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Creative umbrella: the ambitious transformation of a provincial fun palace into a progressive postgraduate art school demanded an adventurous architectural solution.

The ambitious transformation of a provincial fun palace into a progressive postgraduate art school demanded an adventurous architectural solution.

The new postgraduate art school at Le Fresnoy in Tourcoing (just north-east of Lille) could be seen as the antithesis of the French Academy in Rome. It was at that august institution - founded in 1666 by Louis XIV to further the study of classical antiquity - that Alain Fleischer was given the task of setting up a forward-looking educational establishment in northern France.

Fleischer, who had just completed a two-year Rome scholarship in photography awarded by the French government, was highly critical of the French habit of splitting culture into predetermined categories based on moribund notions of artistic endeavour. No such categories were to be imposed on the new school. It was agreed from the outset that it would be free to explore art forms generated by the interaction of different disciplines, it would be equipped to exploit the potential offered by audio-visual technologies, most of the teaching would be done by a succession of visiting artists resident at the school for periods of six months to a year, and the work produced at the school would be shown on the premises. Similarly, the location chosen for the school marked a break with French conventions of cultural cachet and prestige. Tourcoing's chief claim to a glorious past is that British troops led by the Duke of York were defeated there by the French Republican army in 1794. Otherwise woefully underrated, this once-thriving northern industrial town forming part of the conurbation between Lille and the Belgian frontier is probably best known for high levels of unemployment. Yet the town council welcomed the prospect of the new school being located there and, in 1985, suitable premises were found for it at Le Fresnoy - an outlying district of Tourcoing.

The fun palace at Le Fresnoy had been standing empty since its closure in the early 1970s, and a good deal of local nostalgia was still attached to the place. Built in 1905 and frequently altered and extended to keep pace with demand, this family-run enterprise had provided the working class population with such attractions as a dance hall and roller-skating rink, a 1000-seat cinema, pony rides, wrestling matches, bars and a restaurant. The redundant buildings tallied so closely with Fleischer's requirements for the new school that he imagined initially little more than a coat of paint would be needed to effect the change of use.(1)

Such factors as the condition of the existing buildings, safety regulations governing anticipated visitor numbers of up to 1000, and the levels of sound insulation needed in recording and dubbing studios, called for a more radical programme of works. A two-phase architectural competition was launched in 1991 and Bernard Tschumi was declared the winner the following year. As built, the schools (nearly) completed new premises correspond very closely to Tschumi's competition proposals.(2)

Most of the original buildings have been retained and adapted, and three new ranges have been added, to provide exhibition and performance spaces, two cinemas, film and recording studios, editing suites, a media library, administrative offices, residential accommodation for visiting artists, and much else besides. These structures are oversailed by a vast new roof, providing a horizontal plane approximately 100m x 80m to shelter the none-too-watertight old buildings from the rain. Composed of corrugated steel with translucent cloud-shaped sky-lights, this roof is open on three sides and, on the fourth continues vertically to form a protective outer skin enclosing accommodation giving on to a canal and motorway at the back.

In the space between the rooftops of retained buildings and the underside of the oversailing roof - what Tschumi calls the entre-deux - service ducts and conduits, maintenance stairs and catwalks are slung from the new roof structure in a manner reminiscent of a film set. This spectacle can be seen from terrace, restaurant and bars at second floor level, and from a raised access gangway. Public access to this space is by a ceremonial staircase projecting from the main frontage, which is signalled by an enormous canted fascia bearing the words, 'Le Fresnoy'. Following an inaugural festival in October, the first intake of two dozen students is scheduled to embark in November on the two-year postgraduate course.

1 Cf. Alain Fleischer 'Le Fresnoy: pourquoi ca, pourquoi la' in Tschumi, une architecture en project, LeFresnoy/Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1993.

2 Cf. Bernard Tschumi, Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Le Fresnoy/Massimo Riposati ed., Tourcoing and Paris 1993.
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Author:Ellis, Charlotte
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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