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St Etienne re-invents itself
as city for art and design

By Brian Baker, Senior Correspondent

28 March 2010: When Maurice Vincent, Mayor of Saint Etienne and President of the agglomeration authority Saint Etienne Metropole, welcomed guests to the opening of the 64 million euros Cité Du Design in November 2009 he was completing a task initiated by his predecessor Michel Thiollore well over a decade ago. Michel Thiollore, who placed fifth in the World Mayor contest in 2006, came to office in the early 1990’s with a dynamic and positive approach to the task of restoring the city’s fortunes.

Closures and downsizing of manufacturing activities had made the Rhônes-Alpes city a depressed place with unemployment well above the natural average and population decline as young, talented people especially, left. He drove forward a raft of large projects to try to create a different future for Saint Etienne. Amongst them was the vision for a centre for design, which would have national and international credibility and significance.

Michèl Thiolloree and Jacques Bonnaval, who was then the Director of Saint Etienne School of Fine Arts, now the School of Art and Design, developed a shared concept for the centre and began to argue for it. Together the two men gradually gathered support for the proposal. When it became clear that the decline of the Manufacture Des Armes site close to the city centre would lead to complete closure the ideal location for a new facility was obvious.

It would provide a new home for the school and a range of resources for design and designers and be the home of the International Biennale of Design, which the school of fine art and design supported by the city, agglomeration and region founded as a high profile element of this future vision for the area in 1998.

The innovative Paris and Berlin-based LIN practice run by Giulia Andi and Finn Geipel won the architectual competition for the scheme, which combines new buildings with re-use of some of the suite of outstanding 1860’s buildings at the Manufacture site and includes over 60,000 square metres of development and refurbishment.

Cité Du Design is almost entirely financed by the public sector. It will be judged a success only if it draws private companies which provide good jobs to the available buildings and land around it. ZAC Manufacture and Plaines Achilles, which includes a 107 hectares area has been established to facilitate future investment and development.

More generally, the creation of the design centre has already lifted the area. Extensive public realm improvements have been made and some new residential blocks of market housing were completed around the perimeter of the re-development zone whilst Cité Du Design was being constructed.

The Platin building is a single storey structure, which sits in front of the original buildings. It has an innovative and adaptive exterior skin, which is a key element in achieving energy efficiency. It has a High Quality Environment rating. This 195 metres x 32 metres building includes the exhibition spaces, a greenhouse, a library and research area and a 300-seat auditorium as well as the reception and shop space.

The second new building is a 31 metres high Observatory. The steel structure has 100 metres of platform surface area.

The administrative staff of the school and the design centre, live work studios for visiting design professionals and students and meeting rooms are housed in the Clock Building (Bâtiment d‘Horlage).This is the most altered of the original suite of buildings internally and has been restored to pristine condition externally.

The two buildings occupied by the School for teaching and practical work have been restored to prime condition but are internally little altered as the large, light floor areas were very suitable for the new uses.

A major current question through 2010 is what happens to the biggest building in the Manufacture Des Armes cluster. Known as the Bâtiment H (H Building) this will be used for the Biennale in November 2010 but may be sold to investors subsequently as Saint Etienne Metropole, which now owns the site, needs to raise money.

Even excluding the funding for the School, which was carried forward from its previous location, the combined cost of the Cité Du Design and Biennale is over four million euros a year and over 75 per cent of this is currently coming from Saint Etienne Ville and Metropole.

The principal funding for the capital scheme split as follows:
Saint Etienne Ville and Metropole combined  43 million euros
Rhône-Alpes Region: 5 million euros
French Ministry of Culture: 6.3 million euros
European Union: 7 million euros

Aurelie Zimmermann is the spokesperson for Cité Du Design. She says “most of the Manufacture site closed 20 years ago and was closed off. The whole area had little public flow but now we have moved the focus of the city in this direction and there is interest in new development.”

The construction of the scheme took four years. At the opening Maurice Vincent, who became mayor in 2008, said “the Cite Du Design will be one of the assets our district will have to consolidate its identity on both national and international scales and will emphasize what we can expect from design in terms of economic and employment renewal. Our whole city is concerned by this pioneer strategy and its different impacts.”

The International Biennale in 2010 will open on 20 November and close on 5 December. The theme is Téléportation and the general curator is Constance Rubini.
Cité Du Design is open to individual visitors six days a week (closed Mondays unlike most cultural attractions in France which are shut on Tuesdays) and there are usually three exhibitions to see. The opening major exhibition, which continues till September 2010 is provocatively titled ‘Who’s Afraid of Design.’ There is a tram stop named after Cité Du Design at the entrance. It is 10 minutes by tram from Gare Chateaucreux.
© 2010 Brian Baker and City Mayors

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