Jonathan Meades

Babylon on Sea

Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille

By

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Yesterday I drove ten minutes from my apartment to a place that delights me: Sormiou, in southernmost Marseille. Not to the famously idyllic calanque (or cove) of that name, but to the hulking Leclerc hypermarket and its Ruscha-esque petrol station, which are surrounded by unremarkable recent low-rise buildings and a sylvan car park that is often a site of space rage. So far so conventional. What distinguishes this place is that its everyday banality collides with the limestone hills of the Marseilleveyre, which rise sheer and magnificent across the road. From where I work, I get another perspective of the hills: they loom over a series of twenty-storey blocks designed by Guillaume Gillet, who was in thrall to Alvar Aalto’s notion of the ‘forest town’. Indeed, the surrounding pines are so dense that the lower floors suffer perpetual dusk. The disjunction of rectilinear chaos and natural sublimity is enchantingly impure, and a summation of the city.

Nicholas Hewitt died in March, less than a month after completing the text of Wicked City. It’s a fine monument to his curiosity, compendious knowledge, resourcefulness and measured enthusiasm. He calls it ‘a series of snapshots’, which is perhaps too modest. If they are snapshots, they have been photoshopped and retouched to accord with his vision of the city and its well-rehearsed mythology of outsiderdom and exceptionalism, edginess and banditry. And his aspiration to explore Marseille’s hold on the ‘nation’s imagination’ is also too modest. The ‘international imagination’ would be more apt. There is no second city in western Europe, save Barcelona, whose appeal and reputation enjoy such recognition. Marseille is supposedly France’s Liverpool: bolshie, problematic, uncontrollable, a source of magnetic fascination to foreigners and an embarrassment to the rest of the country.

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