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Lille Métropole Museum of Modern Art by Manualle Gautrand, Villeneuve d'Asque, France

The site of the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern Art pulls you around in an instinctive promenade to the beguiling geometry and shadow play of the screens. Photography by Paul Raftery

Originally designed by Roland Simounet and inaugurated in 1983, the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern Art has now been extended by Manuelle Gautrand. The emblematic image of the new building is of perforated concrete walls, like giant doilies or modern mashrabiya screens, transplanted to cool northern latitudes, but the relationship between eras, architects, buildings and artworks is more nuanced and complex than this seductive snapshot suggests.

Ten minutes’ drive from the centre of Lille lies the new town of Villeneuve d’Ascq, an anodyne conurbation grafted on to what used to be farmers’ fields. It seems a curious locale for a major art museum, but when the project was first mooted in 1975, it was intended to act as a centre of modern art gravity in northern France to counteract the metropolitan pull of the then emerging Pompidou Centre. Roughly equidistant between Paris, London and Amsterdam, the museum had international visitors in its sights, and still does. Designed to house a body of early 20th-century works acquired by French collector Roger Dutilleul, the original programme included gallery spaces together with a library, educational department and offices.

Near the Paris-Ghent motorway but sheltered by topography and trees, the site is typical of the French Flanders countryside. Though long conquered by urbanisation, a sense of the bucolic still persists and this is transposed into Simounet’s low-rise agglomeration of sharply chiselled brick and glass pavilions that extend across the park-like site. Designed at a time when the painted corpse of post-modernism stalked the globe, Simounet’s faith in the sober tenets of modernism might have seemed retrogressive, but his architecture has stayed the course and the building is now a listed monument.

Gautrand’s extension acts as a showcase for the museum’s recently acquired Art Brut collection. Originally formulated by French artist Jean Dubuffet, who had a particular fascination with the creative impulses of the mentally ill, Art Brut is now a broad church encompassing naive and folk art, intuitive art and creators of visionary environments. ‘It’s a form of art for which a museum has never been built,’ says Gautrand. ‘But I did not feel that the programme was looking for a further independent sequence, but rather a genuine articulation between different artistic fields, for an osmosis between the works.’

Clamped and wrapped around the eastern edge of the existing building, the new addition resembles a soft explosion or hand flaring out 
in a series of kinked folds that follow the gentle contours of the topography. Intimately clinched in perpetuity, Gautrand’s concrete parasite plays a flighty, feminine Ginger (with flashes of lacily perforated petticoats) to Simounet’s orthogonal, masculine Fred. Yet in functional and experiential terms, the original building is still the main event. Its central entrance court and patio garden still anchors the enlarged complex and the new part is only accessible through the casbah-style meanderings of Simounet’s galleries.

However, the change of gear is palpable when you enter the new wing. Orthogonal rigour gives way to a fluid sense of space, the galleries like trickling, interlocking rivulets. The very gentle incline of the site pulls you around in an instinctive promenade, heading down to the beguiling geometry and shadow play of the mashrabiya screens and back. For work of such rough technique and questionable origins, Art Brut needs surprisingly careful choreographing, with low light levels (less than 50 lux) and no overhead illumination. So the concrete walls act as a filtering mechanism, along with further layers of translucent blinds and freestanding partitions. Seen from inside, the immaculately cast external walls also redefine the landscape of the sculpture park as a surreal, percolated tableau.

‘Architecture is never isolated,’ Simounet once remarked. ‘It extends into the ground and accompanies other buildings.’ For both the art and architecture of the reworked museum, this reciprocity of mixing and melding opens up a new chapter in an already compelling narrative.

Architect Manuelle Gautrand, Paris, France
Project team Manuelle Gautrand, Yves Tougard
Structural engineer Khepheren
Landscape architect AWP
Exterior joinery Schüco

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