Face Value

By Claire Lubell & Ruth Jones

Claire Lubell’s photographs of Marseille capture the faces and façades of a city that is known more for its diverse population and crime-world history than (with few exceptions) its architectural innovations. Editor Ruth Jones examines what Lubell’s photos mean for the history and character of the vernacular city they represent.

Marseille is a Mediterranean vernacular city where mass is more important than the individual.

William Firebrace, Marseille Mix, 24

The great monument of Marseille, is it's population.
Le grand monument de Marseille, c'est sa population.

Charlie Bove, Ville Sauvage, 84

From an architectural perspective, the city is characterised by the spectacular coexistence between the geometry of the modern movement and irregularity of vernacular autoconstruction; between rationality stripped of mechanical optimism and the ancestral precariousness of a structure for which no drawing preceded.

D'un point de vue architectural, la ville est ainsi marquée par la coexistence spectaculaire entre la géométrie du mouvement moderne et l'irrégularité de l'autoconstruction vernaculaire; entre la rationalité dépouillée de l'optimisme machinal, et la précarité ancestrale d'un bâti que n'a précède aucun dessin.

Ville Sauvage, 165.

And also, laid out like a theatre, the city presents itself to view like a singular, tightly woven spectacle, easily represented.

Aussi, étalée en forme de théâtre, se présente-t-elle à la vue comme un spectacle unique et resserré, facile à représenter.

Exhibition Catalogue, La ville figurée : plans et vues gravées de Marseille, Gênes et Barcelone


How do you see a city? The question has, behind it, the implied subjectivity of the watcher and the object nature of the watched. It wants to know something about position, about where you stand to take the view, and about other things, too: distance, for one, how close you get, how much detail you catch; image, also, that projected sense of a thing that mediates your seeing and stands in front of your gaze; and subject, too, both you, looking, and the things you see, the anchor points for your gaze. “How” asks for a method, a way of doing the thing, so it suggests that there might be more than one option, more than one way. I want to know, when you give your answer, if it’s the city that determines the method or if it’s you, positioning yourself for seeing, who makes the choice. And if it’s you that matters, are you part of the city or high above?

Claire Lubell’s photographs see Marseille, its ordinary architecture juxtaposed with city residents, their everyday, ordinary lives. She captures people sitting in a scrap of shade, waiting for a bus, or tapping at a phone screen, on a café terrace and in the metro. There are women in hijab and long skirts, men in djellaba and fez, or jeans; a young man in a track suit holds his phone to his ear and stands in a doorway; a couple’s bronzed legs kick out of khaki shorts, their backpacks and empty glasses evidence, perhaps, of a holiday afternoon. Each one sits beside a section of apartment building façade, a repeating series of windows, shuttered against the afternoon sun. The photos, with their solitary people and small groups, their flat, unremarkable faces, appear quiet at first. They capture small moments, non-events, empty hours.

The epigraphs that introduce the series hold up this view: the city’s monumental population, that Mediterranean mass, looking out for themselves; ordinary, but individual, they lack, we’re told, the kind of collective goals and sense of group belonging that give a city formal identity and definition. It’s true, at least, that the city’s monumental architecture can seem dissociated from the city itself: it’s been dropped in from above, and if we’re going to agree that Marseille is a vernacular city, then its forts, its churches, its war memorials and new museums, proclaim its relationship to an official (French) language that serves to reaffirm this fact.

Still, if Marseille is an anti-monumental city, it’s not a city without definition. The wholeness that appears as a given when you see the city from afar, arrayed around the stage of the old port, fractures when you descend into a system of streets and boulevards that bring you again and again to abrupt ends, repeating plazas, featureless organizations that make you lose your place in the fabric of the city, dropping you down in a neighborhood on the other side of where you wanted to be. For all the repetition that confronts you, there’s no unifying theme, no clear order or hierarchy of places. This lack of clarity comes with breaks in the system that create its definition: divergences, short cuts and wrong turns that you navigate alone, unguided.

