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FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, Dunkirk, France, Lacaton & Vassal

Reinvented as a modern, lightweight doppelgänger, a heroic industrial boat shed forms the template for this new arts centre in Dunkirkʼs harbour

On the British side of the Channel, Dunkirk is indelibly associated with Operation Dynamo, the 1940 evacuation of 340,000 Allied troops with the assistance of a now legendary civilian flotilla. But in France the town was long synonymous with shipbuilding, after the founding there in 1898 of the Ateliers et Chantiers de France (ACF), which for almost a century built first liners and warships, then oil tankers and car ferries, until their closure in 1988.

In an all-too-familiar story, the municipality suddenly found itself saddled with over 150 hectares of docks and industrial wasteland, which have undergone redevelopment in two stages: the first, carried out in the 1990s, followed a masterplan drawn up by Richard Rogers; the second, which is currently being realised, follows a plan elaborated by French architect and urbanist Nicolas Michelin, whose distinctive Gâbles housing scheme (2010) now marks the skyline.

site_plan_01_01location plan

Of the countless structures that made up the shipyard complex, there is only one significant survivor today: the 75 metre-long, 25 metre-wide, 30 metre-high concrete AP2 (atelier de préfabrication n° 2), built in the 1940s and nicknamed the ‘cathedral’ by locals. Now standing rather forsakenly opposite the dyke that protects the area from the sometimes violent caprices of the North Sea, it carries all the weight of 90 years of Dunkirk’s industrial memory on its reinforced shoulders, and was chosen by the regional and local authorities (no doubt because they didn’t quite know what else to do with it) to become the new home of the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais.

Founded 30 years ago in a wave of decentralisation, France’s FRACs (fonds régionaux d’art contemporain) are contemporary art collections assembled by each of the country’s 23 regions independently of central government and of each other. The Nord-Pas de Calais’s includes emblematic works by the likes of Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd, as well as furniture and design objects.

Like a number of its confrères (including the FRAC Centre, AR November 2013), the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais decided that, after 25 years of collecting, it was time to commission a purpose-built home, to provide both adequate reserve space (for an ever-growing collection that is mostly displayed on short-term loan) and permanent gallery space. Some €15 million were allocated, and the obligatory architectural competition held in 2008; of the 85 entrants, five were asked to draw up detailed proposals, from which Lacaton & Vassal emerged as the clear winner. But so audacious did their scheme appear that the authorities kept one other (by De Alzua/Flint) in reserve in case Lacaton & Vassal’s promises proved too good to be true.

In their response to the FRAC’s brief, Lacaton & Vassal combined approaches they had previously tried out at the Palais de Tokyo (AR February 2003 and May 2012), the Nantes School of Architecture (AR June 2009) and the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre (AR January 2012). When converting the Palais de Tokyo they had felt that ‘the architecture was already there’ and that their job was to ensure its inherent qualities were not lost, while at Nantes, following their credo of ‘doing more with less’, they provided far more space than stipulated in the brief for the same budget.

web_3the original industrial shed seemed too magnificent a space to disturb so the architects opted for a facsimile made of cheap materials common in agricultural buildings.

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Here in Dunkirk they took one look at the AP2 and concluded that its magnificent interior volume, reminiscent, as they pointed out, of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (AR August 2000), ‘was so strong from an architectural point of view, and aesthetically so overwhelmingly beautiful, that we didn’t want to fill it’. Consequently, instead of trying to cram the FRAC’s programme into the AP2, they proposed constructing a new, adjacent edifice which, thanks to the use of commercially available prefabricated materials, could be tailor-made just so while remaining on budget, leaving the AP2 as ‘unprogrammed’ space that could be used for monumental temporary exhibitions, or loaned to the municipality for cultural events.

The new structure would be a lightweight doppelgänger of the AP2, reproducing its exact dimensions and silhouette, with an outer envelope comprising a metal-framed, plastic-clad greenhouse under which would shelter a trabeated concrete-framed structure containing the reserves at one end and gallery and administrative space at the other − in other words, the winter-gardens system Lacaton & Vassal had used at the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre to provide extra space and bioclimatic insulation would here be expanded from a micro to a macro scale as in a Buckminster Fuller protective dome.

