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Safe harbour.

Meshed into a cliffside overlooking the harbour, a new school for apprentice fishermen in the Normandy port of Fecamp combines a vigorous sense of materiality with a sensitive response to the intricacies of site and programme.

Despite a sharp decline in the local fishing industry over the past 20 years, Fecamp in Normandy remains France's major commercial cod-fishing port. The site of a disused fish-curing works on the harbour at Fecamp has recently been redeveloped by the Regional Council for the Ecole Maritime Aquacole into a public-sector boarding school where 14 to 19 year olds are trained to become professional fishermen (the only other such school in the region is at Le Havre). The Regional Council decided entirely new accommodation should be built for the school when its former premises were found to be both obsolete and unsafe. Completed earlier this year to designs by the Rouen-based architect Jacques Etienne, the new development contains the school's teaching, catering and administrative accommodation.

The harbour site consists of the disused fish-curing works and a slice of the cliff behind it, including the walled garden and derelict outer shell of a house where Guy de Maupassant once lived (the eponymous quay 10 metres below commemorates his residence there). The external restoration of Maupassant's house, and the rehabilitation or re-building a l'identique of the main nineteenth-century fish-curing shed, were among the town planning conditions governing the project.

The school's new premises are organised principally around three sides of an entrance courtyard giving on to the quay. Wet stores for sea-going equipment, changing rooms and showers are at basement level, where they can be reached direct from the harbour via the quay and a sunken area in the entrance courtyard.

Main teaching spaces - classrooms, laboratories, and workshops - are located at ground, first and second floor levels, with the visitors' entrance and administrative offices placed at ground level in the western range. Catering facilities are provided at the top of the building, where a panoramic view over the harbour and more intimate views on to the walled garden and Maupassant's house can be enjoyed from the self-service restaurant.

Maupassant's house has been remodelled internally to serve as the school library and to provide access, via its lowest storey, to a new multi-purpose hall that has been inserted - very discreetly among the contingent cliffside terraces to the east. Otherwise detached from the new school buildings, the newly re-roofed and restored house remains a distinct feature of the townscape seen from certain viewpoints across the harbour and the Quai Guy de Maupassant.

Conversely, the outer walls of the nineteenth-century fish-curing shed have been entirely rebuilt. The rear wall against the cliffs has been replaced with a reinforced retaining wall, a party wall to the west has been rebuilt in concrete, and two exposed elevations have been reconstructed in a functional reinterpretation of the original with knapped flint facings and dressings of brick and stone. Now surmounted by the fully glazed elevation of the restaurant, the former curing shed is flanked to the west by a continuous four-storey wing, and to the east by a discontinuous one terminating in a double-storey cube containing the charts and hydrographics rooms.

In adding unmistakably new buildings to the townscape while conserving others wholly or in part, Jacques Etienne has sought neither to impose any modish architectural formalism upon it nor to parody the past. His architectural response to site and brief is finely tuned to living maritime traditions and the evolving character of the port. He has made intelligent use of the topography to generate a response to brief and site that is at once fitting, functional and full of surprises: not least among them the retained walled garden terrace concealed 10 metres above the quayside, and an astonishing variety of views over the harbour to town, with its spikey nineteenth-century Benedictine distillery and magnificent mediaeval monastic church.
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Title Annotation:new fishermen school at Normandy's Fecamp harbour
Author:Ellis, Charlotte
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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