European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Public spaces


   Space made out of combination of land and water with bridge connecting MUCEM with Fort Saint Jean in Marseille and walking made possible along the bottom of the fort beside the sea.


Many public spaces are non space. This can be explained by not being clear as to when they are meant to have there rituals be performed to safeguard as common ground at least some human gestures. This term is very well explained in the paper by Bart Verschaffel about 'architecture is (as) a gesture' and in which appears the following sentence at the beginning of the second paragraph: "The 'real', the 'authentic', the 'sincere'; are they all bastard children of the lost, vanished 'Truth'?"                             

                                            Hatto Fischer Work of Redemption needs to trust mistrust



In his speech given at the Seventh Interdisciplinary Conference of the University Network of the European Capitals of Culture, "Cultural Encounters - The Mosaic of Urban Identities", 17 - 18 October 2013, Ulrich Fuchs, vice director of Marseille-Provence 2013, stressed that Marseille put a lot of emphasis on public spaces, given the fact that there exists a poor population and hence more cultural events accessible at street level were planned for. He also stated that after having come to Marseille in 2009, he has not seen a greater transformation of a city than in the case of Marseille. For anyone coming now, it would be important to compare the present with how the situation was just a few years or even months before the opening. 

Public spaces in absence of commercialization

It is to be noted that space - public and private - does play a huge role in assessing the venues available for realizing a year long programme. This goes hand in hand with opening up of spaces as indicated, for example, by Palermo striving to become a 'Green city'. This development has started already a long time ago when even during the time of the CIED project which initiated planning with a cultural filter was applied in that city 1997-99. One of the many measures was to tear down walls especially in the backyards of houses, in order to reconnect spaces and to form green corridors leading on to open fields.

If spaces are meant to connect but are also distinguished insofar as they take on different meanings, and no better contrast exists in Athens as between Syntagma and Omonia square, they can also be militarized and be transformed into radical zones of detention, exclusion or else security with limited access or exit possibilities. The latter was once a major theme at the Aegean Seminars having always a radical approach to the question of space. But just mentioning these various approaches and concepts does not end the problem on how to distinguish spaces and different uses thereof.

Valletta in Malta has many spaces which distinguish hardly between what is public and what is private space. These two spheres of meaning are interwoven and most likely typical for condensed areas as can be the case inside a fortress. After all Valletta is a world heritage site. Confined to limited space, there are the walls and the view down to the big harbour. And as remarked at the conference "small city - big dreams" not everyone finds access to the cultural venues which are often hidden in some places so that people are confused whether this is indeed a public theatre or a private space. It can happen that people hesitate and therefore do not enter, thereby miss finding the theatre not to be seen from outside when walking through the narrow street.

There is as well another problem resulting out of confusion as to the meaning of sapce. Due to an over commercialization, it can happen that the difference between private and public is no longer clearly perceivable. A Greek curator observed while in Valletta something to which she was not accustomed to. In Greece cultural heritage sites and monuments are completely free from any commercial activity. This includes as well advertisement. Not so in Valletta for when stepping, for instance, outside the famous Cathedral, one is immediately inside a street cafe. This confusion has an impact upon collective and individual behaviour. Hence this curator observed that during festivities held in Valletta during the annual event called 'notte bianchi' - the white night - a lot of people intermingled but they left as well a huge amount of rubbish behind. The space whether private or public was soon full of litter. This may be due to not respecting any longer space as something public and therefore to be shared with others. Due to the confusion no one knew who was really responsibile for taking care of that space. 

In Marseille it was notable especially in the space around Villa Mediterraneee and MUCEM the very absence of any advertisement. As was the case with Weimar 1999, space free from commercial signs is like a holiday for the eyes. It contrasts with being constantly bombarded when going otherwise through cities' streets.

