Lille : restoring the regional capital's moral reputation


Lille was a special case for a number of reasons. Declared an open city on 1 August 1914, it was nevertheless defended during the Race to the Sea. After an intense month of shelling, the city surrendered in October. Lille was occupied throughout the duration of the war and suffered terribly. In addition to the numerous privations inflicted on the population, hostages were obliged to sleep in the citadel every night while others were deported to Germany.

In the aftermath of the war Lille's deputy to the French parliament Gustave Delory, who had been held in captivity in Germany between 1914 and 1916, received a standing ovation in the Chamber of Deputies. This event marked the restoration of the city's dignity because, in addition to the physical suffering, Lille was tarnished with the shame of occupation. Lille was one of the few large towns to be held by the Germans. They used it as a rear base where private soldiers and troops could come to rest and relax in the coffee houses and the German theatre, indeed, even the Imperial Prince of Bavaria came to Lille to inspect his troops. All this cast a cloud over the city's reputation, after all, didn't the occupation protect the people of Lille from the worst excesses of the enemy? Arras, Reims and Verdun were recognized martyred cities, not Lille. And so this meant that any reconstruction had to deal with the problem of rehabilitating Lille's moral reputation.

Another particularity of the city's reconstruction was that it involved a programme of demolition. The French military had decommissioned the fortified elements of the city in 1910 and this made it possible for the town authorities to obtain permission for their demolition in 1919. The total free space produced by the demolition of the fortifications was almost equal to the surface area of the old walled city. Thus the reconstruction of Lille was not only a process of modernization but also one of moral rehabilitation.

Much of the town had been destroyed. Shelling prior to the occupation in 1914 and the explosion of the 18 Ponts munitions depot in 1916 flattened 1,108 houses and damaged another 11,100. Also in 1916, an electrical fault caused a fire in the town hall which brought down much of the ancient parts of the building.

Although accidental, the destruction of the town hall became central to the debate on the reconstruction: should the town hall be rebuilt exactly like the original? At the time of the fire Lille Town Hall was situated on place Rihour. Some parts of the building were the last surviving rooms of Rihour Palace, home of the Dukes of Burgundy, while other more austere parts had been built by the architect Benvignat in the 19th century. The new socialist town council led by Gustave Delory chose to apply regionalist ideas to the reconstruction rather than restore a building which had been marked, to quite a degree, by the classical eclecticism of the 19th century. The new location for the town hall would be the working-class district of Saint-Sauveur.

In 1920 the council announced a competition to select ideas for the reconstruction of the city. The competition was divided into two parts: one concerned the city of Lille proper, the other focused on creating a large urban mass composed of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing. The commission was awarded to the architects Jacques Gréber and Louis-Stanislas Cordonnier, the son of Louis-Marie Cordonnier; however Émile Dubuisson was selected to draw up the new layout of the city. Dubuisson was also chosen to design the new town hall.

Lille experienced two kinds of reconstruction: one involving the private sector, which like elsewhere relied on housing associations, and another involving the public sector whose predominance increased after the application of Cambrai's Law (which allowed the city council to make decisions which were normally the prerogative of the state) and the purchase of compensation rights for war damage, mostly in the Saint-Sauveur area of the city. Reconstruction by the private sector was at its most intense in the centre of the city, in rue Faidherbe, rue du Molinel, rue de Paris, rue de Béthune and some neighbouring streets. The architects Marcel Desmet and René Doutrelong made remarkable use of reinforced concrete for the main structures of their buildings. For example, behind the train station, in rue de Tournai, they created a regionalist setting which made notable use of reinforced concrete columns to accentuate the gabled facades. On rue Faidherbe and rue de Béthune, the Flemish exteriors were made to conceal a renovated commercial district with large shops, theatres, cinemas, coffees, luxury hotels and so on.

In the area of Lille-Moulins, where the explosion of the 18 Ponts munitions depot flattened a large number of the houses, the large textile factories and workers' accommodation with their typical small courtyards were rebuilt. Although retained, the courtyards were enlarged and the houses were given a first floor and connected to the mains supplies. Some pioneering housing estates were built near porte de Valenciennes; however no social mixing was attempted despite it being one of the requisites of the competition for ideas.

Reconstruction in the public sector was marked by the illusion of war reparations from Germany. Early ambitions were gradually reduced in scope and lacked impetus until the great programme of works launched by Roger Salengro got underway. Work to demolish the fortifications was slow and still not finished when the Second World War broke out. Despite the general sluggishness, public infrastructure was built in the eastern part of the town, between the area of Fives and the centre, and these included the exhibition centre, the automatic telephone exchange, the post office banking centre and so on. In the south of the city the Diderot Institute was built opposite the Désiré-Verhaeghe outdoor school. Finally, a hospital was erected in the west of the city although work had not finished by the time the Second World War broke out. Works to build the new high schools, the train station, the airport and the new university were either put on hold or abandoned. A vast memorial-building programme was launched with monuments erected in memory of the Lille Resistance, Louise de Bettignies, Léon Trulin and others. A war memorial was built on to the remains of Rihour Palace amid the grandiose scenes of destruction and the subsequent renaissance of the city.

The new town hall, moved from the centre to a new location in the Saint-Sauveur area of the city, was the central piece of the reconstruction. And yet despite its prestigious status, it was never completed. Of the three wings envisaged for the building, only two were ever built: the administrative wing and the bell. The abandoned part of the building would have housed the reception and ceremonial rooms as well as the mayor's offices. Needless to say, the parts of the building which were built have since left their mark on the city. The administrative wing is a long building which houses the various council departments, side by side, with counters which resemble those of a bank. The gallery is decorated with columns topped with capitals in moulded concrete and aluminium. The architect Émile Dubuisson took great care with the decorative details inside and out. The bell is the first "skyscraper" in France built from reinforced concrete. At the foot of the tower the statues of the two giant founders of Lille, Lydéric and Phinaert, represent the popular roots of the city's renaissance.

The great changes expounded by the competition for ideas and the town layout and improvement plan never came to be. The demolition of the insalubrious courtyards in the Saint-Sauveur area and the creation of main road arteries to the centre of the town were postponed due to a lack of funds. The great illusion that "Germany will pay" was soon dispelled. Despite these failings the reconstruction did recreate a sense of continuity and a decor in the town centre, integrating two buildings which had been started prior to the war: the new chamber of commerce building (Nouvelle Bourse) and the opera-house. Both of these were designed by Louis-Marie Cordonnier and are considered to be the cornerstone of the city's architectural heritage.

Claude FOURET,
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