LA FRICHE BELLE DE MAI

Its title cuts straight to the point: La Friche.

In Marseille, France’s largest port city, you’ll find one of Patrick Bouchain’s latest and arguably most ambitious projects. It’s title cuts straight to the point: la Friche.

Here, a former tobacco factory has been transformed into an idiosyncratic space with theaters, offices, artist studios, a restaurant, and a skate park. At night the site becomes a venue for concerts, dance performances, eating, gatherings, salsa, and a myriad of other activities.

At first glance, the location for La Friche may seem anything but ideal. Situated away from the popular Old Port and abutting the TVG rail lines, it is removed from local transportation networks and animated pedestrian routes. It is, in fact, a cultural and economic oasis located in the middle one of the poorest arrondisements of Marseille.

We are not interested in the finished product since it is never finished. we are interested in the process. Belle De Mai is pure collective process.

– LOÏC JULIENNE

How is it that this isolated venue draws 300 workers on a daily basis? And what makes this cultural attractor so undeniably attractive? La Friche is a complex network of thinkers, participants, performers, entrepreneurs and interested people spearheaded by the French architect Patrick Bouchain. Part networker, part coordinator, part politician, Bouchain is a visionary who’s taken the role of the architect far beyond the confines of design.

La Friche is a project that began with a group of cultural actors who were permitted access to this abandoned tobacco factory in order to create their projects. This community group later became known as the SCIC which has now voted Bouchain into the post of “President”. The group has secured a 45 year lease from the city. The strategy works something like this: a building is handed over to a group of cultural actors who are then permitted to transform and market the space how they see fit and in response to a complex matrix of community requirements. In this networking role, Bouchain helps make connections and negotiations between the SCIC and government agencies, harnessing the energy of emergent programs into viable solutions for this formerly marginal site.

Instead of imposing a monolithic design on this complex site, Bouchain mobilized different artists and thinkers to contribute their idiosyncratic ideas to the master plan of the site.

The result is heterogeneous fusion of programs and interventions. Take the entry sequence, for example. BMI, the skateboarding association, was invited in to design a skate park in the central courtyard. Borrowing fragments of favorite urban skateboarding landscapes across the globe, they designed a composite skate park which visitors are invited to traverse on their way to the public venue above. A local artist created a graffiti wall, which frames the skate park and holds back the TGV rail lines. Once you reach the second-story terrace level, prefabricated containers serve as offices for the associations based on the site. Installation artists inhabit the roofscape of an adjacent building, testing new ideas for landscapes and video projection. The very people using and programming the site become responsible for its design, and the architect in this case oversees the strategy for the ensemble as a composite piece.

To manage the financial plan for the development of the site, Bouchain hired a fiscal spitfire and an employee of the Bank of France, Karen Bouvet. Her role is to secure government funding for the continued development of the site. Bouvet is currently in the process of negotiating with the city to create a new bus route that would connect the La Friche at Belle de Mai to the center of the Marseille, making the site more accessible to the public.

Patrick Bouchain’s political role at the La Friche is critical. Bouchain was responsible for helping integrate La Friche into the Euroméditeranée Project and the European Capitol of Culture project. Participating in these large scale developement projects ensured that La Friche received significant funding as well as media coverage, reinforcing the credibility of the project at regional, national, and international scales. Patrick Bouchain is an architect, who by taking on a number of roles (developer, political advisor, site manager, fundraiser, performer), designs urban conditions as much as he designs buildings. His projects are infinitely dependent on a network of people: collaborators, government officials, residents, associations, artists. With the network in place, La Friche at Belle de Mai becomes a fully activated urban node where any number of activities can take place and a framework that can shift and adapt to changing community needs. Not to mention the site doubles as one of the best salsa joints in the city.

– Brittany Roy