Thursday, 2 October 2014

At Dunkerque: Lacaton and Vassall's FRAC and the 'quartier excentric'

Dunkerque - half an hour from Calais, and though a historic port, almost entirely rebuilt after (Allied) bombing in the Second World War - had more going for it than I expected.

Just east of the docks (and just west of the sandy beaches from which over 300,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated in 1940) is Lacaton and Vassall's recently completed FRAC gallery.  The south part, a redundant dockyard building on a heroic scale, is a giant shed, made sound but at present left largely empty, enclosing a single interior volume; to the north, its new conjoined twin, to the same profile and dimensions, clad in corrugated polycarbonate, houses a regional contemporary art gallery.  In the foreground in the photo above, under construction, a new pedestrian bridge will connect to the shore on the other side of a canal.

Lacaton and Vassall's building is excellent - spatially rich, with great views out to sea and along the coast from the upper levels, and clever in its deployment of cheap materials and simple details to make something strange and memorable. 

Not far away was some new  housing in a docklands regeneration area that, at least as seen from the outside on a brief visit, put most of our equivalents to shame...

A bit eccentric, perhaps - but not as much as the 'quartier excentric', an area of 1920s housing in Dunkerque's southern suburbs, the brainchild of local 'maçon, artiste décorateur, inventeur', François Reynaert, a peculiar collection of terraced houses each 'pimped' in an individual manner, many vaguely moderne or art deco, with varying degrees of skill and success; adding up to a sort of amateur league Weissenhofsiedlung. Parts of the area are now gently decaying, but with enough evidence of gentrification for it to seem that the houses, which I think are listed, have a viable future; and indeed some empty corner plots have been filled recently with fancy modern villas. 

The catering offer at FRAC is rudimentary - the icing on the cake in Dunkerque came in the form of a great menu-express lunch at the jolly and friendly La Cambuse bar-restaurant, in an unprepossessing and hard to find spot behind the Port Museum.

Dunkerque, close to Calais, is well worth a detour if you have any spare time on a trip via the Channel Tunnel. 

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