Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

The Villa Méditerranée hands over to Cosquer Méditerranée

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Tuesday, May 3rd 2022 à 17:30 | Read 559 times

The Villa Méditerranée hands over to Cosquer Méditerranée
The Villa Méditerranée hands over to Cosquer Méditerranée
FRANCE. Mediterranean Economic Weeks, MedCop21, Avitem Meetings, Euromed-IHEDN conferences, Mediterranean of the Future... the Villa Méditerranée has been the setting for many events bringing together participants from all the shores of the mare nostrum. On 4 June 2022, visitors will once again be able to cross the threshold to discover a reconstruction of the Cosquer cave. This new tourist site in Marseille, dedicated to prehistory, will usher in a new era for the building.

Wanted by Michel Vauzelle, then President of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region, to be a counterpart to the Ministry of Culture's project, the Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) - to the point of being ironically named the Villa Vauzelle for a time - the Villa Méditerranée was first called the Regional Centre for the Mediterranean (CRM). This name did not survive. Some time after the laying of the first stone in December 2019, the name Villa Méditerranée, already imagined at the very beginning of the project in reference to the Villa Medici in Rome, took over.

Designed by the Milanese architect Stefano Boeri and entirely financed by the Region (€82 million), it was built in 2012, a few months before Marseille became European Capital of Culture in 2013. But it lived in the shadow of the Mucem, literally and figuratively. Often described as an empty shell, it has nevertheless hosted 155 events bringing together more than 460,000 people during its first two years of existence (2013 to 2015).

The cost of the Villa Méditerranée pinpointed by the Chambre régionale des comptes

After entrusting its management to a public interest grouping under the leadership of the Agency for Sustainable Mediterranean Cities and Territories (Avitem) in January 2015, the Region took over the keys in September 2017.

The arrival of a new majority sounded the death knell for the Villa's Mediterranean ambitions. As early as January 2016, Christian Estrosi, President of the Provence-Alpes Côte d'Azur Region, confided to, "this site required €100 million in investments and costs €5 million per year in operating costs. Already, in the first few months of 2016, we are going to manage to save 20% on operating costs. If he was overestimating the figures (€82m of investment and €4.4m of operating budget in 2015), the observation was clear. "It is a very beautiful architecture, but does it meet the real expectations of the five million inhabitants of the region. Normally, it is up to the cities to conduct cultural policy", he said in response to this legacy. 

In October 2017, the Provence-Alpes Côte d'Azur Regional Chamber of Accounts (CRC) had in a report castigated not only the cost, but the very justification of its creation. "The vocation of this work suffered from an indeterminacy that was never resolved until the dissolution, on 31 December 2014, of the agency created to manage it. The coexistence of a cultural objective, dedicating the building to being a place for exhibitions and cultural meetings, and an institutional vocation, making it the headquarters of the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation policy, did not allow the local authority to precisely define the Villa's orientation.

The CRC pointed out the operating costs and in particular "the high cost of providing services to ensure the security, maintenance and upkeep of the building". These tasks accounted for €1.7m of expenditure compared to €1m for staff costs, i.e. almost 48% of general expenses in 2014. Total revenue from the operation of the site was only €292,152 in the first two years of operation. The project was based on ticketing revenues of €1.77m to €2.22m. These figures were revised downwards in January 2013 with €361,200 expected in 2013 and €247,680 in 2014.

At the time of the decision on the new allocation of the Villa Méditerranée, had headlined, "the Villa Méditerranée transforms its financial abyss into a reproduction of a cave".

Kléber Rossillon wins the tender

Women, children and men made positives and negatives with their hands 30,000 years ago (photo:F.Dubessy)
Women, children and men made positives and negatives with their hands 30,000 years ago (photo:F.Dubessy)
During his election campaign, Christian Estrosi had been very critical of this building, even talking about putting it up for sale. But how to find a buyer for these 10,000 m² of space with a 400-seat auditorium? Elected on a ticket with Renaud Muselier, he has softened on the subject, but has remained firm on the need to find a project capable of financing its future. "We have to look for a destination that brings it real added value," he declared. He therefore launched a call for tenders at the end of January 2016, which led to the choice of the project led by Kléber Rossillon, who already manages twelve heritage and tourist sites in France and Belgium, including the Grotte Chauvet 2 (Ardèche), the Château de Murol (Puy-de-Dôme), the Jardins de Marqueyssac (Dordogne), the Château de Langeais (Indre-et-Loire) and the Battle of Waterloo 1815 Memorial (Belgium).

Before this assignment, many projects were evoked to fill its walls. The idea of a gambling casino, which seemed to be on the cards - since 2013 it was planned to install one next to the Mucem and the Villa Méditerranée - had to be evacuated because the forty-metre long cantilever of the villa could not accommodate more than 300 people (it was impossible to relegate the players to the basement without a view of the sea). Michel Vauzelle then breathed a great sigh of relief, he who spoke of this prospect as "an insult to the concern for the dignity of the people of Marseille.

