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Les Friches - New culture in old buildings in Paris

8 March - 2023
by Alice Broeksma
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Tired of the Eiffel Tower, seen enough of the Louvre? When in Paris, do as the Parisians. For contemporary culture, go to a redeveloped friche. French for abandoned urban plots, now increasingly transformed into cultural meeting points with art, exhibitions, music, new workplaces or clubs. At the moment more empty properties in Paris are given new life, on old industrial sites. One of these places, Hangar Y, opens in March.

Hangar Y, designed by the French architect Henri de Dion, was built in 1878 for the World Exhibition in Paris. A year later the hall was taken down and reassembled on the outskirts of the city, at its current location in Meudon, to be used for the construction of airships. In the 20th century the hall housed an aviation museum. In this space the famous artist Marc Chagall assembled parts for the ceiling of the Garnier opera house in Paris.

Hangar Y was classified as industrial heritage and has been a protected monument for twenty years. The hall had stood unused for much longer after the metal structure was found to be distorted.

The building has now been renovated and will soon reopen for, the organisers promise, ‘an experience combining history with modernity, technical excellence, art and nature’. The hall is huge and beautiful, 70 meters long and 23 meters high. There will be temporary exhibitions, but the artwork by Korean artist Lee Bul - a shiny version of an aircraft hanging from the roof structure - is permanent. It is called 'Willing To Be Vulnerable' and pays homage to the site’s past. Hangar Y stands in a nine-hectare park with permanent artwork and installations by Christian Boltanski, Ida Ekblad, Wang Keping, Kiki Smith, Sarah Lucas and Ernesto Neto. There is a lake, a shop, and a restaurant with a ‘cuisine bistronomique’. Hangar Y can be reached by public transport, and there will be a shuttle bus service from Paris.


Le Hangar Y - Week-end de préouverture Octobre 2022 - 5 © Art Explora, photo TLMALP - Salvador Banyo
Le Hangar Y - Week-end de préouverture Octobre 2022 - 5 © Art Explora, photo TLMALP - Salvador Banyo

Ecosystem of artists

Another friche catching the eye is Le 6b, an old office building in the Saint-Denis suburb north of Paris. In recent times not the best district, but it is changing: Le 6b is interesting as an ecosystem of artists, recently described by the French newspaper Le Monde as a 'dynamic interdisciplinary'. Initially intended as a temporary hub, but now more permanent after ten years of concerts, performances and exhibitions.

Other cultural venues popular with the Parisians are the renovated former station of Saint Ouen and an old postal sorting hall near Gare de Lyon. 

Parisian undertakers

Reusing old business premises for culture is nothing new, of course, but Paris would not be Paris without wild examples. Le 104, a cultural partnership, is housed in a former building of Parisian undertakers dating from 1874, near the Gare de l'Est in the 19th arrondissement. It was a massive operation, serving the city. At the time 150 funeral processions a day were organised here, and thousands of coffins were stored in the basement. Now there are exhibition spaces, free creative workshops and facilities for artists-in-residence.

Some abandoned industrial buildings are turned into trendy party centres. There are cooperatives such as Plateau Urbain that manage to establish social projects in old buildings and offer space to artists. The organisers cooperate with ideological groups wanting to see city spaces used less commercially – also to show visitors that Paris has a lot more to offer than the usual tourist attractions. Owners of vacant buildings in the French capital increasingly understand that investing in renovation, and contributing to a more dynamic environment, is better than paying security companies to keep squatters out.


Hangar Y © Maxime Delvaux
Hangar Y © Maxime Delvaux


Other hip art magnets in France

The fact that France is great at transforming abandoned industrial sites into hip art magnets has also been proven by the city of Nantes. State subsidies were given to create a new dynamic, with a heavy emphasis on contemporary art and culture. A kilometre-long green line, the 'ligne verte', runs through the city, linking historical, architectural and artistic heritage under the name of Travel in Nantes (Le Voyage à Nantes). Museums are on this route, also the sunset at the river Loire, and a mechanical elephant plodding through the former port area on the south bank. The giant elephant is one of the magnificent mechanical beasts, the 'Machines', linked to the ideas of the Nantes-born writer Jules Verne. The atmosphere in the city and on the south bank is special, particularly in the summer. Dreamy and electric. Art and culture have triumphed here.

The same goes for other destinations in France. Those seeking hip and dynamic destinations should definitely visit Bordeaux. In recent years the famous wine city has undergone a metamorphosis. The old dilapidated quay has become a beautiful boulevard along the river Garonne, the city is full of festivals and culture. And here, too, is spectacular new use of an old space: the Bassins des Lumières is a former submarine base that now houses the largest digital art show in the world.

Header image: © Maxime Delvaux