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How – and why

Adam Caruso’s explanation made all the difference to the interpretation of his practice’s Lycée in Lille

The schoolyard is gated at either end. Only the first building on the left is original, the rest are newly built in the ‘image’ of what was there before.
The schoolyard is gated at either end. Only the first building on the left is original, the rest are newly built in the ‘image’ of what was there before. Credit: Hélène Binet

Architects do need to sell their projects. It is amazing how a chat with one can transform the perspective of a building. It also helps explain how some architects end up with world-famous international practices and the best projects, and how others don’t. It’s the gift of the gab; you notice it in the first crits at university but assume its importance diminishes over time. It doesn’t.

This is particularly true of the Lycée Hôtelier International de Lille (LHIL) in Fives, a suburb of Lille in northern France. I visited the project, by Caruso St John, three weeks before speaking to Adam Caruso. I had been shown around by two of the project architects over there, but in essence I was preparing to write an article about architectural disappointments. I’ll leave piece that to another time.

Of course, one shouldn’t be swayed too easily by what someone says, no matter how genuine. Gut reactions to a building and place still have a role. But I half grew up around Lille and didn’t think it needed an intellectualised version of what was already there – when that has clearly not been working. Now I think the area got off lightly.

The back context is that the region is still recovering from the damages of post-industrialisation. The city centre is smart, charming new boutiques down streets that attracted kerb-crawling in the 1990s. It’s great for a last minute shopping weekend – a hop over on Eurostar. But away from the centre, outwardly little has changed and its people may appear less metropolitan than you thought. 

  • The covered street will be the centerpiece in the masterplan for the 150,000m2 factory site. Local people can visit the school’s restaurant, bakery and florist.
    The covered street will be the centerpiece in the masterplan for the 150,000m2 factory site. Local people can visit the school’s restaurant, bakery and florist. Credit: Hélène Binet
  • The water tank was specified as part of the brief from the masterplan to help make an eco quarter. It stores water for the site and a second will be constructed shortly.
    The water tank was specified as part of the brief from the masterplan to help make an eco quarter. It stores water for the site and a second will be constructed shortly. Credit: Hélène Binet
  • Most fittings have been designed by Caruso St John; here lockers line a corridor.
    Most fittings have been designed by Caruso St John; here lockers line a corridor. Credit: Hélène Binet
  • The school’s reception and entrance opens onto a large semi open-air courtyard, filled with eucalyptus trees. The courtyard brings light into the plan and provides a social space.
    The school’s reception and entrance opens onto a large semi open-air courtyard, filled with eucalyptus trees. The courtyard brings light into the plan and provides a social space. Credit: Hélène Binet
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This is red brick France, twinned with Leeds, likewise its nearby suburb of Roubaix with Bradford, a less confident sister of Rotterdam and probably not doing as well as either relation. Here, the EU and its benefits are advertised everywhere – not just on hoarding panels outside specifically funded projects, but on motorway billboards. We visited in the wake of the Brexit vote and I forget whether these signboards are a new phenomenon, but you get the sense there’s a campaign to stop a similar protest here. Much of the development around Gare Lille Europe becomes superficial and meaningless when you explore further out.

That brings us to Fives, 40 minutes by foot to the city centre. I confess, a tight schedule meant I got a taxi there, and walked around the area after. It’s telling, though, not that the driver hadn’t heard of the school – it’s new to this part of the city having relocated in September – but that as we passed three institutional looking buildings with gable ends butting up to a tall perimeter wall and drew up to what had to be the right address, I wasn’t sure what we saw was it and the driver refused to let me out. He insisted on spending another 5-10 minutes driving around all the other local lycées to see if it might be one of those instead.

Finally, we ended up where we began, at the head of a wide, treeless newly tarmacked concourse. That’s where this story begins. One hundred metres in front is a huge wall of dilapidated red brick factory buildings, all of different ages and tagged onto each other as the factory expanded; to the left an empty car park and to the right a low overhanging multi-coloured panelled roofed building. Once the back of the factory for Fives-Cail-Babcock – a former civil engineering manufacturer of bridges, railway rolling stock and steel structures responsible for the first locomotives in France and the elevators for the Eiffel Tower – this is the new route into 150,000m2 of workshops that finally wound up in 1998. 

The avenue will form the main axis through Fives-Cail as it is transformed over 15 years. Masterplanned by AVC in 2005, the concept is on a grand scale and every effort is being made to make it a success. The new route breaks through the original perimeter wall to connect to the metro stop to the north-east, slicing a road through a rundown city block to make that journey even more efficient. It too is EU-funded.

 
  • The newly opened avenue to the metro and entrance to the covered street.
    The newly opened avenue to the metro and entrance to the covered street. Credit: Hélène Binet
  • The multi-use sports hall can be used by the school or booked by the local community.
    The multi-use sports hall can be used by the school or booked by the local community. Credit: Hélène Binet
  • The rear of the new school is constructed from white concrete to signify where the image of the factory has been cut and changed.
    The rear of the new school is constructed from white concrete to signify where the image of the factory has been cut and changed. Credit: Hélène Binet
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Caruso St John’s Lycée, a hospitality and catering college for 15-22 year-olds providing courses on floristry, baking, wine tasting and the hotel and restaurant trades, is one of the first projects to complete as part of this Fives-Cail redevelopment, and the first step toward recreating the area as a buzzing foodie district with a food hall in the manner of Mercado Da Ribeira in Lisbon. 

