Inverted Theatre

Thirty years ago when I first visited Marseilles, I wandered along the portside. The atmosphere was seedy, the air densely polluted, rubbish strewn in the streets: an unattractive dockland, smelly, uninviting and quite unsafe, untamed. This recent visit led me back to the area around the old port, only to be surprised by the re-invention, delighted by the easy flow of pedestrian access, the lack of traffic (diverted to allow the portside to thrive), the throng of international tourists eating ice-creams and almond toffee from the street vendors. There is still some of the old feeling – but it is well camouflaged, as the small fishing boats make their way among the luxury yachts and the modern cafes sell a myriad of types of coffee out of the street-level doors of the old buildings, but the old adds to the atmosphere of life, the exchange, the jumble and connectivity – the theatre of it all.

Centrepiece in this theatre is the screen: Norman Foster’s blank canvas of stainless steel that takes the street theatre, the bubbling pedestrian life and inverts it, turns the esplanade upside-down – reflects it back to us inspiring imagination, thrilling children and photographers alike.

The remodel of Vieux-Port, where Norman Foster’s ‘Ombrière’ mimics the rectangle of the repaved waterfront, compels people to pause. The summer heat radiates from the sidewalk forcing the audience into this sidewalk theatre and, once there, it is impossible not to look at the stage, to look up, to see the faces, the walkers, the traffic and then to step in and out of the theatre looking at it from one angel and then another. Where the old port had lost its pedestrian life, the remodel has brought it back and highlighted it, placing it centre-stage and above. Walking down the esplanade the vibrancy of Marseilles harbour and its uniqueness is accentuated by fun sculptures of Dali’s clock and elephant on long legs. Almost as quirky, Foster’s mirror on long legs adds the exclamation mark, marks the heritage and the new of this UNESCO-listed old city.

Architect Norman Foster is responsible for giving Marseilles its mirror - a thin sheet of polished stainless steel on 6m high columns, scintillating slim legs for the rectangular plate held high above the crowds, the water, the buildings and yet so unassuming. The plate functions as a sunshade and a public umbrella that turns the bustle of the port life upside down. If you stand on the dockside jetty and look into the water you can see the reflection of this town, but if stand beneath this brilliant piece of engineered art, you can see more than reflection, you can see the town looking back.

‘The space of the port is so strong,’ says project director Spencer de Grey. ‘We didn't want to make anything too visually intrusive. The structure had to have a big, transformative impact when you approached it, but disappear into the background from a distance.’

This work part of the revamping of Marseilles for the European Capital of Culture 2013. The landscape design for the new portside was developed by Michel Desvigne and includes a new pale granite surface, referencing the original limestone cobbles. Other buildings include Zaha Hadid’s 140m tall building, offices for the port’s largest shipping company.

Image: Norman Foster’s Inverted Theatre, Marseilles: Jessica Syme 2013