Post-industrial evolution

A characterful, white form houses the new theatre in a deprived former mining town on the French-German border, standing as a symbol of the municipality’s renewal plans. James Parker reports

Freyming-Merlebach is a small town located 100 km north-west of Strasbourg on the border between France and Germany. Its industrial past had however left it with a legacy of unemployment since the coal mines shut in the 1990s, a feature of similar towns across this area. Despite, and because of the relative levels of deprivation in the town, the authorities were looking to develop cultural solutions to help alleviate the associated social and economic problems. The architects of a striking new theatre for Freyming-Merlebach – Strasbourg-based Dominique Coulon & Associes note that this approach has been successfully achieved in industrial towns in the Ruhr region of Germany, just over the border. The town’s population was dropping significantly, reduced to 13,000 by the time the architects won the 2011-held competition to design a larger 700-seat theatre to replace the historic but dilapidated venue in the town. A number of cracks had appeared due to the presence of disused mining tunnels, and the old 500-seat auditorium was too small, and inadequate in terms of meeting the needs of 21st century theatre and music performance. According to the architects, the town’s mayor – who staged the competition – is “highly proactive, and had decided not to give up on the town’s cultural scene.” As has been the case with other towns in the region suffering from the after-effects of industrial blight, the public administration has called on architecture to provide a catalyst for improvement and regeneration. There was a precedent in the town in the form of the Maison des Cultures Frontieres, a cultural centre built in 1984, which had been successfully transformed into a new multimedia library. However in the case of the new theatre, named after 19th century French-German composer Louis Théodore-Gouvy, refurbishment of the existing theatre wasn’t an option due to the site’s instability. As a result, a new site was identified to the east of the town centre, on Place des Alliés. The architects comment: “The authorities were keen to give a new boost to this evolving sector of town” – it is close to the new town hall, and a shopping centre.” Since it opened last year, the theatre’s 700 seat auditorium would be hosting what is described as a “pluri-disciplinary” programme. The theatre covers a wide variety of live performance, ranging from classical theatre including the use of large-scale sets, to contemporary theatre, musical theatre and opera, and dance. The building also houses a programme of events designed for schools and youth participation.

Site

A leading French studio, Dominique Coulon & Associes have an impressive portfolio of projects in the cultural sector, building on its reputation established with the completion of a theatre in Montreuil in the eastern Paris suburbs, in 2007. Recent completed schemes include the Conservatoire of Music, Dance and Dramatic Arts in Belfort, in the Franche-Comté region, and a new model of Media Library in Thionville, also in Lorraine, and projects further afield such as Library and Theatre in Isbergues, Pas de Calais. Projects are characterised by a focus on precise design, an embracing of materiality, and minimalistic cantilevered forms, plus an intent to create interesting public space internally as well as externally. The theatre forms part of a broader regeneration of the Place des Allies, also home to the shopping centre, which was in a state of decline. It forms the third point of a triangle with the ‘mall’ and town hall forming the other two, therefore occupies a prominent civil position. Two major roads run east-west direction to the south of the site, and the building sits at an angle to a smaller road running alongside it into Place des Allies. Because the site slopes downwards to the south, the architects submitted a design that included a forecourt to the north and a further square to the south west, giving the benefit of new public space for the town accessed off the square.

