Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix
In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.
Aix was founded in the second century BCE though little visible survives. Excavations in the last decade have revealed the remains of a theatre about 100 metres in diameter, sited within the city walls and on the north side of the decumanus maximus, the axial east-west road in Roman towns. This thoroughfare led to the 1st-century CE forum where the medieval cathedral now stands; this structure incorporates pillars taken from the forum in its large baptistry. In between the theatre and the forum was situated a thermal baths complex, on top of which a modern spa hotel has been built adjoining medieval walls.
The early medieval burg was centred on the cathedral which had been established in the Roman forum, but over the centuries the town expanded. The presence of springs encouraged the growth of trades related to access to water — for example, carding and leather-working — occupations which have left traces in the modern names of streets such as place des Cardeurs and rue des Tanneurs. In the 12th century the Palace of the Counts of Provence was built to the southeast of the cathedral, forming the core of a new district; the most famous of the Counts was King René d’Anjou who turned Aix into a royal capital in the 15th century. Gradually, as bona fide architects were given their head, new quartiers were established: Villeneuve (from 1583), Villeverte (from 1608) and Mazarin (from 1646), this last a project initiated by Cardinal Mazarin on a grid system beyond the southern city walls, themselves demolished to form a wide, fashionable east-west thoroughfare called the Cours Mirabeau.
Within the growing city new elegant town houses faced with the local honey-coloured stone were being constructed, some very reminiscent of Italian palazzi, along with beautified churches and public buildings. And yet the medieval layout at the core of the medieval burg remained largely intact: narrow winding streets shadowed like canyons and now largely pedestrianised (though scooters and motorbikes require a healthy regard from those same piétons).
Come the modern period and Aix hasn’t merely rested on its laurels. Generally spared the worst aspects of 20th-century brutalism, Aix has nevertheless embraced the new by the 21st century; long a university town, its new cultural hub within walking distance of the historic centre includes venues for dance and music, a regional theatre and a library complex, along with stunning designs for its tourist office, the bus station and retail outlets.
But at the heart of Aix — what constitutes its charm and delight — are its thoroughfares, overlooked by dwellings, mansions, museums, public buildings and artisan shops, punctuated with squares with Aix’s ubiquitous fountains. Failing a visit in person, this generously illustrated booklet grants the reader a vicarious visit to this jewel of a place and its environs; it’s available to view online (http://www.aixenprovence.fr/IMG/pdf/jdp-prog2017-web-aout.pdf) if you are somehow unable to travel to Provence to pick up a free copy for yourself. If you’re not fully conversant with the language just wallow in the images.
All photos mine, taken with a cheapo camera phone and occasionally edited on Instagram. Superior quality photos will presently appear on my photoblog MyNewShy, now long overdue its promised relaunch