The site of the new arts centre is exceptional: Le Fresnoy, a leisure complex from the 1920s comprising a boxing ring, skating rink, cinemas and a ballroom. It used to be a fairground-like labyrinth, popular and cheap. Le Fresnoy: on Saturday evenings those glittering red letters flashed across the Tourcoing sky beaming out as far as Roubaix and Lille. Most of these old buildings have been worked into the new complex.
Tschumi’s architecture was eagerly anticipated, more especially as French architecture is currently dominated by a certain sombreness. A sombreness that surfaces in the new fashion propounded by the critic Jacques Lucan who preaches banality as a subject of the architectural discourse. Lucan is referring to recent projects in Paris designed by himself, Herzog and De Meuron and Diener and Diener, buildings which cannot directly be termed minimalist but whose design is so restrained and codified that it could almost be called urban aridity. Based on research into ‘architecture of events’ – thus more on complexity than on uniformity – Tschumi’s scheme has a certain subversiveness that responds to the need for theoretical renewal. In other words the realization of Le Fresnoy represents a direct confrontation between Tschumi’s spatial theory1) – movement, fluidity and the ‘shock’ (the physical shock of different periods meeting and the virtual shock of clashing cultural registers) – and the humdrum aspect of the existing building that already seemed touched by the syndrome of banality.
Even greater things were expected of the programme, however, because the programme makes the event. The studio of which Alain Fleischer – artist, film-maker, photographer and writer – was appointed director, has to function not only as a platform for the arts with a local, national and international resonance, but it also offers a two-year course for promising students, selected by a stringent entrance examination (24 students per year). They are taught by internationally famous guest teachers who live at Fresnoy and have access to the best technical resources (audiovisual material, studios, cutting room). The programme also includes theatre and exhibition spaces, a film studio, a multimedia centre, two cinemas, a bar/restaurant, office spaces and accommodation for students and visiting tutors. This has all been targeted towards research into all the disciplines (the visual arts, film, video, computer and audio technology, music, architecture, theatre, etcetera) and their capacity to stimulate dialogue. A truly promising programme.
But a controversial programme too, because Le Fresnoy’s ambitions have thoroughly managed to set the art world by the ears. During the memorable symposium ‘ordres et désordres’ held in Paris in April of this year two ‘avant-gardes’ were pitted one against the other: the one charged with being the official shop-window of conceptual art, bases itself on the spirit of Marcel Duchamp; the other stems from more pictorial tendencies. By contrast Le Fresnoy, with its programme geared to bringing together all the arts with works in situ which are ‘freed from traditional classifications’ and ‘accompany the development of forms of artistic expression towards the beginning of the 21st century’, propagates the integration of the arts, the ‘impurity’.2) The opening show ‘Projections, transporting the image…’ compiled by Dominique Païni, director of the French Film Museum, functions actually as a sort of third stream, that of ‘(artistic) illusion’ where the conditions of the presentation are just as important as the work itself. This show will encapsulate what Le Fresnoy seeks to engender: an investigation into the creative act and its relationship with the viewer in the space where the work is exhibited.
If one remembers that the plans for the last cultural ‘grand projet’ – Finn Geipel and Nicolas Michelin’s Centre de création Multimedia Metafort in Aubervilliers – were shelved, then Le Fresnoy now presents an enviable luxury, a dream come true; it also represents the last of the mythical ‘grand projets’.3)
In this context Tschumi and Fleischer’s scheme took on an explosive charge. It set the cat among the pigeons. And moreover it has the power of conviction. Tschumi interwove into his project his theory of ‘the architecture of events’, the ‘in-between’, and made the whole more complex still by incorporating ideas taken from Paul Virilio and Jacques Derrida. The content of the programme, with its emphasis on new media, goes hand in hand with a striving to create an architecture of movement, of kinematics, a theme which has engaged Tschumi over the last twenty years – in Paris, Geneva, London and New York – ever since the publication of his Manhattan Transcripts (1981), which attracted much the same level of public interest as Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. Koolhaas and Tschumi were fellow students at the Architecture Association in London.