Categories of public spaces

Several categories come to mind when thinking about various types of public spaces. These can be markets, train stations, public squares with historical monuments, roads and parks, but also areas surrounding either newly created buildings like the Villa Mediterranee and MUCEM with a special linkage to Saint Jean fortress. The latter is unique due to a bridge connecting fortress and the museum for Civilization from Europe and Mediterranean with water playing here as well a significant role as it is not merely public, but also international waters since at the outer border of Europe. Ulrich Fuchs stressed this in connection with the exhibition of Le Corbusier taking place in the hanger J1 since there the fences indicate already the border. When exploring the city of Marseille during October 2013, naturally no systematic observance can be made. Rather the city is discovered by different ways e.g. someone local showing one around for a first orientation or else getting lost and then forced to find the way again even though one ended up going in circles. That means orientation is at times not that easy or the geographical location of the city along a shore line which is bent to include many different sizes of bays does not allow for assumptions to be made about something lying straight ahead but rather continues around the next bent.

Note: the categories need to be described more fully, and this in reflection of such essays as Public Truth and Public Space by Bart Verschaffel or The Gaze and the Touch in the Public Space. Toward the Political Aesthetics. by Adam Chmielewski The latter wrote the bid for Wroclaw to obtain the ECOC title for 2016.

Differences between day and night time

There need to be added some further observations on how Marseille has reshaped its sense for public spaces. For example, the beautification of the city along the port and shore line can attract tourists during day time, but come evening and night these spaces are all of a sudden empty. Some obvious and not so obvious factors have contributed towards that.

For one, the Romas were driven out of that area. Also local shop owners complained after the workers left, there were only few customers who got lost, so to speak, in the area. It will take time to be filled with new life.

It demonstrates the risks of top down urban interventions at a large scale. Some important restorations of all the arcades underneath the church may signal something, but in the area there is no longer the mix of people and activities which could sustain life in the area especially come night time.

The area was cleared of what could in the minds of the planners but also of city officials could be disturbing in the eyes of the tourists. Likewise the mayor of Athens Kamenis wanted the Syntagma Square cleared of the protesters against the austerity measures, and he used both aesthetical and hygiene arguments. Tourists want to see the monuments and the public square free from elements which bring only disturbance and even health risks as if these demonstrators were not clean.

This kind of white washing of a city to appear clean and safe will give these places more or less an artificial coating. That is to say, there is at risk that these places shall not be filled with life, and if, then not with what went on there before. Like in Paris once 'Les Halles' disappeared, life was exported outside the city centre.

These first impressions of Marseille were made during the first night of arrival on 15.10.2013. Some night photos can give a glimpse of what it is like, namely both magical and spooky at the same time.


     Looking past MUCEM towards Saint Jean tower


         Night scene of Marseille - overlooking the old harbour to other side

The vicinity of the harbour and therefore of the Mediterranean Sea creates already another space. It is mainly a visual one and does remind of the connection people used to have to the sea. The latter implies in more than one sense of the word a horizon. It equals to looking beyond what can be seen, for at the stretch of the imagination it is wondered what else exists on the other side of the world.

Day Time



Naturally during day time the place is changed. At least during this decisive year, they had many visitors. The moment there are people, places come alive. However, this marked difference between day and night does marks a problem in terms of living quality and security. For if a place is only used during day time and people no longer in the streets after a certain hour, then like down town areas or Brussels with all the EU buildings being completely empty once office hours are over, that dead material weighs down heavily on the city. All the contradictions become apparent when a success is regarded if vibrant cultural hubs are created and this seems only possible if there is a certain mix achieved between business, cultural institutions, residencies and restaurants or other places of enjoyment. If the entire thing becomes too commercial, it can disturb the residences who want to sleep and not be kept awake by a lot of noise. On the other hand, those with extra energies to spend and who will want to stay up all night, they need affordable spaces to do their creative works but as Kaszimierz in Krakoiw shows, the transformation of a former place marked by synagogues can become an alienated place of lofts and expensive bars. A kind of safeguarding of these places does not seem easy as shown as well by Valetta where the mixture between private and public spaces plays a role in confusing people as to what kind of behaviour is to be expected from them. Public spaces in Greece near and around historical monuments are restricted areas where no commercial activity should take place. Hence it is to be welcome that in the public spaces created in Marseille there is an absence of commercial signs.




The vicinity of the harbour and therefore of the Mediterranean Sea creates already another space. It is mainly a visual one and does remind of the connection people used to have to the sea. The latter implies in more than one sense of the word a horizon. It equals to looking beyond what can be seen, for with the imagination it can be wondered what else exists on the other side of the world.


