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Learning from Marseille
– a romantic ode to the unplanned
(- much delayed)
Before my 10-day break from my architectural guiding this summer, I knew very little about Marseille. The few famous movies that others referred me to (The French Connection as the more famous, I guess), hadn’t really appeared to me as Marseille related movies when I watched it maybe 20 years ago. A vague notion on a big, ancient Mediterranean harbour and the industrial city was as far as my trivia reached.
A quick Wikipedia research showed to my surpris, that the second largest city of France was not that much bigger than Copenhagen with a population of 852.395 in the city.
And the stronger seemed the differences, when I walked through the streets, seeking and feeling the atmosphere. Even if I was constantly distracted by detecting the next iced drink, because of a 35°C heat wave, amplified in narrow, dusty streets lacking the green parks and pockets of Copenhagen and fountains and basins of most other Mediterranean cities.
What I experienced through the haze of the heat, was a rough metropolis, only very sparsely staged for the few tourists. ‘Reality’ is the strongest expression of this city, since the peeling paint is not a choice of charm, as one would find in smaller, more prosperous cities nearby. Since the city has been founded by the ancient greeks, history would be an obvious reason for picturesque stagings, wellknown from Paris and Rome. But Marseillan history is archeological and allocated to museums and brief summaries in guide books. Outside of those, it’s noticeably absent. Marseille has not had the time or considered it expedient to linger on an academic discipline such as the past.
Anyway, history is very present in Copenhagen as a part of a living now. Where for example the Acropolis is very dead indeed and absolutely detached from the sorrounding Athens, the Forum Romanum a little less detached from Rome. But history is physically visible and unavoidable. Marseille has apparently overwritten its history so frequent that it has never reached the nostalgia that elsewhere has led to preservation and musealization.
The people of Marseille is of a similarly fluctuating character, an everchanging collection of nomadic individuals of sailors and port workers who migrates around the Mediterraean ports. This claims Nicolas Memain, my new Marseille facebook friend who calls himself ‘gonzo urbanist’ and told me about his love for the poor suburbs and social housing areas in Marseille.
We met at his favorite café at the square Cours Julien in his favorite neighboorhood, that is too socially burdened to be hipster and too hipster to be hippie. A strong mix of ethnicities and ‘types’, families, young and old, losers and winners, accordian playing beggars, drunks and loonies. Disintegrating apartment blocks with cool small cafés, dining places, young design studios and vinyl shops in the ground floor, and streets decorated with lots of graffiti and benches with crocheting in stark colors, and also the water and also offering the basins and lush green spaces otherwise missing in the central Marseille.
We had to stop our conversation due to a loud scene between a drunk party who accused the system of everything and the female café owner who in turn told him to go to hell and leave her customers in peace.
Nicolas told me this square was alternating between police and gang dominance. Police tactics seems to be letting the residents deal with as much crime and harassment as possible, like the café femme fatale just did.
Especially in France Marseille has a bad reputation, cemented by national TV shows about drug dealers and gang crime. According to Nicolas this originates from Parisians who divert attention from their own social unrest, even riots. His grandparents living in Bordeaux, refuses to visit him in Marseilles out of fear of being shot, he told me in a strained ironic tone.
In his persistent defence of Marseille he still gave me an impression of a very rough city – at least in the eyes of soft skinned Scandinavian, wrapped in flexicurity. And now I felt even more naive and spoiled and just a little lucky that after a couple of days of vagrancy in poor areas I had only been under attack from the burning sun. Later three police officers on segways passed the square and I concluded it was a more quiet period.
Romantic – yes. Nostalgic? – no.
What I found appealing by Marseille was of course neither the suburban social deprivation, dead rats at the size of small cats, crippled beggars making Copenhagen homeless romas look classy, nor was it dirt, dust and waste floating around the streets.
Rather, it was a genuine and crude feeling of reality that one don’t meet at home, except sometimes at Nørrebro. Small and accidental leftover spaces that is sometimes taken over by enthusiastic individuals that somehow inhabits this little corner with pallet seating, plant boxes or skate ramps. An informal and temporary habitation, that in more affluent areas would be disposed of immediately by men in communal working outfits.
For the most part I don’t weep over the inevitable losses that is a part of progress, development, change, ‘fluxus‘. We will not see more sweet family movies set in our little village capital, and Vesterbro is getting nice. It is also a good thing that the high density lousy quality slums of Nørrebro are replaced with lush court yard gardens. Copenhagen has unrivaled urban qualities, much due to our paternalistic socialism and totalitarian planning dogma.
My romanticism is not nostalgia towards the past. But I sincerely hope that when the countless building cranes and scaffolds in central Copenhagen are gone, planners and architects forgot some corners that will be of no use until some of them might be taken over and used for something unplanned.
And I have a small fear that the inner Copenhagen with the Blox and Krøyers Plads projects will reach ‘the end of history’. And suffocate by its own success and by Danish Design™.
Contrasting the well planned and totally designed Copenhagen it was a peculiar emancipation cruising through kilometres of hopelessly ugly and neglected concrete social housing. And equally comforting to know, that I was not staying and living there, five meters from the highway without a beautifully planted sound barrier.
AND inspirational to see (city) life take place almost organically and without planning.
Since Marseille I’m delighted to know that it’ll be a while before increasing interest and apartment prices will kill the remaining reality reserve in Nordvest and Ydre Nørrebro.