Norman Foster’s Marseille Mirror Roof – The Vieux Port Pavilion

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

Introduction

The Vieux Port has always been the center of cultural life in Marseille. Since the 16th century, the Le Vieux port of Marseille has been a center of trade and activity. Indeed, the port is regarded by many as the beating heart of the city and is considered one of the most vital parts of this ancient city.

Vieux Port Marseille
Vieux Port Marseille, photo: public domain

The Old Port may have started as a fishing port. However, from the 1840s onwards, new docks were added to accommodate larger ships. As the port grew, its waterfront had started to become inaccessible to pedestrians, thus cutting the area off from the city. As such, the authorities were forced to come up with a master plan for its regeneration.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

The mission was to recover the docksides and transform them into a public space. The architects charged with the regeneration process were also required to remove traffic to create a safe, pedestrian-friendly area where people could safely gather for events and performances. This is how the idea of the Vieux Port pavilion was birthed.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

The pavilion

The pavilion at Vieux Port was added to revitalize the port area, thus transforming it into a hub for the locals to meet and gather. The pavilion was a simple, inconspicuous canopy that was constructed from very reflective stainless steel. The 46 by 22-meter pavilion is supported by thin pillars, providing a roofed space for people to assemble at the easter edge of the port.

Construction of Foster + Partners' Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Construction of Foster + Partners’ Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Ombrière en construction. février 2013 (CC BY 2.0) Jeanne Menjoulet

The mirrored surface of the pavilion not only reflects the people standing underneath the reflected roof but also the surrounding environs, buildings, boat activity, and the shimmering water a few paces away. The pavilion was constructed as one of the many projects that were completed for the European Capital of Culture 2013, which was initiated by the architectural firm Foster + Partners.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière) (detail), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Ombrière, Vieux Port, Marseille (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) [email protected]

Speaking about the project, Lord Foster said1:

I know the harbour at Marseille well and it is a truly grand space. This project is a great opportunity to enhance it using very simple means, to improve it with a large pavilion for events, for markets, for special occasions. Our approach has been to work with the climate, to create shade, but at the same time to respect the space of the harbour – just making it better.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: L’ombrière (CC BY-NC 2.0) francoisaix

Open on all sides, the pavilion resolved all the structural and aesthetic problems that had plagued the area for so long. To make sure that the pavilion was strong and capable of withstanding harsh weather, the architects added a stiff central frame and a slight curve in the outline that tapers towards the sides as a way of minimizing the visual effect.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

In addition to installing the pavilion, the developers also replaced the boathouses on the quaysides with new platforms. The landscape was re-designed by Michel Desvigne, who added brand new granite paving, which resonated with the original color of the existing limestone cobbles. Cast iron bollards were also added to maximize the flexibility of the area.

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Location

Address: Quai de Rive Neuve, 13001 Marseille, France

Hours: 24h

Closest metro station: Vieux Port

After & Before of Foster + Partners' Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013
After & Before of Foster + Partners’ Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013

Today, the port is still as active and relevant as it was in the 19th century. These days, cruise ships and large tankers still use the port to offload tourists, as well as incoming freight.

The Vieux Port is also today’s marina and where tourists go to book boats and yachts for their tourist excavations. The port has also since become a meeting spot for locals. People gather at the port for food and drink as it is where most of the city’s restaurants are situated.

Plan & section view

Section view of Foster + Partners' Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013
Section view of Foster + Partners’ Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013
Plan view of Foster + Partners' Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013
Plan view of Foster + Partners’ Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013

Final words

This work cleverly blends architecture and art and is deemed one of Norman Foster’s most distinct and outstanding creations. Those interacting with the giant mirror roof reported feeling light-headed and as if being magnetized. By having a thinner profile toward the edges, the building minimizes its visible weight.

Foster + Partners - Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter
Foster + Partners – Marseille Vieux Port (L’Ombrière), 2013, stainless steel, pillars, 46 x 22 meter, photo: Mirror in the sky (CC BY-NC 2.0) marcbi91

Footnotes

  1. https://www.architectmagazine.com/project-gallery/vieux-port-pavilion

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