Closer inspection discloses that the first of these factory sheds has been restored. As one draws near, its new interior reveals itself as a huge public forum and circulation hall on an epic scale. The metalwork of the building retains its original factory language – blue for columns, red for beams, yellow for moving objects. For now the space is unoccupied, with most of its sides boarded off. On the immediate right however, running half way down the shed, is the public face of the relocated lycée; its restaurant, bakery and florist shop fronts facing into the circulation shed behind a new standardised glass and yellow frame facade slotted in after the refurbished metal structure. The activities of the school animate the internal street, the students working in goldfish bowl kitchens with the words ‘hôtellerie’, ‘restauration’, ‘boulangerie’, ‘pâtisserie’ in large informed lettering above them. 

Overall, the language of the architecture attempts to delineate the process. In total seven sheds make up the school, two retained, two rebuilt behind and three more to the side separated by another avenue, this time private to the school and gated at either end. Where these new sheds continue the image of the former factory, they are rebuilt in red concrete; where they come to an abrupt end to the rear where the other half of the sheds have been demolished, they are cut through clearly in white. 

‘It is a working class neighbourhood designed around the former factory,’ explained Caruso. ‘The image of small worker houses surrounding the factory is potent. Local politicians here were interested in how the image of industry could be incorporated into the scheme. Our design tries to amplify the qualities that are already there. Exploit the image and atmosphere as much as possible.’

From the internal street, the entrance to the school opens under a low passageway through four storeys of infilled building into a surprising full height courtyard excavated out of the roofless factory structure and planted with eucalyptus trees for their grey, graphic outline. Slightly corporate in nature, it is surrounded on three sides by the educational part of the site, providing teaching kitchens, changing rooms, lockers, a communal dining room, library, classrooms, plenty of service space and storage, even a mock hotel with ‘1-5 star’ rooms to the rear. This in turn opens onto the school’s gated avenue, again a wide and stark factory-type concourse. The three new buildings on the other side of the street are mini versions – or ‘kids’ as Caruso suggests – with yellow facades between them, contain the staff and student accommodation and sports hall with its low overhanging roof, spaced apart along the perimeter wall by small garden yards. 

 

‘The image of small worker houses surrounding the factory is potent. Our design tries to amplify the qualities that are already there’

The most unusual feature of the project, however, is for water. Aqueducts travel around the buildings at high level, taking advantage of the vast expanses of roof for collecting rainwater. Across the avenue, they appear as factory line conveyor belts. The water all heads towards a vast tank, also designed by Caruso St John in red concrete. A mesmerising structure, a second is on its way. It’s part of an effort for water management put in place by the masterplanner and strict guidelines for the site could be at the root of this austere, yet interesting, architecture.

And within all this, it seems that Caruso St John persuaded the client – the left-wing Lille city government and right-wing regional government – to branch out intellectually further than it might have done otherwise. You can imagine that something more immediate and iconic could have been built in the pretence of renewal and modernisation. Instead, Caruso St John homed in on the qualities and beauty of the site that are easy to take for granted in a former industrial area, where old warehouses and factories were once two a penny and remind people – like an open wound – of how considerably and quickly life has changed.

That’s what the real achievement is here. The hands of the city and regional governments are still heavy, the bureaucracy ferocious in the outdated catalogue dining hall furniture, standardised facade panels and windows, but Caruso St John should be respected for rallying against a typically French system that prescribes everything. On being invited to the project competition, for example, it was handed a dossier of four big binders outlining every room and every piece of equipment.

The success is that Caruso St John adapted. In contrast to its usual highly bespoke work, it put together standardised parts to make something original. In the roofs, three colours of industrialised corrugated sheeting are assembled into a giant textile pattern that lifts the buildings out of the ordinary. The same applies to the red aggregate added into the concrete walls and to the rear of the new staff accommodation building, windows wilfully vary in size to distinguish them from 1970s motorway budget hotel.

‘Nothing on this project is expensive,’ said Caruso, ‘even though there are 30 kitchens. The €42.7m budget works out as just over €1,000/m2.’

The client’s bureaucracy and stamp is ever more evident in the plans for the rest of the site, where most of the existing factory buildings will be demolished, banished for local people to the nostalgia of books and Google image searches. 

‘It’s the reality of getting developers to invest,’ explained Caruso, ‘but we felt a responsibility to preserve the memory of the place and site. To identify the lycée, the design keeps as much of the sheds as possible.’

So while I might have originally called for a bolder, more revolutionising architecture – MVRDV was in the competition shortlist – Caruso St John’s scheme is sensitive to the identity of the place in ways that, knowingly or not, people cherish and need. For that, semi-born of this place, I can be grateful to Caruso St John for showing another way for these buildings in an area that as a whole that hasn’t yet really found one.


In numbers

Area:  29,000m2
Budget: €47.2 million
 

 


Credits

Client: City of Lille and Region Hauts de France
Architect: Caruso St John Architects
Assistant architect, Lille: Coldefy & Associés Architectes et Urbanistes
Structural engineer: Batiserf
Services consultant: Inex
Cost consultant: Bureau Michel Forgue

Suppliers

Roads and infrastructure: Colas Nord Picardie
Groundworks and in situ concrete: Holbat SAS
Steelwork: Vasseur et Rovis
Screed floors: Chapes Dallages Industriels (CDI)
Roofing: SMAC SA – Agence Nord
Curtain walls, external doors and windows, secondary steelwork: PMN
Dry-lining: SDI SAS
Joinery: SAS Coexia – Menuiserie Descamps
Mechanical: AXIMA INSTALLATION REGIONS, Engie
Electrical: SAS Cegelec Nord Tertiaire, SAS Satelec
Landscape: AGRIGEX
Kitchens: Cofrino SA 

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