An abode for Mediterranean culture

In Marseille, an enlightened political will has championed the realisation of an architecture built for the meeting of Mediterranean civilisations. Designed by Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée is an invitation to reflect on the intersecting and common destinies that unite the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea.

This article was originally published in Domus 967 / March 2013

Villa Méditerranée looks as if it has always been part of the city of Marseille, belonging to its port and the sea. Situated at the foot of the Tourette promontory, north of the entrance to the Vieux-Port, the most significant building built to date by Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, Giovanni La Varra) has already become an established feature of the surrounding landscape, even though it will not be quite finished until spring 2013.

The complex volume, comprising some 8,800 square metres, presents two very distinct faces, one to the city and the other to the sea. The elevation facing the high walls of Fort Saint-Jean displays a sober, contemporary, almost subdued elegance; while the facade overlooking the Mediterranean is characterised by a radically modernist design, standing out with its imposing cantilever of 36 metres, reaching for the breakwater and horizon beyond as if it were some sort of seafaring machine. This Janus Bifrons nature is achieved despite the fact that in section the building is completely wrapped by a continuous and uniform skin. Composed of large, near-white concrete panels alternating with syncopated ribbon windows of different widths and lengths, this cladding presents the obsessive leitmotifs of the firm's current output.

The mass suspended in midair is an eternal modernist dream, and here its realisation sets up an intricate, dual link with the place. Visible on the surface are striking affinities with a wide range of port structures that contrast with the horizontality of the wharves — from harbour stations to shipping control towers, with their typically functional architectural language. In this respect, it is worth remembering that Stefano Boeri is well versed in port design, an experience accumulated over a period of nearly 20 years throughout the Mediterranean: from Naples to Genoa, and from Greece to the Maddalena in Sardinia. More in depth, in Marseille the dizziness of an architecture suspended in midair inevitably recalls one of modernism's unconscious archetypes: the gigantic pont transbordeur (transporter bridge) that linked the opposite sides of the Vieux-Port, photographed by, among others, László Moholy-Nagy and mentioned on several occasions by Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion. Villa Méditerranée's statement seems intended to encompass not only the still visible city, but also the interrupted memory of Marseille.
Villa Méditerranée enjoys
visual contact with Sainte-
Marie-Majeure Cathedral
(1852-1893), designed by Léon
Vaudoyer, and with the CMA
CGM Tower by Zaha Hadid
Villa Méditerranée enjoys visual contact with Sainte- Marie-Majeure Cathedral (1852-1893), designed by Léon Vaudoyer, and with the CMA CGM Tower by Zaha Hadid
The scale of the cantilever also engendered another, perhaps involuntary but certainly significant consequence. In order to stabilise the considerable oscillations of the 4 gigantic grid brackets, set about 12 metres apart, the structural engineers (AR&C) were obliged to add weight, inertial mass, with a uniform distribution across the surface of the overhang. The architectural solution consisted in the adoption of particularly massive external cladding panels in prefabricated concrete, which on Boeri's indications were also to have large dimensions. The thin, stratified and fragile skin wraps the architecture's volume like a tape (in short, the Dutch vernacular skin of the 1990s), becoming almost a cyclopean, eternal wall, different only in its colour from the ramparts of Fort Saint-Jean behind it.
The wall facing the
dock pool is tilted and cut
horizontally by windows that
offer fine views of the city
and the sea
The wall facing the dock pool is tilted and cut horizontally by windows that offer fine views of the city and the sea
Suddenly, rather than bearing an affinity with the delicate brise-soleil embroidery of the adjacent MuCEM building by Rudy Ricciotti, Villa Méditerranée seems closer to the tectonic solidity of Fernand Pouillon's constructions on top of the Tourette promontory and along the west bank of the Old Port.