It is rare to see a single building provoke such a high-level and coherent debate, both from a visual, philosophical and political viewpoint. This inevitably places a heavy responsibility on the architect responsible for executing the scheme around which this debate revolves. Looking at Le Fresnoy one cannot help feeling that the architect has fulfilled these expectations. He has succeeded in expressing the essence of his theories: the beautiful and perplexing vision of a large roof that floats above the complex and yet appears to be of an altogether different scale. It extricates itself from the northern French neighbourhood representative of so many of its kind – expansive sky, canal, brick houses, decorated gables, windows with crocheted curtains: an atmosphere of melancholy encapsulating something between Rimbaud and Magritte.
Under this 100 x 80 meter metal sky with its ellipse-shaped openings – Tschumi calls them ‘clouds’ – the old Fresnoy in the faded yellow of a past era seems very small, like a duck sheltering under the wings of a swan.
The architect found the perfect place, the perfect movement for the roof: on the south side the metal wave hovers high above the building, protruding like a lean-to out over the forecourt. On the west side, the roof executes a sideways movement in the direction of the old district, shifting the old buildings outside and thus allowing other events to be set in motion. Walk round the building and the power of the concept becomes apparent. Nearly all the old structures have been preserved, apart from the dilapidated strip along the north elevation and one building in the south-east corner of the site. Open on three sides, the umbrella roof serves to protect the old roofs and to isolate them, both symbolically and literally. Yhe north side by contrast is closed and shelters the strip with new volumes housing the studios and the accommodation for students and guest teachers. In the south the block housing workshops and offices has glass elevations, a type of curtain walling common to the customary glazed office elevations, providing light for the entrance hall and the other spaces which, as will be discovered, are themselves little different from standard office spaces.
On the east side a metal staircase unfurls itself like an affirmation, climbing up to Le Fresnoy’s highest line, right up to its red-brick roofs. And in between the sleek steel sky and the irregular, rough topography of the old roof tiles, one suspects the imminent discovery of something that has not yet been seen: the famous ‘entre-deux’, the a-typical, a-topical in-between space, which Tschumi has spoken about in his theories. Certainly the place is beautiful, imbued with a magic seductiveness, and it is not a repetition of something we already know, except perhaps of other magical places in industrial architecture from the beginning of the century, of which the most extraordinary is the secret route which doubles the main hall of New York’s Central Station, or maybe the labyrinthine archives of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, the backdrop to Orson Welles’s film The Trial. Tschumi: ‘If the new roof acts as the common denominator of the project – a ‘huge umbrella-screen’ – we have also tried to restore the poetic character of this combination of different elements – analogy: the encounter of the umbrella and the sewing-machine on the dissecting table…’4) The surrealist confrontation to which he refers does indeed occur in this ‘in-between’ between two roofs, a metaphor of that real ‘in-between’ that constitutes the world of the new media. A route of catwalks runs through this ‘in-between’ on the north-south axis and diverges where the roofs rise up like hillocks. The route runs above vertiginous depths and offers several fine views of the flat land in the distance that stand in contrast to the view of roofs nearby which look bizarre from this perspective. There is even a small suspended amphitheatre, an open-air cinema. There will be times when Le Fresnoy will be bustling with life in the evenings too.
Theory and practice
But even if you are not an admirer of high-tech and precision work, you can nonetheless only deplore the crude detailing (although this is not really cheap, not really minimal and not really irritating), all the more because this crudeness is further underlined by the application to the aerial walkways of a coat of blue paint – in a blue that is even more vulgar than that of the computer images that visualized these spaces in the design phase. Moreover it is difficult to imagine that the management want to keep this route open to the public. If they do, however, the visitor will get the chance to see a compelling aesthetic, albeit a extremely specific one. It is a private, not to say solitary pleasure, suitable for those who conceived it, who can treat themselves to ‘all kinds of fantasies’ – the architect, who eagerly invites people, especially as he is one of the three architects in the running for the commission for the extension to MOMA in New York, and the director of the building, who has already filmed and photographed it against a decor of film lights (see his full-length film Le Fresnoy, grands artistes présentés par un veilleur de nuit). The fashion magazines too have featured pictures of the building. Le Fresnoy’s users will discover it while enjoying a drink in the cafeteria. And the resident students and teachers can see this route if they stand on tiptoe and peer out of the window. Is this really ‘the place for all kinds of … experiments – film and exploration into space and time’ that Tschumi envisaged? The artists, the users and their work will be the judge of that.