In a 1983 assessment of the city’s crumbling seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture, Patrick de Maisonneuve bemoaned this difficult internal organization and its effect on Marseille’s vernacular architecture. He saw the simple façade of a seventeenth century house, its three windows  looking back at him from down the “gullet of a narrow street” elsewhere exposed, flattened, by a square dropped in by a later plan. (1) What he finds isn’t a lack of form, but rather forms hidden by the contortions of the city, “a monumentality little accessible to the view.” (2) The city holds the impact of its structure close, keeping them out of his photographer’s frame, forcing him to twist uncomfortably to get his shot. It’s like listening to a Massilia Sound System song from the 90s, your ear contorting, trying to follow as the singer’s southern accented voice shifts from French to Occitan, the Provençal dialect that still circulates in Marseille alongside Neapolitan, Catalan, and Maghrebi Arabic, the sounds close enough and the words far enough apart that you lose your way trying to figure out if you’re even supposed to understand and end up focusing instead on the steady reggae beat that fuels the group’s popularity. In Lubell’s photographs, the façades of apartment buildings stretch ever upward, preventing us from seeing the full impact of their symmetry. The way they dominate the frame, you can’t tell how large they are or how they compare to the city around them—where they fit, what the street just in front of one looks like—and as you start to feel out of joint in your effort to place them, the windows, blacking out, over and over, the lives inside, start to feel less quiet.

In spite of their simplicity, Lubell’s photographs of Marseille reveal a city where representation isn’t easy. Her shots frame a city of one-way views. Shades lowered, shutters closed, glass dark: each window offers nothing more than the repeated interruption of a wall—here accented in the style of the eighteenth century, there smooth, minimalist, contemporary. They solidify into the walls that hold them, refusing the camera’s gaze. And the people likewise hold back and turn away. Even when the figures are facing the camera their eyes seem to barely register the photographer. Knowing they’re being observed, they do nothing to attract attention. Each figure caught in the street, each closed and shuttered window, is an event silenced by the stasis imposed by the camera, by looking. They hold lives unviewed, eyes that, if they see, aren’t seen. They are indirect, formal, their gaze is closed. And the result is something that should be intimate, but isn’t.

This is the difficulty that Lubell’s photos expose, a friction of contact between the viewer and the small scale of the character of Marseille, a vernacular city. And it’s not, despite the epigraphic claim, a city of mass. Marseille is the city of IAM, the hip-hop group that proclaims their loyalty and their origins, taking names from epic lost Egypt, Akhenaton, Khéops, Imhotep, citizens of the planète Mars. Barreling out of the twentieth century, Marseille holds on to a defensive stance against France—Louis XIV’s two forts guarding the old port, keeping the city in line, the Front National, the country’s anti-immigrant national party, taking hold in the 1990s and rising again on a tide of fear—and for itself, a banal, provincial, Mediterranean city.

To revel in Marseille’s banality is to aim for a hard-edged ordinariness, the opposite of that other image of Marseille, window to the Orient, the exotic brought home. If vernacular is not only a style we apply, but a system that functions according to different rules and more frequent evolutions—if it is loud and soft, dropping phrases of Occitan, Catalan, and Darija into the streets like lines from a song, I AM Marseille, then the alienness of Marseille, if alien it is, denies us in the same way that the contortions of streets, those hidden houses, deny Patrick de Maisonneuve, whose camera, like Lubell’s, can’t quite find the composition it needs to show the city. The fragmented images we get instead are a vernacular viewing strategy for a city that claims identity through a proliferation of ordinary forms: in architecture, yes, but also in literature, music, photography. The camera cuts in, picks up, gets close to something closed, held apart, the internal life of a city where the sharp lines created by bright sun and dark shadows make for a kind of false reveal. “Marseille, tu es une autre Planète…L’atterrissage du vaisseau IAM est proche…si je pars et il ne reste plus rien/tu sais d’où je viens, de Marseille.” (2)


(1) The “three windowed house,” with its façade defined by three equally spaced windows, the door taking the place of the central window on the ground floor, has been a characteristic form of Marseille’s vernacular architecture since the seventeenth century. It’s especially prevalent in the panier, the city’s oldest neighborhood.

(2) Patrick de Maisonneuve, Le bâti ancien à Marseille (Paris-La Défense : Electricité de France Direction de la distribution, 1983), 51. Author’s translation.

(3) IAM, “Planète mars,” in ….de la planète Mars, Virgin France, 1991, http://genius.com/4137303. “Marseille, you’re another Planet…the landing of the envoy IAM is near…if I go and nothing’s left/you know where I’m from…Marseille.”

Merging editorial, research, and design methodologies, Claire Lubell's work speculates on the production of urban space in such seemingly unrelated cities as Toronto, Seoul, Johannesburg, and Marseille. Her focus on relational rather than categorical frameworks has emerged from her experience living in diverse cities worldwide. Claire is currently based in Montreal, prior to which she lived in Rotterdam where she graduated from The Berlage Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design.  http://www.clairelubell.com/

Ruth Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She holds a PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA, with research focusing on literary subjectivity, perception, and urban space. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Canadian Architect, and Quebec Studies.