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Les Docks Libres – Combining history and contemporary architecture with Graphic Concrete


Marseille is a historical city in the South of France that was founded 2600 years ago. Since the beginning it has functioned as the largest harbour city of the Western Mediterranean. Because of its long and significant past, especially in terms of European culture, planning a remarkable building in the heart of Marseille is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Architect Roland Carta ( Carta Associates Architects Agency) met this challenge by planning Les Docks Libres, a building project consisting of 190 social housing units, 231 student rooms, 195 accession to ownership apartments and 60 rental apartments, combined with close to 5500 square meters of office andretail spaces, plus spaces for local artisans.

The building is located in the 3rd district of Marseille, Saint-Mauront. It is part of an urban renewal project aimed at attracting new life to the former industrial site. The fresco on the building’s facade features the characteristic symbols of Marseille throughout its 2600 years of history, from the arrival of the Greeks to today.

My priority was to provide the building with a narrative support that would be visible from afar and capable of anchoring the history of Marseille in a quarter that is in need of reference points,” says Roland Carta. “ When working on the Marseille History Museum I could deepen my knowledge on the waves of migration that have shaped this city. I wanted to recreate something for the Marseille of today and tomorrow, to express the thousands of years of love, fear, submission, joy and reunion.

The search for a technical solution that would enable Carta’s illustrations to be transferred onto concrete came to a happy conclusion when Carta and the contractor Travail du Midi found graphic concrete, represented in France by Lhydemat Sarl. What seem like different hues of gray are actually variations of raster densities; the surface is a result of the contrast between smooth and exposed concrete surfaces, which creates the feel of depth on the whole fresco.

The use of graphic concrete especially in projects similar to Les Docks Libres is beneficial in multiple ways. The lack of overhangs helps keep the patterned area clean and free of any kind of shadows, and the surface does not need any additional cladding or treatment after the elements have been installed. As a result, the surface is sustainable and essentially maintenance-free.

The building comprises 3000 square meters of concrete manufactured by  SAPB. The contractor’s representative Nadine Disier is also happy with the outcome. " We are proud of this project because this experience, although new, has been rewarding in many ways. All of the panels that were delivered by us were accepted without complaints and without any breaks in production,” Didier describes.

The building was awarded the  Pyramide d’Argent and  Prix de l’Innovation at the 12th edition of the  Pyramides competition organised by the  French Property Developers Federation FPI. Les Docks Libres 2 is also being planned, and Graphic Concrete will be visible in the second part of the project as well.

Read more about the project in French