One must not forget that Tschumi’s concept of the ‘in-between’ applies to the entire building complex, something he defined as follows: ‘a succession of boxes within a box’.
But this definition has about it an element of a ‘suspended situation’, the expectation that the space between the boxes will develop in a novel way, the promise that Nelson’s suspended house will finally be redeemed. But not so. Except for a modest movement of the main staircase, except for a catwalk that leads nowhere, practice triumphs over theory. The hall is banal, the corridors are nothing more than linking elements, the material is commonplace. It is a shame, even though the art works, the semi-dark halls and the white screen keep the illusions of an ‘architecture of events’ alive, and even though the old building, despite everything, manages to maintain something of its wackiness.
A visit to the building makes plain that the functions of the programme and pressures of technology have overridden that seductive theory. Spaces that overflow into one another have given way to a succession of mono-functional areas. The old buildings have been restored: the roof’s metal frame has been doubled by the addition of a false ceiling which obscures the top part of the double metal trusses. And Tschumi is not afraid to extend the trusses onto the new ceiling in a trompe l’oeil painting. The building housing the two cinemas, which will be used by public and students alike, has a curious colonnade of bespangled granite, a nostalgic references to the film houses of the 1960s. Film and image are the unmistakeable rulers here. But that does not obviate the fact that more was expected. It is as though the building lacks a sense of the constructional. Things happen here that one might be willing to forgive some architects but not Tschumi, the phlegmatic demolisher of customary views, laureate of the national French architecture prize, Dean of Columbia University, ingenious inventor of the Parc de La Villette in Paris, of the video pavilion in Groningen, designer of the Architecture School Marne la Vallée near Paris and the ‘Lerner Student Activity Center’ of Columbia University in New York. The architect as structural engineer is entirely absent and this weakens, if not negates, his theoretical intentions. The future of these buildings depends on what the users make of them: a shrine for intercultural activities or a shell of hollow manifestations.
The Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) also opens in October in Karlsruhe in a refurbished munitions factory. Heinrich Klotz (former director of the Frankfurt Architecture Museum) is the director of the institute and the artist Jeffrey Shaw heads the institute for new media. The architects Schweiger and Partners, came up with a rational concept for the refurbishment: boxes geared towards giving presentations, devoid of ornament or message, the antithesis of a romantic vision of place. They have built a machine, under a roof that is definitely less poetic than the one at Le Fresnoy. The city of Karlsruhe placed substantial funds at their disposal, and the institute’s leaders have boundless energy and an extensive cultural network. But aside from the facilities, will this place offer artists the space to create art, and visitors a place where they can communicate? The ZKM and Le Fresnoy – qua architecture so different, but qua programme so similar (or competing?) – in fact raise the same questions.
One of Marcel Proust’s most exquisite passages is about the light of a ‘yellow wall surface’ in a painting by Vermeer that lost all its magic when he actually visited it in Delft. That yellow was also the colour of old Fresnoy: the buildings were painted yellow inside and out. Tschumi wanted that vestige to be stored in the memory, though also to make a distinction by consistently rendering the new-build white. What was preserved of the old Fresnoy was repainted yellow but it already looks drab, making it difficult to tell it apart from the white. A few days before the completion of the building a painter armed with a large bucket and a brush tried to make a distinction between the old and the new, not knowing where he had to stop. An additional complication was presented by the flaking red Pompeiian stretches of wall and old inscriptions like ‘vestiaires, café, toilettes pour dames’ had to be preserved.
The intention is clear. The architectural implementation is not. If the additions and the new materials nestle into the existing architecture, the old fabric has not enough space to breathe; there is no sense of distance whatever, the old is overrun by the new. Will the painter ever know how essential his task was?
3. Le Fresnoy is funded by the French state, the city of Roubaix and the Nord Pas de Calais region. The building cost approx. FF. 120 million and the interior appointment some 60 million. The annual budget is estimated at around FF. 30 million.