Lille’s urban structure tells a story of the many changes, projections and hopes that down the centuries have swept up this city of northern France. Equidistant to Paris, the Flemish region, the port of Calais and London, as early as the Middle Ages Lille was a major node on the trade flows crisscrossing the area. In the 19th century, it was one of France’s industrial centers, becoming a European transport and services hub in the 1990s.
Its proximity to the infrastructure corridor leading to Central Europe led to the development at the end of the 1980s of Euralille, the huge high-speed train station with shops, offices, parking lots, hotels, residences, concert and conference halls. Designed by OMA, it stood for the idea of a Europe physically connected by the Channel Tunnel and institutionally bound together by the Treaty of Maastricht.
Now about twenty years down the road, the massive Euralille complex remains surrounded by urban tracts, which although under transformation, are still in need of the services and physical focal points that enhance the quality of life of the local population, and still lacking the architectures and urban strategies to meet contemporary needs.
Close to Porte de Valenciennes, to the east of the historic center and near the motorway system, several new projects did get underway to develop a new section of the city. However, a central urban core providing a sense of identity was still missing. This led to the decision by the city council to invest in a new building that would be a landmark and hub of the ongoing urban transformation, both in terms of its architecture and position but also for the services offered.
The call for tenders by the city council for the Maison Stéphane Hessel gave unusual specifications: the building had to contain a nursery school for 70 children, a 200-bed youth hostel and an office dedicated to social and economic innovation.
Belgian practice Julien De Smedt Architects won the competition with a project in which the threefold program is contained in a building that fits neatly into its triangular plot and creates three public spaces at each of the three corners of the triangle.
The project stands as concrete evidence of the city’s wider urban regeneration plan for the whole quarter: a municipal building shared by different generations and the community at large.
The program allocates and separates the functions very clearly, in the obvious intent to create a visual connection between the different users and the city beyond. The extended open space at ground level is an essential component of the building’s role as a social and urban connector.
Each corner is occupied by one of the three functions. The staggered volumes rise from the center towards the tip of each corner, thereby affording a considerable degree of privacy. The central court is a quiet cloister-like space enclosed by the volume. It is also the focal point where the different users of the Maison Stéphane Hessel can come together.
At ground level the building’s corners are raised like flaps to create a canopied space inviting the local population to enter and take part in the public activities and see from what is happening inside. The functions allocated to these areas spill out beyond the building’s boundaries, so blending public and private spaces. The ground floor inside the Maison is a place of socialization, with several different functions, including a restaurant, an exhibition space and a conference room. The nursery school entry is the only separate entrance, giving exclusive access to the upper floors.
Each of the three upper story blocks contains one of the program functions: the north corner houses the youth hostel, the east the nursery school while the offices are on the south-west side. The three volumes differ in the way they relate to the external spaces as well as in the visual and auditory connection they have with the other users of the building. The youth hostel opens out towards the central space by means of a series of terraces, extensions of guestrooms. The nursery school is distributed around a patio that on the top floor becomes an operable roof for outdoor play, while the offices are lit by skylights in the roof.
Although conceived as a local service facility for the surrounding neighborhood, and not connected to the international traffic passing through Euralille, the building’s underlying project of bringing together different user flows, integrating citizens of different ages and melding public and private space nonetheless obviously references the European dream - embodied perhaps in the multicolored curtains on the façade - that has fueled the development of Lille in recent years.