The municipality was naturally worried that this literal doubling of their initial ambitions would prove impossible to realise within the allocated budget, but by using cheap materials usually employed in agricultural construction, and by choosing only readily available prefabricated elements − no non-standard door or window frames whose special manufacture would make them far more expensive than the off-the-peg equivalent − the architects managed successfully to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

While most of the building is clad in the same corrugated polycarbonate panels used at the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, the upper levels required a different treatment because here the architects proposed creating another unprogrammed space that would take advantage of the splendid volume between the concrete-frame structure and the greenhouse roof. Since a higher level of insulation was required than that provided by polycarbonate, Lacaton & Vassal came up with the ingenious idea of using air-filled cushions in ETFE sheeting (another material commonly used in agriculture). Since the building faces north, its principal facade avoids sun exposure, while the roof is equipped with retractable canvas shades to shield the upper space from the hot summer rays. The concrete-frame structure is closed on all four sides with an insulating skin which, where the reserves are concerned, takes the form of prefabricated sandwich panels more usually used in cold-storage facilities.

web_2Lacaton & Vassal’s ‘cheeky doppelgänger’ offers views out over the harbour or plunging downwards from the observation deck

web_1the austere, white-walled spaces are fluid and flexible

With its classic Lacaton & Vassal arte povera vocabulary borrowed from agricultural and light-industrial buildings, the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais has a rough-and-ready workaday feel that is entirely in tune with the prevalent penchant for exhibiting contemporary art in reclaimed industrial sites, and its modular gallery spaces provide a perfectly neutral backdrop for anything one may wish to display in them.

The building’s bioclimatic organisation means that the drama of a promenade architecturale to move one round the building is impossible: the lifts rise directly at the entrance, while the staircases, which if not handled properly become terrible thermal bridges, are sandwiched between the greenhouse facade and the concrete-framed structure, where they enjoy sweeping views across the coastline.

But drama enough is provided by the AP2’s grandiose volume, the under-the-roof space − whose plunging views constitute the climax of one’s progression through the building − and also the five-storey-high internal street that runs at first-floor level between the AP2 and the new structure. This was designed in response to Nicolas Michelin’s proposed footbridge/elevated walkway (due to be built in 2015) that will link the shipyard redevelopment zone to the beach on the other side of the dyke; cyclists and promenaders will traverse the FRAC longitudinally with splendid views either side into the AP2 and the new structure’s first-floor galleries.

plan_zoom_01floor plan

Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern has become the yardstick by which conversions of this type are measured, and the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais compares more than favourably, for unlike the Swiss duo’s transformation of the brute grandeur of the Bankside Power Station into a sterile ghost of itself with all the ambience of an out-of-town DIY store, the French pair has left the raw drama of the AP2 intact, scars, warts and all.

Indeed their approach might be described as radical, and is in diametric opposition to that employed by Herzog & de Meuron on another industrial ‘conversion’, the CaixaForum in Madrid (AR June 2008), where a disused power station was demolished and its phantom summoned from beyond the grave by mounting its reconditioned facades (which were listed) halfway up the new building like butterflies pinned on a board.

One could say that Lacaton & Vassal have also created a phantom, but theirs takes the form of a cheeky doppelgänger rather than a sorry wraith. This cloning, moreover, sets up a dialogue between the concrete and the lightweight, the permanent and the impermanent, between conservation and recycling, and between the certainties of a bygone industrial era and the quandaries of our climate-conscious age.

But in one instance the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais fails where Tate Modern fails: the AP2 is just as unsuitable for displaying most kinds of art work as the Turbine Hall, such vast spaces overpowering and dwarfing anything placed within them. Indeed, as we have seen at the Tate, it is generally only site-specific special commissions that can rise to the challenge of investing these monumental volumes. Without the Tate’s generous operating budget, you wonder how the FRAC will exploit the full potential of its new space. As well as a functional new home, it is the luxury of this challenge that Lacaton & Vassal has offered the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais.


Architect: Lacaton & Vassal
Photographs: Philippe Ruault

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