Ambivalent Marseille: immigration and urban strategies

architecture research

As a port city, Marseille is a typical example of a place where both
architecture and immigration come together and though much has been
said and written about each, they have hardly been studied in relation to
one another. The seemingly opposite terms of architecture (grounded
and stable) and immigration (uprooted and mobile) have discouraged a
combined study so far. However, with its broad maritime ramifications
and focus on the colonies, Marseille has always been a city of
movement and passage, where settlement was not necessarily preferred above mobility. Ideas and ideals about the city were influenced and shaped with and by the arrival of immigrants. And though immigrant groups often have been marginalized and dismissed as unimportant, their story has always been part of the city too. Indeed the arrival of immigrants has repeatedly and substantially changed the city’s urban landscape and its everyday experiences. Throughout the twentieth century Marseille’s biggest concern in relation to immigrants has been their informal way of settling in terms of construction, trade, culture and habits. In order to cope with these informal immigrant structures Marseille used the visual and spatial strategies of representation and urban development [see two photographs below].

Ambivalent Marseille: immigration and urban strategies researched
the twentieth century spatial history and appearance of immigration in Marseille. Analysing subjects within the context of colonization, the
Second World War and decolonization, the research shows that Marseille increased to develop an ambivalent attitude towards cosmopolitanism and plurality versus local identity and urban development.

1. MuCEM, designed by Rudy Riciotti (2013) in the context of Marseille European capital of culture 2013.
1.1 CMA CGM tower, designed by Zaha Hadid (2010) as part of the urban redevelopment project of Euroméditerranée.
Rue de la République, constructed between 1861 – 1867

The example of the rue de la République [see photographs 2. and 2.1 below], a street that used to be inhabited by many immigrants, concretises the Euroméditerranée project and Marseille’s strategies of urban self-representation. Contrary to most parts of the city center, the rue de la République lacks every form of liveliness and has been deprived of all the activity it once must have had. Shops have been closed down, locked off with commercial panels claiming future business perspectives of: “Nouveaux lieux de vie au coeur the votre ville” and “Rue de la République my shopping street.” The rue de la République is undergoing a major transformation that has all the characteristics of a large-scale gentrification process: the eviction of tenants allows for renovation of the apartment blocks and commercial spaces, leading to the upgrading of the street in terms of market value and the increase of rents and/or privatization of property. In other words former tenants will never be able to return to their neighbourhood.

2 Closed off buildings in Rue de la République, (2014)
2.1 Graffiti in Le Pannier neighborhood, (2014)

In the decades before the Second World War, different cultural
expressions, such as literature, advertisements and the events of the
colonial exhibitions, embodied the city’s increasing self-consciousness
and the desire to consolidate its position in relation to Paris. Marseille
used its geographical position and the idea of the Mediterranean to
distinguish itself from the capital city [fig. 3. and 3.1]. Although
Marseille’s Mediterraneanism was ambitious, it was also ambivalent. On
the one hand it evoked the city’s (ancient) Mediterranean culture and its
cosmopolitan character –caused by the settling of foreigners and maritime ramifications with the colonies. On the other hand Marseille’s
cosmopolitanism was experienced as a dangerous phenomenon because it was seen as a threat to the city’s local cultural values, such as its picturesque folk life. This discrepancy became visible with the colonial exhibitions where Marseille manifested its greatness as ‘port of the colonies’ by recalling a grandiose Africa and exhibiting its ‘exotic’
indigenous people [fig. 3.2.]. Simultaneously the Panier quarter in the centre of Marseille was conceived as a ‘souk of passion’, were the same ‘exotic’ people and their habits turned into a threat [photo 3.3].

3. Advertisement Navigation Paquet, Maroc (1925)
3.1 Advertisement PLM and Transatlantique, Paris–Alger liaison rapide par Marseille (date unknown)
3.2 Colonial Exhibition Marseille, rue des Souks (1922)
3.3 Sub-Saharan Africans in the Quartier Réservé, Rue Lantermery (date unknown)
Dynamited Zone of the Panier quarter during the Second World War

In the first decades of the twentieth century the majority of Marseille’s
deployed strategies concerned the city’s self-representation by
strengthening its position as an imperial port. Most urban concepts and
thoughts that were developed during this period remained paper
versions and were not put into practice. However, they marked the first
visions on handling the ‘problem of immigration’. Many of the strategies
that were deployed during and after the Second World War, for example,
were based on ideas that already existed as paper concepts or as public
opinions, shaped by literature and popular writings based on prejudices.
The destruction of the Panier –an immigrant quarter in the Old Port of
Marseille– by the Germans during the Second World War marked the
first executed strategy of major impact, albeit in the context of a war [map above]. In the following decades, when the number of immigrants increased due to the process of decolonisation and their appearance became more visible due to the postwar housing crisis, the spatial strategies became more frequent and more aggressive. The city’s strategies were now focused on the creation of temporary camps, the clearance of slums, the re-housing of immigrants, and the construction of transitional dwellings [see map above and photographs below].