Once inside Villa Méditerranée, one encounters the built transposition of the potent, even over-explicit gesture presented in the competition project, which, however, commendably sought to outline an understandable, and in a way democratic rhetoric. The result is a truly complex and many-sided building that successfully strings together a rich and extremely diversified sequence of interiors.
The polyhedral spatial complexity of Villa Méditerranée reflects the hybrid programme that it will be hosting
The building is part
of the Provence-Alpes-Côte
d’Azur region’s plans to
celebrate Marseille European
Capital of Culture 2013.
As well as being an art
venue hosting permanent
exhibitions (“Beyond the
Horizon” and “Time Scales”)
and temporary shows,
the structure is also a
multipurpose and interactive
meeting place equipped
with an auditorium,
conference halls and
a documentation centre
The building is part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region’s plans to celebrate Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013. As well as being an art venue hosting permanent exhibitions (“Beyond the Horizon” and “Time Scales”) and temporary shows, the structure is also a multipurpose and interactive meeting place equipped with an auditorium, conference halls and a documentation centre
With its dramatic proportions, the high and narrow atrium crosses the entire width of the building transversely, once again revealing that the architectural design takes its cue above all from its section. The two long walls delimiting the atrium are parallel neither in plan nor in elevation. Thus they create a certain degree of tension, accentuated by the escalator, set diagonally, and by walkways that span the space. The absence of colour is a common feature in all of the atrium's component parts. The afternoon light penetrates it diagonally, projecting the regular but intricate structural grid onto the neutral surface of a sloping wall. The depth of these shadows steadily grows as they move away from the entrance, due to the astute diagonal fold of the wall itself. It is like being inside a gigantic, but fortunately tidier kind of Merzbau .
Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée, Marseille
Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée, Marseille
The uninterrupted, low and wide space on the top floor tapers as it approaches the long horizontal window overlooking the open sea, offering splendid views of the busy port. On a slight gradient, the floor slab almost physically seems to convey the exponential variation of stresses in the structural members that run diagonally across the space to define three parallel surfaces. You don't have to look at the water below, through the glazed panels in the wooden floor, to realise you are suspended in midair.

The atrium leads into the large underwater volume, diametrically opposite to the one above it, through a complex sequence of stairways. The first is straight and almost hidden by the escalator, and leads progressively towards the discovery of a second, far more spectacular staircase. With a broad, unsupported metal spiral, it provides access to the lower, public level. This wide and almost square space is dominated by the presence of four cylindrical elements: the above-mentioned staircase, the volume containing the vertical communications, a flexible space defined by a sound-absorbent mobile curtain, and the auditorium — a true wooden gem. Once again, the distinct perception of being below the surface of the sea is heightened by the tremulous light filtered through openings in the ceiling. The mute cylindrical volumes seem to be shaped by the necessity to withstand the pressure of the water. With discreet elegance, the architecture alludes to the imagery of possible underwater worlds.
Designed by Boeri
Studio, Villa Méditerranée
(Centre international pour
le dialogue et les échanges
en Méditerranée) is part
of a cultural and exhibition
hub dedicated to the
Mediterranean. The building
is a white block set beside
the MuCEM (Musée des
Civilisations de l’Europe et
de la Méditerranée; designed
by Rudy Ricciotti) and next
to Fort Saint-Jean, in a dock
space by the sea between the
Old Port and the Joliette wharf
Designed by Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée (Centre international pour le dialogue et les échanges en Méditerranée) is part of a cultural and exhibition hub dedicated to the Mediterranean. The building is a white block set beside the MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée; designed by Rudy Ricciotti) and next to Fort Saint-Jean, in a dock space by the sea between the Old Port and the Joliette wharf
The volumes containing the emergency exits are masterpieces invisible to the public, re-emerging on the surface from the southwest side of the underwater level: open-sky raw concrete spaces covered at esplanade level by a metal grille and traversed by a common emergency staircase. Resurfacing to the light makes it apparent just how deep the architecture had gently led the visitor. This emersion occurs next to the facade of the MuCEM, on the other side of the canal that brings water into the dock pool surrounding the building, thus highlighting that the submerged volume is actually larger than that of the building above water level.
36-metre cantilevered
space. This volume
houses a gallery with a
surface of about 1,000 m2.
The lower slab features a floor
with a sequence of glazed
apertures through which the
water below can be seen
36-metre cantilevered space. This volume houses a gallery with a surface of about 1,000 m2. The lower slab features a floor with a sequence of glazed apertures through which the water below can be seen
The polyhedral spatial complexity of Villa Méditerranée reflects the hybrid and as yet undefined programme that it will be hosting. Firmly backed from the start by Michel Vauzelle, president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, the building will be home to the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM) — an authority still in the embryo stage whose aim will be to foster trade and collaboration among the various Mediterranean countries. The architecture designed and built by Boeri is sufficiently flexible and programmatically open to accommodate and stimulate a range of activities that are not yet fully defined: from the representative headquarters of ARLEM to exhibition spaces; from a congress centre to a theatre of cultural events. Thankfully, the indeterminate future programme is in this case offset by clear-cut architectural choices. Indeed, the structure is free for use precisely by virtue of its architectural precision, the same precision and complexity that emerges in Villa Méditerranée's approach to the fundamental material around which it is built: the Mediterranean Sea.
Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée, Marseille
Boeri Studio, Villa Méditerranée, Marseille
The never obvious, albeit cleverly rhetorical relationship with the sea is also evident in the reversed natural city-building-water sequence. In fact, from the Tourette promontory, a stretch of water divides the building from dry land, as if it stood on an island. Conversely, it is perceived from the open sea like a construction suspended parallel to the land. Finally, to render the system of relationships even more elaborate, almost as if it had been designed by Camillo Sitte, the dock water only becomes visible from within the basin itself, effectively defined by a roof, a wall and steps on its three free sides. From above and below water level one is offered excellent views of future transformations — both probable and possible — of the Mediterranean. Andrea Zanderigo, architect
The design of Villa
Méditerranée displays a twin
spirit. Its side elevations
are transparent, while those
facing the sea and the city
are solid and compact. The
cladding of prefabricated
white concrete panels seems
to envelop the building like a
continuous tape, interrupted
horizontally by ribbon
windows. The concrete slabs
also perform a static role,
providing inertial mass to
stabilise the metal structural
brackets and offer resistance
to the wind
The design of Villa Méditerranée displays a twin spirit. Its side elevations are transparent, while those facing the sea and the city are solid and compact. The cladding of prefabricated white concrete panels seems to envelop the building like a continuous tape, interrupted horizontally by ribbon windows. The concrete slabs also perform a static role, providing inertial mass to stabilise the metal structural brackets and offer resistance to the wind
The sea in the architecture
1 . Villa Méditerranée is a place of thought and research that physically embraces the sea. When I designed the building in 2003, I was working with the Multiplicity group on an investigation into routes travelled by illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean. Titled Solid Sea , our study set out to highlight the new form of the Mediterranean, how it had become a "solid sea" crossed by routes that are as specialised and rigid as motorways, ones which never allow their various users (immigrants, tourists, fishermen and the military, for example) to meet or communicate. A year before, at Documenta XI in Kassel, with Multiplicity we presented the reconstruction of a tragedy that took place off the coast of Sicily: a shipwreck that claimed the lives of 283 Sri Lankan, Indian and Pakistani refugees, partly as a result of the indifference of the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities.

