Marseille’s MuCEM Trades ‘Bling-Bling Brightness’ for Bony Fragility, Sensual Cement

It’s Marseille’s moment. The port city, France’s largest on the Mediterranean coast, is in the spotlight as this year’s European Capital of Culture, with a host of major projects on view. Writer, author, and intrepid flâneur Marc Kristal paid a visit to the new and improved Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean and filed this formidable report for us.

(All photos courtesy Rudy Ricciotti)

Comprised of two 15,000-square-metre structures—the 17th-century Fort St.-John and a new seven-level building by architect Rudy Ricciotti, linked by a slender 115-metre-long footbridge—Marseille’s Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM), is, says director Bruno Suzzarelli, “an outstretched hand from France to the region.” Wishing to refuse the “bling-bling brightness” of signature-building starchitecture, Ricciotti responded to the fort’s massiveness with a “bony, feminine, fragile” design, executed almost entirely in high-strength concrete, and distinguished by a densely-patterned screen that covers two elevations and folds onto, and projects off of, the roof.

Seven hundred and eleven of the 15,688 cubic metres of MuCEM’s signature building material are comprised of fiber-reinforced ultra high performance concrete (UHPC), which proved especially suitable to the project: UHPC’s “closed-pore” compounding renders it virtually impervious to sea spray and other corrosive agents, and the highly “flowable” substance can adapt to the most elaborate molds—ideal for MuCEM’s latticework panels. Ricciotti also appreciated the material for its narrative qualities. “Cement can inspire dread in certain slums and elsewhere touch the sublime,” he observes. “And cement gives off a formidable sensuality.”

MuCEM’s 384 UHPC screen panels, each measuring six by eight meters, were made by Bonna Sabla, a Paris-based concern specializing in precast concrete elements, at their Vendargues plant. Double-sided vertical molds produced a comprehensively smooth finish. The challenge of precasting UHPC, explains Jean-Aimé Shu, a director at Lafarge, the company which supplied MuCEM’s concrete, involves making sure the reinforcing fibers are equally distributed—”the form of the mold and the way you pour both have an influence,” he says. A so-called “suitability test” verified success.

Despite being only 10 centimeters thick, the 1450-kilogram panels on MuCEM’s southern and western elevations actually stand one on top of another, with those at the ground level supporting the full weight of the two stacked directly above—an extraordinary feat for elements so slender, porous and visually light-seeming. Each façade incorporates three rows of 24 vertically-positioned panels; pole-like braces, extending over the catwalks from the building’s structural façades and attached to the screens by cross-shaped joints, create stability—especially useful during Marseille’s mistral season, when winds can exceed ninety kilometers an hour. The 1120-kilogram rooftop screens, 7 centimeters in thickness, rest on metal frames and lie horizontally atop T-shaped UHPC brackets, from which they’re slightly separated by polyurethane springs.

In addition to functioning as art-protecting brise-soleils and windbreaks for the catwalks, the screens enable MuCEM, in Ricciotti’s formulation, to “wear its shadows on its face.” As the iconography of an institution embracing European, African and Asian cultures, the patterns suggest everything from mashrabiya windows and desiccated stone to fishnet stockings and mantillas. Seen from the interior spaces, the screens serve as a quiet yet insistent presence—a reminder of the architecture’s power and MuCEM’s mission.

New York-based architecture and design writer Marc Kristal’s books include Immaterial World, The Great American House, and Magni Modernism.

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