Forging a New Identity pix
At the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, a former steelmaker's headquarters in Valenciennes, France, it's hard to tell where the art ends and Louis Paillard's redesign begins
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 8/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
At Louis Paillard Architecte's Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes, France, balustrades of sheet steel are pierced with laser-cut holes, a motif repeated throughout the building.
The industrial-strength variety of polyurethane resin flooring, normally used in parking garages, is color-coded by level. Yellow indicates the ground level, where a 1937 fresco, Les Haut-Fourneaux des Forges et Aciéries du Nord et de l'Est à Trith-Le-Poirier by Lucien Jonas, is a reminder of the building's previous tenant, steel manufacturer Usinor.
A student sculpture in wood, metal, and thread stands outside the second-level meeting room, a last-minute addition enclosed by spray-painted plasterboard.
The theater's plywood door opens to a twig installation.
the theater, a steel gangway acts as a support beam in addition to providing maintenance access to upper windows.
A fire exit decorated with two student works in acrylic on plastic.
Foam and tin foil on a plastic chair.
The workshop area of the children's atelier features chairs with plywood seats and trestle tables topped in plastic laminate.
New aluminum-framed glazing opens up the part of the building that now houses the cafeteria; it's furnished with Bartoli Design's Breeze chairs, in recyclable plastic and aluminum, as well as the firm's K5 tables. Right:
To improve acoustics in the cafeteria below, holes in the mezzanine balustrade's galvanized sheet steel are backed with lamb's-wool panels.
Herzog & de Meuron designed the library's silicone-coated steel Pipe ceiling fixtures, which descend toward custom plywood-topped tables. The paneling is gaboon plywood, often used to build boats.
Twig art outside the theater.
A piece made from eggshells in another fire exit.
A mixed-media sculpture backed by illustrated paper.
A 10-year-old girl's effort in feathers and acrylic.
Students made the paper tapestry in the children's atelier.
This sculpture is in wood and paper.
Polypropylene seats, normally used for stadiums, can accommodate 120 in the pine-paneled theater. The light fixtures are powder-coated aluminum.
Pupils age 8 to 12 experiment with art in the children's atelier.
Also spray-painted plasterboard, the floating enclosure of the theater shelters a crate and branches from a disassembled student piece.
|Valenciennes is a place where the 42,000 inhabitants have learned to tighten their belts. Situated near the Belgian border, the town used to be a center of heavy industry. When the factories shut down in the 1970's, they left a severely depressed economy behind. "We had one tenth of all the brownfields in France," says Patrick Roussiès, Valenciennes's vice president for culture. Recent years, however, have seen an incredible revival sparked partly by the arrival of the Toyota Motor Corporation and growth at Bombardier, which have helped pump the equivalent of $1.25 billion into renovations. A reinvented Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts is the latest cultural jewel in Valenciennes's crown.
Having educated both the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau and the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, the town has a rich artistic heritage. The school itself dates back to the 1700's. Since the 1850's, it had occupied an imposing Napoléon III–style building, shared since the 1890's with the municipal music conservatory. But that facility had become not only too small but also impossible to adapt to the needs of contemporary art. "The spaces had been conceived for easel painting," architect Louis Paillard explains. "They were not at all geared toward digital and video art."
The local authorities hired Paillard's namesake firm when they decided to relocate the school to the abandoned headquarters of the steel manufacturer Usinor, which had merged with Arbed and Aceralia in 2001. Sandwiched between railroad tracks, a canal, and the Paris-Brussels autoroute, the offices had been built in several phases from the 1930's to the 1960's. Windows were abundant—but most of them had been broken by the time Paillard arrived on the scene. "There was graffiti everywhere," he recalls. "And all the zinc roof tiles had been stolen. Twice." To make matters worse, the project had an extremely skimpy budget, only the equivalent of $76 per square foot. "Normally, you'd expect twice that amount," the architect continues. "Even for social housing, the minimum is around $115 in France."
Fortunately, the structure remained sound, and it had what the previous building lacked: a whopping 75,000 square feet of space. The first thing Paillard did was rip out everything except the floors, the load-bearing walls, the structural columns, and a 1937 fresco depicting Usinor's factories. Next, he replaced the windows, roof, and plumbing. When rebuilding began, he simply framed the new classrooms, ateliers, and offices in plasterboard and spray-painted them white. "They're like big lofts," he says. "Neutral settings for the students."
Being budget-conscious overall left Paillard with the means to "turn up the volume," as he puts it, in four key areas, namely the entry hall, cafeteria, library, and theater. In the entry, the dramatic gesture is a massive main staircase constructed from sheet steel pierced with small round holes, a motif that runs throughout the school. For the cafeteria, he says, he switched to galvanized sheet steel "reminiscent of Warhol's Campbell's Soup tins." The holes here are not only an aesthetic detail but also serve an acoustical purpose: Paillard backed them with lamb's-wool panels. Similar holes appear in the library's plywood ceiling—from which a tangle of snakelike Herzog & de Meuron light fixtures descends—as well as in the blond pine ceiling of the 120-seat theater.
The truly stunning perspective on the theater, however, is from the outside. Paillard compares its floating enclosure to a whale swimming in a triple-height tank. Stand in the surrounding space, underneath the slanted plane created by the stadium seating inside, and you have "both the impression of being in a very large volume and also of being slightly compressed, because you have this huge thing on top of you," he says. Yet this particular whale is neither white nor gray. Instead, it's painted reddish-orange.
That's just one of the numerous instances of bright color, Paillard's way of creating vivid effects very cheaply. Another example is the orange, yellow, and green polyurethane resin flooring in hallways and corridors. In the cafeteria and the library, flooring is respectively red and blue. The steel fire-exit stairs ended up painted purple after the authorities vetoed Paillard's original choice, fuchsia. "They said that, if we left them pink, people might think the stairs were on fire," he says with a hint of a smile.
On the exterior of the building, his intervention was rather more discreet. "The facade belongs to the town's history," Roussiès says. The only major alteration to the building's brick, steel, and concrete skin—a mixed bag from years of additions—was the insertion of aluminum-framed glass windows and doors. As Paillard explains, "They show that, inside this ordinary-looking building, strange things are going on."