La Piscine Museum Roubaix | An art deco wonder in the north of France

Written by on February 7, 2019 in Museums and Châteaux

Art deco swimming pool turned museum, statues line the area round the pool and light from a half moon window

Roubaix is in the suburbs of Lille, capital of Hauts-de-France (Nord, Pas de Calais, Picardy). It was once famous for its textile production, an industry which had been active in the area since the 14th century. In the 19th century Roubaix was known as the “French Manchester”, one of the world capitals of textiles. It was also called the “city of a thousand chimneys” and its factories proliferated well into the 20th century. It’s from those times that La Piscine comes.

History of La Piscine Museum

Black and white image of men in swimming trunks at La Piscine Roubaix when it was a pool

The municipal swimming pool was built in 1932, commissioned by the Mayor and designed by architect Albert Baert. In its day it was cutting edge – a stunning art deco monument, not just a pool but it also had bathrooms for men and women. At a time when most poor people didn’t have access to such things, this was cutting edge. It was much loved and stayed in use until 1985. However,  it closed, needing complete renovation after chlorine in the water caused damage to the structure, especially the roof.

By then, the textile industry had also declined and Roubaix found itself undergoing a dramatic change. The city councillors decided to ensure that the heritage of Roubaix was preserved and were awarded a label of “City of Art and History. They needed somewhere to house their expanding art collection and Bruno Gaudichon, now director of La Piscine, admits choosing the former swimming pool area as the location, was “a gamble, as by now, Roubaix had a lot of industrial empty industrial buildings”.

La Piscine becomes a museum

Porcelain gate made by the Sevres Factory of France at the entrance to La Piscine swimming pool

La Piscine had been left neglected for several years and a public contest was held for architects to come up with a design for the space. In 1994 the winner was chosen – Jean-Paul Phlippon, already famous for his conversion of the former Gare d’Orsay in Paris into the stunning Musée d’Orsay in 1979 (voted world’s top museum by Trip Advisor Traveller Choice Awards 2018) and the Musée des Beaux Arts, Quimper, Brittany in 1993.

Philippon’s plans for La Piscine centred around keeping the integrity and authenticity of the much-loved swimming pool. “I wanted to keep the basin of water” he says – and it is now the heart of the museum. “But I narrowed it to make room for the artworks. I created pontoons alongside with ceramic lining created from the original elaborate mosaics. Thousands and thousands of tiny pieces were all carefully preserved. Some of the original changing rooms were kept, others were dismantled. It was like a giant Lego game putting all the pieces together and reconstructing it”.

In 2001 the council allocated a former textile factory building to be part of the museum as well. One of the original walls still stands as a memorial to the old building after part of it was demolished to let light in. It is, says Philippon, one of his favourite aspects. “In my design, I wanted people to be able to circulate easily. To see the collection as it should be seen, it was an important aspect of the museum”.

What to see at La Piscine Museum

Sculptures in an artists studio in various states of readiness, typical early 20th century Parisian style

“Roubaix had a small collection of 17th century paintings, Lille Musée des Beaux Arts had a lot, so we decided to focus on 18th and 19th century paintings” says Gaudichon. “We distributed our 17th century paintings to museums in the north. In 1924 a local textile magnate donated a large collection of paintings and furniture. Since then we’ve built up a superb collection of 18th and 19th century works”.

The Henri Bouchard atelier is breath-taking, filled with his sculptures. It really looks as if the great artist just popped out and is coming back any time. Next door, a room encourages visitors to touch art, feel it as a sculptor would, the lines and flaws, the coldness of marble or bronze. “We recreated the ambiance, colour, light of Paris, the same set up of the studio” says Gaudichon. “Now with the Henri Bouchard atelier, and some wonderful sculptures including by Camille Claudel (bought by public subscription), we have a truly spectacular museum offering”.

La Piscine was an immediate and tremendous success with an astounding 200,000 visitors in its first year. The art deco beauty of the museum proved the perfect backdrop for the growing collection of painting, sculptures and textiles. The museum won accolades, being voted the best museum outside of Paris, attracting more visitors each year. In fact, it was so successful that another contest had to be held to create an extension.

The new extension of La Piscine

Architect of La Piscine Museum Roubaix, Jean-Paul Phillipon stands at the entrance to the new extension he designed

Jean-Paul Philippon was again the winner (2011). “I didn’t expect to win” he says modestly “I would have been happy for whoever won. Architecture is about evolution”. His winning design featured lots of light and ceilings that mirror the curve of that over the original pool. It is as beautiful as the prototype.

There were several key requirements in the contest brief. One of which was to create a home for an enormous painting that was found rolled up in the attic of the town hall opposite La Piscine. It was being used to fill holes in the roof to stop water leaking through.  The painting depicted the opening of Roubaix’s town hall in 1911 and, restored, it is superb. Another requirement was to recreate the Paris atelier of Henri Bouchard (1875-1960). The sculptor’s works can be seen in several locations in Paris including the Trocadero Gardens, and in museums around the world.

The new extension of more than 2000m₂ opened in October 2018 after two years of major work. It is light and airy, there are rooms dedicated to temporary exhibitions, permanent exhibitions, plinths to display specific pieces – this is innovative, bespoke and magnificent museum design.

One of the most popular museums in France

A huge painting hangs on a wall depicting the town hall of Roubaix, northern France

The painting of Roubaix town hall, the Cinderella in the attic, is now a show stopper in its dedicated space.

La Piscine Museum is fast becoming one of the most popular museums in France – well worth a detour.

More on Lille

Arty Party Lille3000 2015 – want to know what to expect, check out the last time this amazing event took place.
Ten things to do in Lille
Ten places to eat out in Lille
Lille – charm and culture by the bucket load

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