Manufacturing Attractors

While globalization evens the figurative economic playing field, cities are compelled to compete on an international stage for attention and presence. City agendas, related to investment, job growth and tourism, depend on individuation and place marketing. In the past years, significant resources and energy have been allocating to creating new urban attractors. However for the most part, regenerative urban schemes have become synonymous with highly designed architectural structures and their symbolic relationship to cultural production.

In the case of Saint Etienne’s Cité du Design, Finn Geipel and Giuli Andi of LIN Architects, worked on an attractor scheme that differed in many ways from typically-deployed “wow-factor” iconography. Sited in a former arms manufacturing complex known as “La Manufacture”, the Cité du Design suggests that thematic inspiration, rather than pure visual vanguard, might serve as the driver for manufacturing attractors. When converting the old factory facility – its courtyards, inner streets and green spaces – queues were taken from the Museum of Art and Industry, founded in Saint Etienne by Marius Vachon in 1889. Thus recalling what was arguably a long tradition of design and production, the complex is positioned as an international institute for industrial design, research and exhibition. In this context, LIN Architects contend that strategic use of urban memory can salvage post-industrial space from oblivion by restoring a lost sense of identity.

To put La Manufacture, and consequently Saint Etienne, back on the economic map, Geipel and Andi follow a series of innovative steps. First, they create a symbolic visual presence by assembling a large scale observation tower. It functions both as signage and look out point. Next, they recuperate a number of the historical buildings — each with very different architectural qualities — to house new programming, including: studio spaces, accommodations for scholars, workshops, image editing facilities and exhibition spaces. Finally, they construct an innovative shell structure to serve as a “switchboard” for the site. It is called the Platine and contains the bulk of the public programming: the Agora, the exhibition and seminary platform, the auditorium, the Mediadisque, the greenhouse and restaurant. While the complex combines a wide array of spatial typologies, it ingeniously programs a small portion of the available site. By transforming only a fragment of the available space, Geipel and Andi predict that the organization of the Cité du Design will emerge organically over time.

At Cité du Design, memory serves as a catalyst for establishing the unique potential of the vacated site. But memory alone does not suffice to reprogram the entire troubled complex. Here LIN Architects display restrained confidence in memory’s potential, electing to leave spaces vacant for future emergent uses.

– Anya Sirota