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Nestle confection.

The iron and brick chocolate factory at Noisiel is one of the iconic buildings of the Industrial Revolution. It was the core of a complex of bold industrial buildings; now the whole has been transformed into Nestle's headquarters with elegance, speed and economy.

Nestle France's prestigious new headquarters has been created by converting the celebrated nineteenth-century Menier chocolate factory at Noisiel in the fast expanding new town of Marne-la-Vallee east of Paris. The founder of the chocolate-making dynasty, the Parisian pharmacist Jean Antoine Brutus Menier, acquired the Noisiel site in 1825, to install grinding works for his medicinal powders. He used ground cocoa initially as a medical ingredient and soon embarked on the commercial production of chocolate confectionery.

The rapid expansion of the Menier commercial network during the 1860s was accompanied by redevelopment of the company's premises in the Paris outskirts. Jules Saulnier (1817-1881), who succeeded his master Bonneau as the company architect, made extensive additions and improvements at Noisiel, between 1860 and 1867. Raised over basement vaults, this phase of the works consisted of a new main entrance court containing an engine house, flanked by factory buildings. The architectural expression of the structure - an iron frame enclosed by arcaded brick-banded stone elevations with exposed iron lintels over openings, patterned brick window aprons and roof coverings of mechanical tiles - set the dignified functional model for subsequent extensions.

In 1869, Emile Menier (Jean Antoine's son) decided to enlarge the timber-framed water mill, to accommodate three new turbine wheels devised by the engineer L. D. Girard. Initially, Saulnier proposed to rebuild in stone, but construction was postponed by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Saulnier seems to have made use of the delay to transform the project into his masterpiece: the iron and brick superstructure erected in 1872-1874 by the contractor Armand Moisant. The structural frame was entirely made of puddled wrought iron. It bridged the Marne on a chassis of four longitudinal and two transverse tubular beams with riveted flanges bearing onto existing stone piers. The exposed diagonally braced ironwork was likened by Saulnier to the girders of a lattice bridge.

Within the iron framework, double-skin panels of brickwork with polychrome motifs, enlivened by brilliantly patterned ceramic decorative elements, formed the building envelope. Inside, the two lower storeys were punctuated by rows of columns. However, an unobstructed space was achieved on the third floor by suspending the floor above (the attic floor) from the roof trusses. Described as a 'construction remarquable' by Viollet-le-Duc,(1) and arguably the first built example of an exposed metal structure, the design probably owes as much to Bonneau's timber framing in the earlier rebuilding of the Noisiel mill as it does to Viollet's innovatory ideas on the frank expression of iron construction.

After Emile Menier's death in 1879, his sons Henri and Gaston pursued his innovatory policies with equal vigour. In 1880, Jules Legros took over as company architect at Noisiel, to be followed by his son Louis in 1890. The factory was enlarged and restructured along the river bank to give a rational production sequence of buildings served by top-lit internal circulation routes complete with an integral system of railways linked to the Paris-Bale main line. A vast network of cooling vaults was installed along part of the southern boundary in 1882-1884, complete with an elegant clear-span iron-framed engine house known as the 'Halle Eiffel'.

By the turn of the century, the Menier works at Noisiel was reputed to be the largest chocolate factory in the world. To enhance the company's reputation and promote its product, Henri and Gaston decided in 1905 to erect a multi-storey building on the island, mainly for the purpose of creating a vast and luminous hall as a showcase where the public could admire the most spectacular process in the production of chocolate - the blending of cocoa paste with sugar. It was linked to the mainland factory by a high-level covered bridge. As reinforced concrete was then the most advanced building technology available, the engineer Armand Considere - inventor of a very strong helical reinforcement for concrete - was put in charge of the piling and, notably, for the 44.5m span concrete bridge which he designed on the principle of an inverted suspension cable (p27). The Hennebique reinforced-concrete system was employed for the structural frame of the stepped multi-storey building, with its double height halls, and Stephen Sauvestre - architect of the Eiffel tower and, since 1895, architect to the Menier brothers - was brought in as consultant, to add suitably fashionable classical trim. Constructed in 1906-1908, the new building was rapidly dubbed 'la Cathedrale', and the covered bridge leading to it was nicknamed 'le Pont Hardi' (the daring bridge). The company's heyday was to end with the First World War. After a period of commercial decline, the Meniers finally sold up in 1959.

The Noisiel factory was acquired by Rowntree-Mackintosh in the 1970s but chocolate production ceased there in 1993. By then, Nestle - owners since their 1989 takeover of Rowntree-Mackintosh - had already asked Reichen & Robert to advise on the possibility of converting the Noisiel site and buildings into a business park. No sooner had Reichen & Robert shown the viability of renovating the existing buildings to provide 30 000 [m.sup.2] for this purpose than Yves Barbieux was appointed as Director of Nestle France, charged with the task of relocating the company's seven subsidiaries in a single headquarters. Using their experience and knowledge of the site, the architects promptly demonstrated the Noisiel premises could be restructured to provide a far more prestigious and attractive headquarters for Nestle France, at lesser cost than other options.

Among the many advantages offered by the 14-hectare Noisiel site was its fine natural landscape riverside setting and accessibility only 18 kilometres from central Paris. Moreover, most of the existing buildings on the site were in fairly sound condition, Saulnier's mill straddling the Marne provided a magnificent emblematic centrepiece for the Nestle France headquarters, and the evolution of the chocolate factory as an inter-linked linear sequence of architecturally diverse buildings lent itself to conversion and extension to create readily identifiable premises for the individual companies of the Nestle group, complemented by communal facilities like a staff canteen.

As restructured, access is confined to a single entrance gate, aligned on a glazed reception space and a footbridge leading to the island. To maximise the amenity potential of the landscape, the site is predominantly free of traffic. The general approach adopted by Reichen & Robert was to locate the canteen and other staff leisure facilities on the island, and to concentrate office accommodation on the mainland, where it is organised around a circulation spine generated from the system of top-lit linear routes that formerly served the railways that ran through the main factory ranges. These buildings have been adapted to provide two or three storeys of offices on either side of the spine, which also serves new office buildings at the eastern end of the site. All offices are designed on a 2.70 metre grid and, in accordance with Nestle's requirements, all partitions are demountable to allow for maximum flexibility.

In principle, all conversion work is wholly reversible. Notable exceptions include internal rebuilding of one complete factory building at the western end of the site (because the retention of the original floors proved unduly expensive), radical alteration of former cooling vaults to create an underground auditorium, and the demolition of structures deemed to be redundant (post-war additions for the most part). Conversely, the Halle Eiffel and the spectacular space in the Cathedrale originally designed to amaze visitors with the spectacle of cocoa and sugar blending have both been restored and retained, as multi-purpose spaces for exhibitions, receptions and the like.

As to Saulnier's iconic mill, its status as a Monument Historique meant external restoration had to be put in the hands of the State-appointed Architecte en chef des Monuments Historiques, Daniel Lefevre. The international celebrity of the building, and the imperative necessity to avoid untoward intervention to its remarkable and largely intact structure, led to the conversion of the upper storeys to provide a boardroom, reception facilities and other accommodation for Nestle France's directors, and the retention of the 1920s generators as permanent features of the lowest storey, which also serves as a sheltered bridge.

At Noisiel, Reichen & Robert have revived the extraordinary combination of innovation and pragmatism that characterised the evolution of the Menier factory for nearly a century.


1 In Entretiens sur l'Architecture Vol 2, 1872, p334 note 1; cf also Plate XXXVI, dated 1871, for Viollet's own proposal for a metal framed elevation.
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Title Annotation:Nestle France's new headquarters
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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