Le Grand Bleu – Hôtel du département des Bouches-du-Rhône

'Le Bateau Bleu', Avenue de Saint-Just, Marseille, France


Between 1992 and 1994, Brian Clarke and architect Will Alsop collaborated on 'Le Grand Bleu', the headquarters and council chamber of the Département des Bouches-du-Rhône in Marseille, France. Clarke was responsible for the cladding and colouration of the building, conceived as a 'skin of art' and rendered entirely through a novel technique he devised as a solution for the project; Clarke's signature calligraphic line forms a 1,200 m2 composition in bands of ceramic glaze across the façade along the whole of the west elevation. Conceived at various times as vermilion, and then green, the resolved colour is a distinct, Mediterranean ultramarine close to the colour devised by painter Yves Klein. At the time of its construction in 1994, the Hôtel du Département (first nicknamed 'The House of Smurfs' by the Marseillais, and at its inauguration 'Le Grand Bleu' by President François Mitterrand) was, together with the Corbusier building on the Prado, the largest building constructed in Marseille during the 20th century. Shortlisted for the 1997 Stirling Prize, it is considered a major work of late 20th century architecture. The architectural model of the final proposal was exhibited at Alsop's solo show of the scheme at The Mayor Gallery in 1994, and later at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in the exhibition Brian Clarke: Art in Architecture.

"Clarke's first collaboration with Alsop was on the Hôtel du département. The task in hand was providing a huge wall of colour on the face of the building. Clarke's work makes the actual cladding into a work of art; the technique being close to the faïence popular with Edwardian architects. The result is an extraordinary combination of the functional and the artistic." – Kenneth Powell in Brian Clarke: Architectural Artist.

"This headquarters building for the regional government of the Department of the Bouches du Rhone was won by Will Alsop in a two-stage competition in 1990. The starting point of the project was the political decision to relocate the Departmental headquarters from the centre of Marseilles to the suburb of St Just as part of a regeneration initiative. The tremendous presence and impact of this major late 20th century public building is achieved with a high degree of economy - the materials used, concrete, solaglass, timber and steel, are straightforward but used in an extraordinary way. The impact of the building as a public landmark is vastly enhanced by the use of strong colour in the external elevations - stimulating, comfortable and affordable; the Hotel is the antithesis of the conventional bureaucratic fortress." – Alsop Architects, Le Grand Bleu

The Hôtel du département was awarded the 1997 RIBA Worldwide Projects Award; the RIBA Civic & Community Architecture Award (1995); and the Palmarés Award for Architecture.