Architecture news: letter from France
A Napoleon III villa in a Parisian suburb, squatted by artists and musicians; a cathedral-like hangar, the vestige of Dunkirk's naval industry that used to define the life cycle of the entire city; a new, 240m-long bridge in the French Alps. This is just a sample of France's recent crop of architectural projects, and they have at least one thing in common: they are all cultural facilities that offer a draw both through their content and their site.
The selection transcends scale as these buildings range from the monumental National Archives to a small community hall in a 6.000-strong town in Provençe. Interaction with the context is equally broad ranging. Some projects merge with the surroundings, such as L'Atelier, a mediathèque, music and dance school in Normandy, or La Panacée, a contemporary culture hub in Montpellier. Others work with the inherent qualities of their respective site to produce a visually arresting result. In a few cases contextual awareness urges the architects to touch the ground lightly - for example the Jean-Claude Carrière Theater in Montpellier can be disassembled and rebuilt in a new location, while the biodiversity museum in Beautour is raised on pilotis, thus protecting its very subject.
Often these venues have more to reveal than what is expected; think of designing a concert hall as a fully operational musical instrument (which is what Le Métaphone in Oignies does) or incorporating a student dorm into an art centre (as happens at La Panacée), or an exhibition space in the base of a bridge (the Pile Pont Expo in Saint-Gervais Les Bains does just that).
They may share key qualities but all these projects are scattered across the country in response to France's current cultural decentralization challenge (which was indeed the motive behind establishing a network of regional art centers, or FRACs). They also provide excellent incentive to venture outside Paris on a countrywide architectural pilgrimage.