Built on Saint-Barthélémy hill, the Villa Arson property extends over more than two hectares offering a magnificent view over the city of Nice and the Bay of Angels. A maze of intermingled concrete, stone and vegetation, with inner streets and patios, outdoor amphitheaters, suspended terraces and gardens, harmoniously connecting around the old mansion of the Arson family.

Designed in the 60s by architect Michel Marot, this singular architectural ensemble built in the middle of a Mediterranean garden should be discovered during a leisurely stroll. The low built architecture, which has no façade, extends over 17,000 square meters and follows the hill’s topography. Throughout the property one can encounter works created by contemporary artists in relation to the architecture and the gardens.

The Villa Arson is a unique national institution dedicated to contemporary art. It reunites in a single venue a school of art, an art center, an artists’ residence and a specialized library. The building has been listed « Patrimoine du XXe siècle ». [Heritage of the 20th century].


The ambitious construction project for a new type of artistic institution, as defined by the minister of culture André Malraux, was entrusted in 1966 to architect Michel Marot. In spite of the vast surface that needed to be built, rather than erecting a towering building (what he called the option of a “student silo”), he chose to use almost the entire terrain (a 17,000 square meters building on a 23,000 square meters lot). The project of a horizontal architecture took into precise account all the characteristics of the site: the presence of the 19th century villa, the three tiered garden with the trees that had to be saved (which defined the location of the patios), the situation overlooking the city, the steeply sloped terrain, etc.

“The desire to make the buildings disappear inside the vegetation inspired me to spread them out like a lizard in the sun.”

Michel Marot used his experience as a stroller, his knowledge of Mediterranean villages, and his interest in vernacular architecture to create this ensemble with its public squares, its outdoor meeting and discussion places (gardens, exterior amphitheaters) and its maze like little streets. The concrete walls, built like buttresses, bear the imprint of the wooden formwork indoors, and are covered with stones from the Var outdoors, thus displaying the raw aspect of the materials. In fact it is this particular way of dealing with the materials that often leads to using the term “brutalist” regarding the Villa Arson’s architecture (in reference to the architectural style New Brutalism found in England from 1950 to 1970).

“More nonchalant than brutal, I have certainly been influenced by the architecture of the 60s, but I tend to prefer tradition, the context, the site, the neighborhood, the vegetation, the economy.” Michel Marot

Michel Marot’s architecture has no façade and cannot be seen as a whole from any single point of view. To the attentive observer it offers numerous details and formal references, like the maze and the mastaba erected on the terraces as windbreaks and sunshields and the pyramid-shaped light wells for the studios of the art school. The labyrinth-like dimension, the intermingling of buildings and vegetation are main characteristics of the site.

The evolution of the property can be understood by looking at the origin of the trees in the garden, which are divided into three distinct periods. The agricultural past of the 16th century is represented by the old olive trees in the northern and western parts of the site, which are several hundred years old. The old ornamental garden can still be identified from the tall ornamental trees: parasol pines, cedars, oaks and cypresses, most of which were planted a little over two hundred years ago. Finally, the last period comprises the trees and plants of the contemporary garden, which are sometimes exotic, coming from all five continents (carob tree, magnolia, pepper tree, rosewood, mandarin tree, lilac, eucalyptus, Senegal palm tree, etc.). The contemporary garden, called the Bosco, was created by architect Michel Marot, who conceived the “Villa Arson” project as a whole combining vegetable and mineral elements. The existing trees were all saved when the modern buildings were erected, and numerous patios were created. In this way glimpses of the outside and of the greenery are offered almost everywhere, wherever one happens to be. Correspondingly, the paved circles created around the trees in the Bosco remind one of the strong presence of the building in the midst of the garden. By creating gardens on the roof terraces, Michel Marot was reinterpreting the idea of the suspended garden, thus re-creating, four meters above the original ground, the three 18th century tiered terraces. The 4,500 square meters of terraces that were renovated in 2009-2010 offer an architectural and vegetable ensemble that can be seen as evoking a Babylonian ziggurat, an Aztec temple, a medieval fortress or a Renaissance maze. Today the terraces still offer visitors a magnificent view of the hills, of the city of Nice and of the sea.