This is a brief post about an old flour mill in France which looks like a Flemish palace, and about a far older book … a book so old that it’s close to being classed as incunabula, which sadly puts it far beyond the reach of most folk who’re interested in old architectural books.

A few years ago, I stayed overnight in Lille and went out in the evening to have a poke around the neighbourhood.  I was aware of the husk of the Grand Moulins de Paris mill, in the Marquette-Lez-Lille commune (despite its name, it’s nowhere near Paris).

Photos of Les Moulins in 2012

It was late in the year and evening had fallen quickly, but the ruined buildings were still clearly visible behind a barricade of precast concrete panels.  It was far from pitch dark: the glow of Lille was a dull orange which extended almost to the zenith.  And the place seemed to breathe in the dark, the wild shrubs swayed and whipped in the breeze.

The building loomed up vast and louring in its wilderness.  There were no day trippers, no chattering troupes of hipsters with cameras.  Some might have a feeling of unease here, and the strangeness of it might frighten a casual passer-by.  And why not?  For this is one of the last remaining members of a dying race.

Several millers from Lille joined forces after the Great War, and this imposing 25,000 m² mill was the result.  Designed by the architect Vuagnaux in a neo-Flemish style and built between 1920 and 1923, it opened as Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue and ground over 600 tons of wheat per day, against 1,000 tonnes in the Grands Moulins de Paris, a competitor which bought it over in 1928.

Like the Victorians, the Edwardians were addicted to architectural ambition, and they applied a style to a function in order to make industrial processes impressive.  Later, the Modern Movement drove the development of reinforced concrete industrial buildings, stripping away any concessions to grandeur.  Most of these old mills have been overtaken by progress, and only a few remain as a memory of what the industrial world once was.

Historic postcards

The collapse of the flour market in the early 1980s, with the arrival of a new tariff policy in the United States (sounds familiar?) had serious consequences for Les Grands Moulins de Paris.  Flour milling ceased in 1989 and the last 57 employees were laid off.  Then the building became a spectacular shell which looms above the Canal de la Deûle. 

The site was bought in 1995 by SCI Diane de la Provenchère, and sold on a couple of times but a huge fire gutted the main building in 2001 and it sat derelict and ignored for the next decade.  Meantime the mill, with a façade 140 metres long and a belfry tower 40 metres high, was listed in the Inventory of Historical Monuments in May 2001.  That didn’t really help; the scheme’s complexity and disputes with the site’s owner held up progress.

The building lies at the heart of a regeneration masterplan of 65 hectares called the "Rhodia Enlarged Site" which includes the Bouverne industrial zone, the Marquette Archaeological Park, the Rhodia site at Saint-André.  But the proximity of the former Rhodia chemical plant, and arguments about the costs of remediation (the mill’s basements were contaminated with pyralene which spilled from electrical transformers following a copper theft) complicated matters.

Marquette’s mayor Jean Delebarre promoted a new scheme in 2012, designed by Lille architect Hubert Maes. That included loft apartments, restaurants, a hotel and underground parking.  Disagreements about the bill for remediation, building permits and other planning issues carried on in the background.  Financière Vauban bought an option on the site in 2014, but the building permit was only applied for in November ‘17, after which they finally took possession and installed security guards.

Some CGI’s of Maes’ scheme

In all, between 400 and 500 apartments and houses are planned, with around 250 units in the historical part, 95 in a building next door plus some newbuild housing.  The concrete silos will be retained, and a triplex apartment with "a view to Belgium", will be created in the campanile.  On the ground floor at the foot of the silo will be a parade of shops, a nursery, offices… so it’s a mixed use scheme in the tradition of 21st century development across Europe.

Despite its ruinous appearance, the building’s frame is still in good condition, since it consists of massive reinforced concrete columns and beams which carried the heavy milling machinery.  All that concrete was hidden behind the decorative brickwork,  of course.  A sign on the fence said “Peril Imminent” and this is quoted for truth; if you went inside you’d discover enormous holes in the floors, and ten storey high stairwells without their balustrades.

So what prompted me to write about Les Grands Moulins, several years later?

I came across a four hundred year old book called “Des Fortifications et Artifices, Architecture et Perspective”, written by Jacques Perret de Chambery, who was engineer and architect to Henri IV.  The engraved title page depicts a classical portal crowned by an equestrian portrait of Henri; at the foot of the title page is a bird's eye view of the city of Paris and the legend: "Par le grand Roy Henri IIII. Le vingt deuxieme de Mars 1594."

Perret’s images from Des Fortifications et Artifices

Perret’s imaginary fortifications and city plans from over four centuries ago must make this the very first book of “visionary” architecture.  A French architectural historian wrote that Perret’s baroque tower block, a 12-storey tower complete with rooftop sculptures, urns and fountains, prefigures the modern urban skyscraper.  This folio also includes a series of models for cities and citadels with geometrical designs, mostly drawn from a bird’s eye perspective.

Comparing the engravings in Des Fortifications et Artifices with the derelict mill, I reckon Vuagnaux, the original architect of Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue, must have admired the work of Jacques Perret.  Perhaps he even earned enough fees through designing flour mills to be able to afford to buy a copy of the book which was, in those days, merely three centuries old… hence much more affordable than it is today…

Happy New Year. :-)

Images of the proposed scheme courtesy Cabinet Maes - http://www.maes-architectes-urbanistes.fr/portfolio/grands-moulins/

By Mark • Albums: ghosts