Design

The building would be viewable from all sides, presenting the opportunity to provide aesthetic interest to visitors and the passing populace from all angles. Due to the theatre being surrounded by modest family houses and other low rise buildings, the architects were careful to moderate their approach while creating a strong visual presence, seemingly without precedent. The result is a strikingly minimalist, angular white form. The project architect Dominique Coulon tells ADF that as part of “setting up an energetic dialogue with heterogeneous urban landscape”, the design was developed to have a “strong plasticity,” adding: “We wanted the white volumes to stand out from the landscape.” He says the intent was for the building “to appear as a sparkling gem; to us the project had to become the symbol of renewal of the town.” Coulon says that the need to distinguish the building from its surroundings was the overarching design ambition: “What mattered to us was obtaining a homogenous white envelope. We wanted the theatre to detach itself from the context, for the building to stand apart and embrace its radiance.” He says that while its three-storey scale is not out of all proportion with the nearby low-rises, the building takes a cue from its immediate environment in creating a contrast to it: “In the end, the building itself makes the context.” The design is distinguished by expansive concrete walls, which despite their monolithic white, form an “animated” set of volumes, as the architects put it. There are also glimpses of the interesting spaces within through glazing that tempt visitors to enter. The building presents itself as a playfully-stacked set of differently-shaped white boxes, the north elevation having a large cantilevered viewing window with floor-to-ceiling glass, overlooking the square and the town beyond. With its face tilted upwards towards the town, this attractive Dominique Coulon signature helps to offset the necessary square bulk of the stage tower behind. Facing onto the northern forecourt of white marble ‘cobblestones’, the entrance is in fact tucked into the top end of the building’s eastern elevation, helping signpost the area while being a discreet design choice. This allows its western end to have a characterful composition of recessed areas of glazing and the white exterior of the lobby, whose triangular form protrudes from the main bulk of the building, creating a deep ‘crease’ where it rejoins it. What the architects call a “rather modest” entrance opening enables the lobby, which is entered at one end and runs diagonally along the north side, to present itself more dramatically as a longer space than would have been the case. Providing a “streamlined silhouette,” the building is constructed from a mix of concrete and steel, with the auditorium having an in-situ concrete frame and the foyer containing the main stair being steel frame. Coulon says that this brought savings in terms of the amount of structure required, which in turn helped the building be cost-effective: “It made us possible for us to respect the budget we were given.”

Continuity & contrasts

The lobby is at once subtle and dramatic, covered in off-white uncoloured gypsum plaster, continuing the feel of the exterior but in a softer shade to welcome theatregoers. A beige-carpeted staircase to the auditorium is revealed, discretely located opposite the reception and running around the external wall. Coulon was aiming for a series of “unveilings” as the building progressively takes on different characteristics as visitors approach, enter and then move through the spaces. “At first we have a seemingly solitary building, twinkling in the town. It hides contrasting inner worlds, the foyer designed as a spectacular and enveloping cocoon, and the colourful auditorium.” Coulon adds: “By leaving the gypsum crude, and laying beige fabric on the floors, we obtained soft and homogenous textures that strengthen the enveloping feeling. Natural light is indirect (apart from via the top floor viewing window), with the natural-hued walls and soffits having a resulting variety of nuances of tone. There is little to interrupt the sculptural geometry of the foyer – in fact, Coulon characterises the area as “a giant sculpture in which users experience space in a striking way.” The reception desk is two stacked concrete oblongs in differing finishes and arranged at a deliberately oblique angle to each other. The seating is minimal although offering a point of vivid red – a hint of what is to come in the auditorium. Throughout the open circulation spaces, the various diagonal shapes and oblique produced by the building’s internal forms offer a more dynamic impression than the more rectilinear and austere exterior. This is particularly effective in the lobby where the angular white stair and ramp enclosures appear to intertwine in the void above. This no doubt helps enhance visitors’ sense of anticipation for the performance they are about to witness, but a further, more surprising contrast awaits. Due to its combination of scale and vibrant colour, entering the auditorium is a dramatic shift after the calm spaces preceding it. “All its strength and energy come from this deliberate break,” says Coulon. Arranged very close to each other, there are clashing shades of deep red and pink in the seating, upper circle, and on ceilings, and orange on walls – almost merging in places, and “giving density to the space.”

Conclusion

The architects rightly say that this new, fairly avant-garde theatre presents a strong symbol of a town facing the challenges it has to address, and embracing the potential for renewal. The building’s dynamic yet clean lines are intended to help lift its somewhat mundane surroundings and provide a sense of inspiration for the community. Its presence, allied to a diverse programme through the year, will hopefully prove to be a worthy example of the power of architecture to effect social change.