27 June 2019

Summer in Friche de l'Escalette

Friche de l’Escalette south of Marseille, in the Calanques region, is barely discernable. It is the site of an abandoned mine, converted by a tenacious and passionate gallerist into an archaeological industrial park, home to exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Eric Touchaleaume, an antiquarian from Paris, bought these three hectares of rocky, chalky land in 2010, along with the small lead extraction plant that stood there, and, after years spent cleaning it up, finally managed to turn what had become an open-air dumping ground into his dream: an oasis of Mediterranean maquis in which rosemary, cactuses, bougainvillea and prickly pair trees sometimes conceal and sometimes reveal sculptures and architecture by Jean Prouvé, Le Corbusier, Perriand and Jeanneret, the four musketeers of French Modernism.

Jean Prouvé is the subject of the park’s summer installation, which features two mobile pavilions designed by him and which are regarded as buildings central to the history of contemporary architecture. The first, the 6x9 Demountable House, was designed during the immediate post-war period to house people in the historic Lorraine region (in North East France, bordering Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany), whose houses had been destroyed in the bombings. As Prouvé said: “I’m just a factory man. That’s where I started and I think that everything I’ve done in life, I’ve done simply, without posing myself deep questions.” His simplicity and pragmatism have been materially translated into this transportable and rapidly disassembled habitation, a structure that still looks avant-garde to the contemporary eye and which is generally regarded as the forerunner of prefabricated houses. Inside, Eric Touchaleaume has placed an office by Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier’s studio in Chandigarh and a sculpture by Parvine Cury.

The atmosphere in the second pavilion, designed to house schools in Cameroun (1962) is radically different. The environment is cooler, thanks to clever aluminium side panels which, aside from their aesthetic qualities, compress the air before releasing it into the space, creating extremely natural and pleasant ventilation even under the sun of southern France. Almost all the architectural elements are original, including the entirely wooden sliding doors. Inside are a table designed Jean Prouvé for his own tropical home in Niamey (1957) and two armchairs by Pierre Jeanneret.

Equally atmospheric is Myriam Mihindou’s exhibition Transmissions; the artist is of Franco-Gabonese origin and she tackles serious social issues, such as the status of women, post-colonialism and the environmental crisis, in her work. The exhibition concept was inspired by Picasso’s masterpiece War and Peace, and it explores the theme of commitment with curiosity and empathy, revealing Myriam’s great talent for working with raw materials. Made up of a number of white chamotte stoneware poles with bright touches of coloured enamel, Transmissions refers to multiple levels of meaning. Conceived as living, powerful objects, these poles are reminiscent of tree branches, their colour revealing a fertile sap inside. They materialise the crucial transmission of history, of knowledge and of know-how needed to build a fairer world, resting on a pillar of memory that fuels the creation of new life principles. Each pole has its own inherent mythology, an invitation to rest and lean on one of the pillars of knowledge, which, like the stake of a plant, enables us to stand upright and confident in a world that demands nothing more than to be explored. Within the context of this land, redolent with memories of its previous activities, the artist’s work appears to be naturally in tune with the spirit of the place.

Lastly, industrial heritage fans can finally explore a bit further, taking in previously inaccessible parts of Friche de l’Escalette, including the remains of the lead processing plant that was active between 1851 and 1925. The colonnades, the enormous tanks and the cyclopean walls, now colonised by plants, make for a striking architectural complex and, along with the exhibitions, confer an imposing poetry on Friche de l'Escalette.


Route des Goudes, Impasse de l’Escalette
13008 Marseille

Open every day — 4 visits a day


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