16 March 2012

Two Tales of Mass Housing in Marseille - La Tourette and La Rouvière

In the previous post I have already pointed out that Marseille is somewhat different from other French cities when it comes to mass (social) housing. Through their spread of grands ensembles all over the city, ghettoization of the poor is limited which furthermore might be part of the reason why Marseille was not so much affected by uprisings and riots in recent years despite the cities diverse population structure.
As the second Marseille post I would like to juxtapose two typical housing situations of the city: One is the ensemble of La Tourette in immediate proximity of the Old Port in the city centre and La Rouvière on the city’s fringes of the southern mountains.

La Tourette:
La Tourette viewed from the Old Port

In 1943, the German military, aided by the Vichy regime, cleared thousands of people from the twisting lanes of the old port, deported thousands to concentration camps and dynamited at leas 15000 buildings. The intent was to cripple the resistance based in the narrow streets of  Le Panier and the dockside. Vast areas of the city structure got destroyed during WW II. After the war a shortage of housing prepared the ground for high-rise mass housing structures to get erected. La Tourette is one of the most prominent of those examples. It’s tower is significant for Marseilles skyline. The housings blocks were built between 1949 and 1953 and were designed by local architects Fernand Pouillon and René Egger.
Its four buildings, the tallest of which is a 21-storey tower block were built using precast concrete decks with cross walls in shuttered concrete and outside walls made thicker with stone casing. It was to become a much-imitated system as France and Europe were rebuilt after the war since it became a new model of economical housing (minimal constructions costs, highly efficient insulation scheme). At that time the building was famous for the lowest costs per square meter.
Meanwhile the ensemble is well integrated in Marseille’s city-scape. I was not able to find out about the social mix within the housing scheme. Nevertheless it is still a rare example of a large scale social housing projects within the city center.

La Tourette 
La Tourette Tower

La Rouvière:

La Rouvière at the far back, seen from Unité d'Habitation
Inside La Rouvière
In stark contrast to La Tourette is the area of La Rouvière south of the city centre. I took notice of the area since the huge tower blocks are well visible from many viewpoints of the city. Seen from afar, these tower blocks are so incredible in size that I got very curious to visit. In anticipation of a typical banlieue quarter known from the suburbs of Paris I arrived there and I experienced something completely different. In fact La Rouvière is a sort of upper middle class (almost) gated community-like fortress of high standard living with beautiful views on the city and the deep blue Côte d’Azur. Coming from the city centre with it’s heterogeneous appearance, the power of difference was completely lost in La Rouvière. Not only that the income structure is levelled, also the age structure appears to be very homogeneous: I would inhabitants are 60 years and above; a paradise for well-off elderly on the probably a few degrees cooler hillside. Built at a time were racial and inequality tensions were frequent in the city of Marseille, La Rouvière has provided a save haven on the city’s fringe, far away from the crime ridden centre. By 1971 the tower blocks were built on a 13 hectares hillside site and are housing approximately 3000 residents. One tower, three straight and three kinked blocks are built on a site which drops 80 metres. The massive Super-Rouvière housing block stands proud on top of the hill. In between the blocks streets are looping upwards. In some areas small parks find a space to settle within the 25 storey buildings. A small local centre houses a supermarket, a café and a pharmacy. A graveyard and a private hospital are in close proximity. For residents, the primary modes of transport are cars as the quarter is poorly connected to the city’s public transport system. The architect Roul Guyot has designed an impressive almost utopian fortress that withdraws from any comparison within the city. La Rouvière appears to be a city quarter, which is also very unique in Europe and is reminiscent of well known high-density gated communities in the suburbs of megacities in Asia or Latin America. 
Super Rouvière
La Rouviere