Competition and programme In 2004 the French Ministry of Culture held a competition for the MuCEM Conservation and Resources Centre, to be built on industrial wasteland on the La belle de mai site near the Saint-Charles Railway Station in Marseille. The competition winners announced in September 2004 were the architectural team of Corinne Vezzoni et associés/AURA.
Designed for the storage and study of the collections, the 13,000 m2 Conservation and Resources Centre (CCR) is situated on the former 1.2 hectare Bugeaud military terrain housing the Le muy barracks. The site is located in Marseille’s La belle de mai district. It has room for a second phase extension for the reserve collections. The Centre houses all the museum’s reserve collections, its documentation resources, library and scientific archives. The MuCEM CCR carries out the museum’s primary missions, namely to store, conserve, study, document, maintain and develop the collections. Another function of the Centre is to be a living instrument for promoting and disseminating the collections through a vigorous loan and deposit policy. The Centre must also help heritage professionals, researchers and students by making all the MuCEM collections and resources accessible to them. Part of the reserve collections and the temporary exhibitions are open to the public by appointment. In November 2009 Bruno Suzarelli was named to head the MuCEM. The EMOC (Public Contracting Authority for Cultural Programs) was selected to act as the Contracting authority. This marked the first public-private partnership undertaken by the French Ministry of Culture, which in 2006 mandated the Icade Group (a subsidiary of the Caisse des dépôts) to finance and realise the museum and operate it for a 25-year period.
Architectural and urban part The La belle de mai district contains industrial wasteland and already hosts the City’s municipal archives, La friche de la belle de mai (cultural activities) and the pôle média with studios. The Conservation Centre completes the facilities in this district, which focuses on cultural development and is readily accessible as right next to the railway station.
A monolith sculptured by light Corinne Vezzoni installed the MuCEM collections conservation building in a radical and compact manner on the site, selecting the largest possible size to reflect the nearby industrial structures and base of the artillery barracks. The intent of the building’s unique volume – easily identifiable in a fleeting glimpse by train passengers – is to send out an urban message and to echo the MuCEM. With the same 72x72 meter footprint as the MuCEM, the Centre sends a fraternal message to the museum. On the site the architect has implanted a large roughfinished concrete monolith, akin to a block of rock, scooped out to let the light in: a direct reference to the works of the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida 1 The shell is made of rough wood-textured concrete (mottled and poured in situ) that is carved out and hollowed to highlight the luminosity of the smooth white reflective concrete in the heart of the building.
Behind the scenes From the street, the Centre matches the scale of the nearby industrial structures and emphasizes the lines of buildings. Although passers-by only see a rough-finished, ochre-coloured concrete facade, this apparent impenetrability is offset by the interior, structured around bright south-facing patios. An inner world is created around these hollow spaces. The offices are sheltered from city noise and look out over the park, creating a peaceful atmosphere. As much as possible of the existing vegetation has been kept and the presence of the interior garden is sensed from the street. Pedestrians enter from the original small square. The reserve collection building is naturally more introverted as it tells the story of the hidden works and develops what is not visible - unlike the MuCEM, which represents the visible part of the institution. For the architect, “the reserve collections are the other side of the coin, what is behind the scenes”. The roof is covered by large slabs of coloured concrete, emphasizing the shape of the monolith and creating a fifth facade, viewed from the Le Muy barracks and railway tracks. Two of the existing buildings have been kept and renovated: a hangar on the street to welcome transiting collections and a building of living quarters for foreign research workers.
The challenge of conserving the works Conserving the works presents a major challenge for the MuCEM Conservation and Resources Centre as the reserve collections must be kept at a specific temperature and hygrometry. This requirement, which is satisfied by an air processing plant that outputs 12,000 m3/hour and feeds each of the reserve areas containing the collections, generates important routing and crossover constraints for the networks and fluids. These constraints are all the more severe as the architectural design requires equipment and gratings to be invisible on the facade and roof.
The raison d’être of the Conservation and Resources Centre is to provide a protected space for the collections and resources that are stored in over 7,000 m2 of reserve areas on three levels, in accordance with temperature and hygrometric storage standards.The areas are partitioned in modules so that the collections can be organized and conserved according to their size and bulk (specified structural overstressing of 1.5 metric tons/m3), material and, for certain, specific environmental conditions. Four small low-temperature areas are provided for the most sensitive objects. The areas for object takeover and processing – such as packing/unpacking, quarantine room, equipment storage, and object preparation for exhibitions – are located near the delivery space. Other facilities include: an anoxia chamber for handling potentially infested objects; a document restitution workshop for treating collections of this type in-house; a large filming workshop; and a restoration workshop. Aside from taking care of the collections, the spaces in the Centre house the documentation collections, the scientific archives and a library to support research. The programme innovates in opening up the building’s reserve areas to the public (visits by appointment).
A public-private partnership (PPP) This is the first time a cultural facility – the building cost is 15 million euros – is constructed and financed by a public-private partnership. In a context of budgetary restraint, the French Ministry of Culture called on Icade – a property operator and subsidiary of the Caisse des depots – to handle the financing. The partnership operates like a leasing arrangement: the State pays Icade an annual rent during 25 years, at the end of which the State becomes the exclusive owner of the building.