Waterfronts create both connections and barriers. Great waterfronts also link past, present and future with images that no one ever forgets. Marseille as the largest and probably best known city in France after Paris was a good choice as European City of Culture in 2013 and has since been recognised as European City of the Year by the Academy of Urbanism, beating Malmo and Istanbul. But how well does it actually live up to its promise? Certainly, it is now very well connected, only three hours from Paris by fast trains that arrive every hour en route from Lyon to Nice. Two new tram lines along with an older Metro help draw the City together, and brighten up the grey townscape, as well as opening up a new office area next to the old Docks. Some monumental new attractions are drawing the tourists in, and some 7.5 million came in 2013.
However, the divisions are still considerable. The faces of the crowds surging along the edge of the Vieux Porte just after Christmas looked predominantly white, and European. The City, long a refuge for people from North Africa, appears quite polarised between North and South of the main commercial street, the Canabiere. The historic residential area of the Pannier was ghettoised and then largely demolished by the Germans, removing much of the character one looks for in an ancient port. Modern apartment blocks overlook the flotillas of private boats, with cafes below. An ancient fort now forms part of a self-consciously iconic set of museum building. These are supposed to celebrate what the Mediterranean countries share in culture but leaves many visitors confused. Six months after opening they are certainly drawing the crowds, but whether they justify an expenditure of over 170 million euros will no doubt be argued over in future years, after the Cultural Capital events are long forgotten.
More memorable, and much cheaper, are the great views created by an ambitious set of steps next to a temporary building that housed a temporary festival audio-visual on the Metamorphosis of Marseille, But again, despite interactive videos with a chef explaining how to make local dishes, the story was one largely of new buildings that expressed the values of a select band of global architects, and which one suspects may have done little to boost either local pride or diversify the city’s economic prospects. The story of the city’s urban renaissance was hard to appreciate.
Seeing Corbusier’s famous Unite d’Habitation or Cite Radiente in the wealthier Southern district was a reminder of the way in which, after the last World War, Marseille set a pattern for how people should live. The block of apartments is looking good, and there are places to visit inside, which alas had we no time to see. But monumental vistas need to be balanced with smaller places that can be individualised, and so it was a great relief to spend most of our time in the former fishing villages that edge along the Cote d’ Azur. St Tropez thankfully takes the largest private yachts, so that in places like Sanary-sur-Mer and Cassis one can have a pleasant meal or drink looking out to the old fishing boats or wander around the huge choice of specialist shops with almost no vacancies.
But can the qualities that make a good waterfront be replicated in somewhere new? This is what Port Grimaud has tried to do, with its varied buildings each with their own mooring, on a site reclaimed from the marshes below the historic hill town of Grimaud. The first phase of building was by the architect Francis Spoerry in the 1960s and they are now listed. Further phases have followed in the 1970s and 1990s, and the owners of the condominiums share responsibility for the area’s maintenance. One of the residents is Joan Collins. Though the streets were empty of visitors around Christmas time, the huge car park and shops and eating places at ground floor showed it has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, at least from mid April to the end of October, and no doubt is full of second homes for those who make their money in Paris or Lyon.
The ridge of limestone hills that make the climate so comfortable on the Cote d’Azur, and produce fine wines and lovely villages provide little space for modern industry or cheap housing. But by upgrading the transport connections they will continue to attract those with the wealth and taste to enjoy the superb quality of life that this part of France promotes so well. The big question is how they underlying conflicts as people compete for limited space and job opportunities can be overcome.