“Les Docks de Marseille” – Marseille’s historical building projected into the future.
The Marseille Docks: location and project
“Les Docks de Marseille”. That’s how the French call this historical building located in the business district in Marseille, France. The building houses over 200 companies and about 3,500 employees. The Marseille Docks house offices, company and multinational headquarters, restaurants, and several other services. A historical building that has taken a giant step into the future, thanks to the project by the 5+1AA Alfonso Femia and Gianluca Peluffo architectural firm and the use of Casalgrande Padana materials.
Diamante Boa: The Diamond that makes the Marseille Docks shine
In addition to breathing new life into the Marseille Docks, architects Femia and Peluffo revamped the entire building using Casalgrande Padana porcelain stoneware tiles. Almost 3,000 sq.m of material was used to give the Marseille Docks a new appearance. In particular, Peluffo and Femia chose the tiles of the Granitogres Unicolore collection
(in Blu Forte, Blu Chiaro, Blu Scuro, Azzurro, Bianco), Granitoker Cemento collection (in Cassero Grigio), and the Gresplus Diamante Boa collection, as well as special trims made to measure. The tiles used for the façade, internal and external flooring, and the interiors, embellished the courtyards and walkways with colour contrasts and innovative shapes.
The façade coverings of the Marseille Docks courtyards were made using made-to-measure ceramic tiles and installation systems.
For the Blue courtyard, the porcelain stoneware tiles of the Granitogres range were used. In particular, the Unicolore collection in Blu, Blu Forte, Verde, Bianco B, and other special tones.
The distinctive feature of this project lies in the fact that these 30×30 cm tiles with a polished finish were fragmented and then skilfully recomposed in an original craquelure pattern installed on aluminium panels using suitable glue. The elements obtained this way were sent to the construction site to be fixed to a special metal substructure. The same procedure was adopted for the exterior flooring.
For the Green courtyard, specially-made 60×60 cm porcelain stoneware tiles with a 10.5 mm thickness were used. These tiles feature a structured surface thanks to the use of a punch obtained from a special plaster mould drawn and moulded by ceramic artist, Danilo Trogu.
The ceramic tiles, manufactured in 5 RAL colours in tones of green, were cut using the water-jet technique to obtain two rhomboid elements from each piece. Each piece was then reinforced by applying a glass fibre safety mesh. Finally, 4 undercut truncated cone holes 5.5 mm deep were created on the back of these elements to house the special Keil metal expansion anchors to attach each tile to the metal substructure fixed to the façade. The metal structure was supplied by the Turin-based company Bodino Engineering, which also installed the metal structure and the tiles on-site.
For the interiors, ceramic materials of the Cemento collection in Cassero Grigio colour and the Diamante Boa collection were used.
A brief history of the Marseille Docks
The project of the Marseille Docks was launched back in 1856 by Paulin Talabot, a successful engineer and politician.
“Les Docks de Marseille” were constructed under the supervision of architect Gustave Desplace. They had 4 warehouses, each of which had an internal courtyard and a management building called “Hôtel de Direction”.
In an article on Abitare.it dedicated to the refurbishment by 5+1AA, we read that “in the mid-19th century, when they were built, the Marseille Docks were the third biggest construction project ever carried out in France. And it is not hard to see why when you look at the massive, six-storey-high complex of white Provence stone that stretches for almost 400 metres along the edge of the cargo port. Yet, this area is also just a few steps from the Panier, the old city centre.”
The building had already been renovated and converted into offices and shops in 1995; however, the works did not enhance the ground floor, which was not particularly interesting for all those who wanted to experience the city and its Docks in a natural and adventurous way. The need to provide a unique experience in Marseille and relaunch the area through a more ambitious project was made possible in 2007, when JP Morgan Asset Management took over the complex.
The revamping of this delicate urban space with such a promising potential was entrusted to 5+1AA, who tried to capture the true essence of those spaces. As architect, Alfonso Femia, told to Abitare.it:
“The starting point was a search for the soul of the docks […] For many years it was hidden away in the cargo port, the building was seen by the people of Marseille as a physical barrier between east and west, between the historic centre and the sea. We have tried to turn it into a public place that will be permeable, productive and social. But also intimate.”
This inspired the idea of a narrative sequence that would accompany visitors through the central part of the building transformed into a public space that connects the two squares at each end of the Docks, Place de la Joliette and Place de la Méditerranée. The latter was further embellished with a perforated metal structure that covers the façade of the Docks and bears the words that writers and poets have used over time to describe those places.
Why are we talking about the Marseille Docks?
Another great milestone in the long history of the Marseille Docks was the prize awarded at the tenth edition of the Casalgrande Padana Grand Prix International Architecture Competition. The 5+1AA architectural firm chose Casalgrande Padana ceramic materials to give new appearance and character to spaces and volumes, through a project that they describe as the
“Revelation of the beauty of the place to share it. The transformation of the Marseille Docks helps renew the ties between the site and the city, users and inhabitants, the past and the future. The architecture is a specific response to a precise context. The project weaves relations between the Docks, the city, and the sea. The basement of the existing building becomes an open system that extends to the sea through penetrations, transparencies, and new relations; the arrangement of the internal courtyards is based on the different traffic flows and their intensity in those places.”
“Docks de Marseille” among the Casalgrande Padana Grand Prix winners
This same project won the First Prize in the Façade Coverings category of the Grand Prix International Architecture Competition. Here is an extract of the jury’s justification:
The architectural and technological quality, together with the scale and importance of the works presented by 5+1AA, bear witness to the close collaboration between the designers and company to devise and develop innovative solutions. […] In particular, the jury highlights the sophisticated intervention for the recovery and functional redevelopment of the Marseille Docks – an important port storage facility – that straddles the boundary between architectural work and art installation, where the use of ceramics takes centre stage through two different application techniques. In the first one, the ceramic material is fragmented and expertly recomposed according to a precise layout. The other application technique features the superimposition of made-to-measure ceramic elements fixed to a metal substructure.”
You can read the entire justification and browse through a rich photogallery on the Grand Prix website:
More information and interesting links
If you want to know more about the Marseille Docks, the 5+1AA architectural firm and all that has been done for this historical (and now super modern) building in Marseille, please visit the photogallery of the Casalgrande Padana website and another selection of photographs on the Facebook page. Feel free to leave a comment and share the story of the ancient yet modern Marseille Docks, the inspiration of Alfonso Femia and Gianluca Peluffo from 5+1AA, and the Casalgrande Padana porcelain stoneware tiles that have transformed them.
If it’s true that the Docks were once a port – a place of exchanges, travels, farewells, and returns – it is also true that there is no better place on Earth where to set sail on the sea of architecture and discover all its mystery and beauty.
Enjoy the journey!