In the sleepy French suburb of Tourcoing, 20 kilometers north of Lille, a  mysterious form hovers tenuously above the rooftops like an alien space craft. This techno-fetishist canopy joins and transforms a defunct complex of century-old buildings  into a cutting-edge home for Le Fresnoy, one of Europe’s most elite trans-disciplinary cultural academies.

Originally a 1920s leisure complex, this cluster of buildings offered such pleasures as swimming, skating, cinema, ballroom dancing, and horseback riding.

Reskinned and reassembled by Bernard Tschumi, the complex is now home to 8,000 square meters of school, library, sound and videoproduction studios, exhibition space, offices, a bar/restaurant, and apartments. Impressive as this programmatic feat may be, Tschumi’s  primary invention at Le Fresnoy is his unconventional approach to the reappropriation of this challenging site.

The relatively out-of-the-way site is actually well-suited to Le Fresnoy’s cosmopolitan aspirations: a mere two hours from Amsterdam and London, one hour from Paris, the city of Tourcoing acts as an unlikely but strategic hub. The fragile state of the site’s existing buildings presented a significant architectural dilemma. A painstaking restoration of the existing buildings would have far exceeded the budget of this fledgling institution, but to demolish  and start from scratch would decimate the unique character of this unusual site. Tschumi’s innovative proposition was to construct a new, high-tech “umbrella” over the site, protecting the existing structures while housing new mechanical and electrical systems and  producing a unique sequence of partially enclosed spaces for performance and inhabitation.

Tshumi’s grand gesture produces what is essentially a succession of boxes inside a box. Acting as the outer crust, the modern canopy stands independently from the original buildings and provides continuity across the site’s disparate parts. It wraps downward over the northern elevation while leaving the sides open to allow views to the existing context. On the southern elevation, a new façade produces a sense of transparency at the building’s entrance. Beneath the monumentally scaled canopy, the site’s original buildings are minimally restored as hollow containers for program to be inserted within. Newly constructed and autonomous boxes housing the more technically demanding programs are then placed strategically throughout these containers, allowing occupants to move freely between them. The scheme allows a relatively low degree of programmatic density in the original buildings, preserving the sense of scale and openness that they originally possessed.

The “common denominator” in this equation is the interstitial space created under the new roof. It is the space where the institution’s diverse programs are physically and symbolically united. The emphasis Tschumi puts on the space is explicit: Like a giant tongue, the red-carpeted grand exterior staircase is by far the most dominant characteristic of the front elevation, even trumping the glassy main entrance. Ascending the stairs, you reach a space flooded with light from every direction. Large cloud-like perforations in the new roof cast pools of light on to historic roofs below, adding contrast to the rigid high-tech structural aesthetic.  A maze of catwalks, stairs, and platforms allow circulation amongst the aged roof tiles of the existing buildings, while producing spaces for casual interactions, spontaneous performances, or collaborative installations.

Tschumi describes Le Fresnoy as “architecture event” rather than an “architecture object”, and the techniques he deploys here render his theoretical approach architecturally explicit. The project is a phenomenal study of interstitial space, and  the ways in which architecture can foster chance encounters and spontaneous performance. Simultaneously, Le Fresnoy offers a dramatic and unique case study in the reappropriation of historic sites, demonstrating that an innovative approach to reuse can produce an outcome  that is economical, ecological, and magical.

– Joe(y) Fillippelli