4.: The French architect Fernand Pouillon designed the tunnel vaults of camp Grand Arénas (ca. 1945). During the post-war years racial and cultural differences in relation to unhygienic and asocial habits were structurally used as strategy to legitimate the eviction and relocation of immigrant squatters and slum-dwellers from the centre of Marseille to camps like Grand Arénas. Although these camps were built as temporary accommodations, people lived there for many years.
4.1 Many families that had been living in slums and were labelled ‘asocial’ according to authority surveys, were relocated during the 1950s to transitional dwellings like La Paternelle (1959). The dwellings were designed by Ch. Lestrade and constructed with prefabricated materials that were already in stock.

4.2 Enclos Peyssonnel, photo report Marseille Magazine, (1954)
Quartier Belsunce, Sub-Saharan African esthablishments 1950s/1960s

After the Second World War life hardened for immigrants, the housing
crisis had left many of them on the streets. Government policies were
based on reconstruction of the centre, with a focus on the redevelopment of the Panier, and the clearance of undesirable realities such as the inner city slums. In the beginning of the 1950s a relatively small number of Sub-Saharan Africans managed to create a close-knit community in Belsunce. However, their wish for better housing led to the disintegration of the community because new housing was provided at the periphery of the city in the mid-1960s. The process of relocation increased during the first decades of decolonisation. The North Africans, who formed the largest group of immigrants and had come to Marseille as labourers to work in the industries and construction activities, were subject to contradictory political strategies. Before Algerian independence, the national government launched a welfare program as a charm offensive to ‘win the hearts of Algerians’ and counter the influence of the FLN (Front de Libération
Nationale de Algérie). After independence the Algerians lost their French nationality and became foreigners to the French law. Many organizations that were created to help the Algerians, now focused on immigrants in general, leaving the Algerians more and more to their fate. This has become clear with the case of La Paternelle [see photograph below]. The transitional dwellings –which were erected for asocial immigrants of whom the majority was of Algerian nationality– were meant as a temporary solution, but became a long-term accommodation for more than twenty years before new dwellings were finally constructed.

5.: During the 1980s the new Paternelle was constructed in a regionalist and village like design that carries influences of the closed architecture of the North African casbah. Today La Paternelle remains a ‘fortified’ village in the urban landscape of industry and high-rise, marginalized and criminalized by the media and cut off from the environment and society.
Foreigners in Marseille, percentage of total population per quarter, 1982

After the economically difficult years of the 1980s both the city and the
immigrants found their own solutions to deal with the collapsed industries and the subsequent unemployment. While the city adopted the strategy of urban redevelopment/gentrification (Euroméditerranée) and culture (Marseille European capital of culture 2013), focusing again on its self-representation, the immigrants started to develop economic networks to serve and maintain their own communities. Although the city intercepted some of these informal economic structures, they opposed a remarkable resistance because they were largely integrated in the structure of the city itself. In other words they had become part of the city. Today these informal commercial structures have become the most visible aspects of immigrants in Marseille, small commercial establishments pop-up in particular areas in the city. In the quarters Belsunce and Noailles, in the heart of the centre, immigrants have established an African market and many typical specialty shops such as: internet and telephone shops, hairdressers, groceries, hallal butchers,bakeries, clothing shops, tea salons, restaurants etc., and in the Northern quarters the market of Les Puces you can find anything you need: food, clothes, animals, second-hand furniture, mattresses, cars, tools etc [see photograph below]. In providing specific services and specialties that cannot be found in the average shops around Marseille, the shop owners mainly serve their own community. However, the complete different atmosphere of Noailles’ North African market also attracts tourists, who stray from Marseille’s main shopping streets a few blocks away.

6 Rue d’Aubagne, Noailles neighborhood, (2014)
6.1 Rue Baignoir, Belsunce neighborhood, (2014)
6.2 Les Puces, (2014)

The main strategies that immigrants deploy to settle down are those of
adaptation and appropriation. They adapt to certain structures of French society while maintaining their own cultural values, and appropriate spaces in the city by establishing communities and social networks in which religion and cultural background play an important role. In order to make a living, immigrants rely on their networks through which they can create informal economic frameworks and commercial businesses that evade the dominant model of trade. As has become clear in the case of the Panier quarter, these informal structures have been approached as a marginal and undesirable phenomenon, and were seen as a threat rather than as an added value to the city. Nevertheless, today the quarters of Belsunce and Noailles show that the informal immigrant strategies survive and continuously re-establish themselves. The informal appropriation and commercial activities of immigrant shops and market places create hopeful expectations. They make clear that immigrants have finally been able to prove their substantial contribution to the city.