MUCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, is the flagship project in Marseille’s ongoing architectural and cultural renaissance, a monolithic marriage of glass and reinforced concrete by Algerian-born French architect Rudy Ricciotti.
It took successive governments 10 years to put together the project, so when it finally opened its doors last June, local residents were more than eager to visit it. The MUCEM is located on Marseille’s seafront next to a 17th century stronghold, Fort St Jean, that once guarded the entrance of the harbour basin. Built on the Greek and Roman vestiges of the antique city-state, the Fort is charged with history and includes a chapel going back to the days of the Crusades in the 12th century.
Rudy Riciotti has come up with a classic design built around a perfect square. Each side is 72 meters long to make up a total surface area of 45 000 m². Another inner square of 52 m per side forms the heart of the museum and comprises the exhibition and conference halls. As one approaches the building, one begins to understand its complexity: its inner structure in steel and glass has been covered with a delicate ornamental skin of filigreed concrete. The same innovative material has been used to make the 308 tree shaped pillars that form the vertical structure of the building which rise to more than 8m high. Ricciotti says his Museum is “open to the sea, to draw a horizon where the two shores of the Mediterranean can meet”.
It’s a sentiment expressed in the transparency of the building which is open not only to natural light, but also to the sea. The marine atmosphere pervades the entirety of the inside of the building as well. The lace veil of concrete on the outside of the building creates intricate shadow patterns that can be seen as “a projection of the bumpy and irregular sea bed” adds Ricciotti.
The Museum is organised on three levels: the ground floor and first floor are dedicated to the Gallery of the Mediterranean which presents all the major events in the history of the civilisations of the Mediterranean basin within an exhibition area of more than 1,600 m². The permanent exhibition will be revisited every three years. The second floor offers another 2,000 m² of exhibition space dedicated to temporary exhibitions focusing on topical, social or cultural issues related to the Mediterranean. The Museum also includes dedicated workshop areas for children, an auditorium on the second floor with 325 seats, and a bookstore. Because cooking is an intrinsic part of Mediterranean culture, the Museum includes two rooftop restaurants managed by local cooking celebrity Gérald Passedat. Customers can sit out on the new terrace which offers panoramic views to the sea and harbour basin whilst they taste new flavours of Mediterranean cooking. At night lighting effects designed by Yann Kersalé create shades of blue and turquoise which makes the atmosphere on the terrace all the more magical.
The top floor roof decking showcases an innovative use of wood, namely heat treated American ash. The deck spans across a width of 24 meters and covers an area of 1600m². The heat treated ash was supplied by Bingaman Lumber Co. in Pennsylvania. The decking is laid on a traditional system of boarding joists to allow the insulation membrane directly under the wooden decking to be well ventilated. The boards were nailed and not screwed. “Nailing is a technique that takes you back to traditional crafts but nevertheless we had to set up a small research program before we found the right nail / hammer / wood combination in this early 21st century,” says Tilman Reichert, the project architect.
The pedestrian route does not end at the roof terrace. An inclined walkway of 115m bridges out from the roof of the building to cross the harbour basin and link up with Fort Saint-Jean – the stronghold which will house a further 15.000 m2 of museum exhibition space. Furthermore the open public spaces around the Fort have been redesigned to offer a unique botanical collection of Mediterranean plants along a landscaped promenade of 15,000 m². Visitors can then walk towards another footbridge leading to le Panier, the oldest and most typical neighbourhoods of Marseille with its narrow streets and steep steps.
Project facts & figures
Client: French Ministry of Culture
Architects: Rudy Ricciotti
Associate architect : Roland Carta
Landscape architects: In Situ
Fluids engineering: Garcia Ingéniérie
Structural engineering: SICA , Lamoureux & Riciotti
Quantity surveyor: CEC
Surface area : 15510 m²
Timetable : 2009-2013
Cost : 68.2 M€ HT
Main contractors: SPIE (foundations & earthworks)
Dumez/Freyssinet (structural work and roof cover)
Interior fittings: Barreau
Interior finishes: Jolisol/SCPA
Roof deck supplier: Roofmart
HVAC & plumbing: Viriot Hautbout
Electricity: SPIE South East