrete shelves, on which sit the apartments like colourful books. It’s fascinating to see the different ways that windows, balconies and staircases are articulated in these concrete buildings. I point out towering souring fin walls, beautifully articulated fire escapes, and how paint is used to express the different elements of the concrete structures.

The rocky hills that rise up behind Marseille keep the city hemmed in by the sea. Standing on the high ground platform of Notre Dame de la Gard in the middle of town, you can see clusters of distant tower blocks that seem to bravely climb the distant slopes of the edge of the city, like pilgrims. I’m used to seeing tower blocks standing imposingly against the flat, grey London sky, but here these structures are rendered tiny by the massive hills behind them.

What strikes me is the amount of labour that must have gone into building these concrete structures in what was probably a short space of time, and in such extreme conditions. One hospital we visit is a ten-story high ‘bar’ built along the rocky summit of a ridge high above the city. It’s as long as a stadium and brilliant white. The carpark, where we wait for our taxi, is blasted out of the rock – ranks of steel netting protect us from potential bolder falls from the row of hills above. This is protection equipment you’d expect to see high in the Alps, not in the middle of France’s second city.

From afar, the combination of sweeping jagged landscape interspersed with ordered rectilinear buildings that rise between the trees looks like a modernist utopia. I get a closer look when I ride the metro M1 to its terminus at La Rose. The train climbs into this suburb along a curving viaduct built above the road, which sweeps between the apartment blocks like a python on stilts. The station is in the sky, held aloft by giant concrete columns. Escalators lower passengers to the waiting buses at the interchange below.

I feel a sense of great vision and purpose when I encounter places like these. The city system organised in a logical diagram, printed in concrete, to create decent places to live. And sadness too, because despite the great effort and vision, the diagram doesn’t work. To walk from the station to the hospital where I was visiting my father in the afternoon heat is almost unbearable. The space between the buildings is abandoned to cars and the sun. I follow the snaking shadow of the metro viaduct just to keep out of the heat.

I realise what’s missing is trees. The concrete towers are only one part of the modernist vision. The idyl of towers in the park has two components, and without the latter the former become a much grimmer prospect.

One place where I do find shade and respite is in the grounds of the hospital where my Dad is staying. The hospital is a converted convent surrounded set in beautiful parkland. And it is in the shadow of the pines here that I find a more surprising, and distinctly un-modernist use of concrete. In an nook by the side of the path a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the opening of a cave, above a spring water pool. But on closer inspection, the edges of the cave entrance seem to be breaking away. Then I realise, the cave is made of concrete.

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