School children taken by the teacher to start games bounding off the wall


Space up on Saint Jean











Playfulness of Space - the mirror in the Old Harbour







Old Harbour and Fish market

People gathering at the fishing boats - a Saturday morning (19.10.2013)




Salt of the earth - artists performing in public spaces


The painter



                    The musicians



Boulevard along Old Harbour









Old Harbour in the direction of Saint Jean, Villa Mediterranea and MUCEM




Part of the old harbour


    Walking in the direction of Fort Saint Jean


City near Old Harbour


Decorative element during 2013






Glance from public space to old harbour



     Just another glance along a road going above the old harbour



                  Space for everything: car, rubbish cans, cafe and entrance to a soap shop



At every corner another space to sit down



                  Hans and Nicole going up stairs while exploring the city



Many stairs leading on to new spaces


Area of J1









Imaginary advertisement - the only graffiti found in the square


J 1




View from atop J1


Public places


          Streetcar stop

While waiting for the street car to come early in the morning, interesting to experience the traffic. Some come by bicycles, others exit the Metro and cross the road to continue their journey with the street car. Others walk. The atmosphere is as unusual as usual. There are a significant amount of small jobs selling sandwiches and other kinds of food. Beside it are the pharmacies and small shops ranging from electronical equipment to shoes. It is a mixture which cannot be understood right away if there is any pattern to it or they happen to locate themselves there by chance. Life does not tell all stories right away.

 Rue Republic

Sign posts put up to hide what is behind


     Passage Lorette - passing through on way to Charite



      Pencil pointing the way in the Lorette passage




     Road passing by main entrance to Charite



        Public square vis a vis the entrance



The charite was constructed to help meet the needs of the poor and of the migrants. It was a hospital but now it houses besides the University as well the centre international de poésie Marseille



Entrance to Charite


The poetry centre is tucked away in the corner of a long corridor, itself another kind of space which reminds of monastery like constructions but also of the wisdom to allow walking outside but under cover so no matter whether it rains or the sun beats down, it is a protected space.





Daily market on avenue Prado



In the midst of the city but a certain district with clear distinction from the Northern Suburbs, there is this typical life of the street market. Once the time is over, then the cleaners come. By now they have machines but still those men with the big brooms are needed to sweep up everything left behind by the countless stands. And they do so by using as well a lot of water running along the street. This raises naturally the question where does the litter end up being swept towards if not right into the open sea?


The scene is a kind of repetition which shows how a city takes care of how a space looks before, during and after a street market has sprung up like a miracle and then disappears again once the official hours are over. Only a newspaper kiosk close to the Metro entrance and a flower shop remain on this broad part of the avenue.


Later on it is possible to discover many more markets, their variety also an indication of street vendours being a way to sell especially two kinds of commodities marking Marseille: soap and ceramic pieces. Both are good gifts for tourists to take back home.




Public place: the train station Saint Charles


          Train station Saint Charles


While waiting, there is given every opportunity to look around. Near one waiting point, a travel guide hands out tickets to her group. Near-by mothers with their children huddle together like setting up a circular wagon camp. Many try to find a seat even if they do not order anything to eat from the nearby counter. Opposite is another shop to obtain sandwiches, coffees and the like. The L-shaped counter directs the people to stand in line along the right side. A young woman works behind the cashier. Someone takes time to find the coins. Unrest passes like vibration down the line as if transformed into an angry cobra ready to devour the person holding up the line. 

The public space of Saint Charles is interrelated with the bus terminal bringing people from the airport or else taking them by shuttle bus to that other departure or arrival point in Marseille. Underneath Saint Charles is the Metro line which is small in scale in comparison to other metros. That means space is narrow and confined along the platforms, but up in the train station where the platforms for the trains are, it is an elongated shopping passage with many trees decorating the row of shops.


Interesting is to notice suddenly first one man sitting down at a piano and starting to play. Then a young boy attracts by standers as if they witness another Mozart playing at early age magic like music. The piano can be taken as a public symbol of the city being European Capital of Culture. Indeed, it says something about the authorities in charge to put a piano in a train station, a piano which anyone can play. The boy plays on. Wonderful music crowds out the other noises. For one moment other things arrive and depart, and may they be dreams about someone arriving for whom one has been waiting for such a long time.

Text and photos by Hatto Fischer (1.12.2013)

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