The desire to counteract this drift towards closure and isolation led to the idea of a building that, in contrast, is explicitly open to the cultural exchanges originating from the sea, welcoming researchers, students, artists, intellectuals and tourists. This structure aims to represent the extraordinary mixture of languages, tastes and colours that Marseille has received from other cities in the Mediterranean.

It is a design capable of embodying the ambitious project of Michel Vauzelle, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region: to create a centre in Marseille for the revival of cultural and political relationships between the Mediterranean's different shores and cities, amid a Europe in crisis, a North Africa in turmoil and a Middle East being torn apart.
Boeri Studio was dissolved in
2008; the name only remains
active for schemes still under
construction, such as the
Marseille project
Boeri Studio was dissolved in 2008; the name only remains active for schemes still under construction, such as the Marseille project
2 The Villa is a dock building. I have always been obsessed with harbour architecture. For many years, in Genoa, Thessaloniki, Naples, Trieste, Mytilene and La Maddalena, I have studied, thought about and designed buildings that face onto the sea — constructions like silos, naval stations, warehouses, observation towers and dry docks. These buildings work as border infrastructure, accustomed to handling the huge mobile volumes of ships and containers, acting as boundaries between expanses of water and the large spaces used for parking and shunting goods.

Villa Méditerranée is a construction that combines the characteristics of civic architecture with those of harbour infrastructure and off-shore platforms. Its spaces, traversed by a mixed structure of reinforced concrete and steel, are articulated in plan via three parallel, superimposed, horizontal levels, two of which are developed above and below the level of the sea — a large, 1,000-square-metre exhibition area set 14 metres above the water, and a 2,500-squaremetre space for conferences and theatrical events below. The heart of the project is the large piazza/ dock pool: a covered collective space protected from the sun and wind. The water piazza is connected to the open sea, allowing currents, fish and boats to enter the architecture. Rather than creating a pool or basin, this marine building provides useful space for mooring and sailing, for games, parties, shows, commerce and even fishing. Villa Méditerranée will be the great cavana of Marseille, a place where the city can welcome the currents of thought and life that cross the Mediterranean. Stefano Boeri, architect and professor of urban planning

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