The former president of the Region had tried to persuade the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (APM) to transfer its secretariat from Malta to Marseille to thwart the Cosquer cave reconstruction project already decided by Christian Estrosi. But he failed to do so, even though only a few votes were missing during the vote on the subject. 

24 M€ of investment

Frédéric Prades, director of Cosquer Méditerranée, is delighted that these works can be seen by the general public (photo: F.Dubessy)
Frédéric Prades, director of Cosquer Méditerranée, is delighted that these works can be seen by the general public (photo: F.Dubessy)
In a month, the building, a true architectural gesture, will be able to exclaim "don't call me Villa Méditerranée anymore, the Mediterranean has let me down". Well, not quite, because the mare nostrum will be present, not only a few steps away but also inside.
The site, which has become Cosquer Méditerranée, will present several scenographies over 1325 m² (13 prehistoric animals, permanent exhibitions, video spaces...). And above all, it will offer a journey in one of the forty-four exploration modules, through a reconstruction of the Cosquer cave, discovered in 1985 by the Cassidian diver Henri Cosquer and classified since September 1992 as a historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture.

This highlight of the visit will allow visitors to see, almost life-size, 500 drawings and engravings, including 200 animals (horses, penguins, bisons...) and sixty-five handprints (men, women and even children), on 1750 m² of walls. "The Cosquer cave is a sunken treasure in our creeks that we could not make accessible to the public," explains Frédéric Prades, who has been the director of Cosquer Méditerranée for the past six months. Experts point out that the Cap Morgiou site (Cassis, near Marseille), whose entrance is thirty-seven metres underwater, will have disappeared due to rising water levels in the next half-century. It was therefore necessary to work quickly to reproduce it with the help of 3D modelling carried out by scanners in order to respect - and a scientific committee set up by the French State and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region is keeping a close eye on this - the smallest detail of the drawings traced in the rock between 19,000 and 30,000 years before our era.

To do this, the majestic spiral staircase had to be sacrificed and the basement partitions completely revised. The only thing that survived was the majestic 400-seat amphitheatre, which will be used to show a film on the history of the Cosquer cave. In all, an investment of €24 million (of which €9 million was contributed by the Region) to transform everything.

700,000 visitors expected in the first year

The cave has been reconstructed down to the last detail (photo: F.Dubessy)
The cave has been reconstructed down to the last detail (photo: F.Dubessy)
Cosquer Méditerranée will become a new asset in the attraction of this region whose tourist activity represents a turnover of €30 billion and contributes 13% of GDP. François de Canson, President of the Regional Tourism Committee and Vice-President of the Region, is not mistaken. "It's our very own Eiffel Tower. Not in height, but in depth", he indicated on Thursday 28 April 2022 during a presentation of the progress of the work. 

"We have a twenty-five year concession," said Jacques Galland, secretary general of the Kléber Rossillon group. The company will have to pay a fixed fee of €300,000 per year to the Region, which remains the owner of the premises, and a variable fee based on the number of admissions. "We are expecting around 700,000 visitors in the first year and 500,000 in the following years," he says. A figure that is very difficult to estimate, however. For the Chauvet 2 cave, also managed by Kléber Rossillon, the group estimated the number of visitors at 450,000 in the first year, and 600,000 went there (350,000 per year on average today). Jacques Galland estimates that Cosquer Méditerranée (100 employees during the works and the first months of opening and 80 in the long term) should generate between 7 and 8 M€ of turnover.

A penguin, one of the 200 animals represented (photo: F.Dubessy)
A penguin, one of the 200 animals represented (photo: F.Dubessy)
​From the Cosquer cave to Cosquer Méditerranée

It took almost thirty years from the discovery of the entrance to the cave by Henri Cosquer near the Triperie cove at Cap Morgiou to the creation of its replica in Marseille.

1985: Discovery of the entrance to the gallery leading to the cave

1991: Declaration of the cave to the DRASSM (Department of Archaeological and Subaquatic Research)

1992: Classification of the cave as a historical monument

1994: Partial survey of the volumes by scanning carried out by EDF

1995-2000: Development of the site by the DRASSM

2000: The cave comes under the control of the Regional Archaeology Service of the DRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

2016: Start of 3D surveys

2016: The Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region chooses to create a project to promote the heritage of the Cosquer cave on the site of the Villa Méditerranée

2018: Agreement between the State and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region for a restitution project

2019: Signature of the 25-year concession in favour of the Kléber Rossillon group

4 June 2022: Opening of Cosquer Méditerranée to the public


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