Baltard to be destroyed (bis repetita)

View of the prisons of Perrache.
On the left, prison Saint-Paul
by Antoine Louvier. On the right, prison
Saint-Joseph by Louis-Pierre Baltard
Photo : Google Map

True, in this case the buildings do not concern Victor Baltard, but his father Louis-Pierre. However, the parallel is overwhelming : almost forty years after the Halles were massacred in the heart of Paris, France is now getting ready to attack another major construction by a Baltard, the Saint Joseph prison in Lyon for which the Ministry of Justice filed a request for a demolition permit in February. _ In the great patrimonial sell-off organized by the French ministries, with the protection and blessing of the president of the Republic, the buildings at greatest risk are obviously those which do not benefit from a listing as historical monuments. Contrary to the statements issued by Michel Clément, Directeur du Patrimoine, there are many buildings in France which deserve to be protected but are not. How does one explain the fact that the Saint Joseph prison, the subject of several studies by architectural historians, carefully included in the Inventaire department’s lists (the file is available on Internet) – and for which Pierre Pinon, a 19th century architecture specialist and author of a remarkable work on the Baltards, describes here its importance - thus, is not registered in the Inventaire supplémentaire des Monuments Historiques ?

View of the prison Saint-Paul, by Antoine Louvier
(in the background), seen from the
Perrache train station
Photo : D. Rykner

The crime which will soon be perpetrated does not concern only the Baltard prison, however. It is adjacent to the Saint Paul prison, built about thirty years later, in 1860, by Antoine Louvier, architect of the department of that region, and which is also up for destruction when in fact it also deserves to be protected.
Official vandalism seems to have no end. We made inquiries concerning the Ministry of Culture’s official position but as the Easter holiday weekend was approaching, there was no one available to provide information. The scandal is all the more serious as there are no grounds here for the pretext that the condition of the buildings, which show no sign of falling into ruins, is too poor even if they are in decline. It would be entirely feasible to reuse them. There are several examples of former prisons converted into luxury hotels, university dormitories or museums… [1]. The University of Lyon II Lumières in fact stated its interest in the buildings but backed off on hearing the price asked by the Ministry of Justice : 23 million euros [2]. Are we dreaming ? The government cannot save a building because the price it is asking itself to pay for it is too high. There is no better proof of the total lack of interest on the part of our officials for our heritage and their only real concern : finding money at any means.

Art history students at Lyon II have decided to fight this injustice. They have started a blog online, at this address, and launched a petition [3]. Upon discovering this mobilization of support, the Préfet of the Rhône region decided to suspend the demolition permit in March and issued a 6 month “moratorium”, until 15 September. This delay, which is too short (especially given the fact it includes July and August) should serve to “study the possibilities of reconversion and find a buyer”. We can only agree with Oriane Rebillard and Julien Defillon, the blog authors, when they write : “This time period runs the serious risk of not being long enough to establish a true reconversion study, call for projects and find investors and patrimonial architects”, especially since the last prisoners will not be transferred until June. The fact is, the Préfet has no wish to save these buildings and justified his position in the local news progam of France 3, on April 1st, by stating that he feared the cost of surveillance and the arrival of squatters… We can only imagine indeed how complicated it must be to guard an empty prison from intruders !

View of the prisons in Lyon, taken from the other side
of the Rhône
On the left, Saint-Joseph, on the right,
Photo : D. Rykner

To those who might find this battle a bit ridiculous, we would ask them to take a look at the few photographs we publish here and those, quite extensive, presented on the Inventaire website. They prove the obvious architectural interest of both of these monuments. The Saint Paul prison, built by a lesser-known architect, is no less remarkable, notably the former chapel and its cupola, with a particularly austere architecture, which is perfectly adapted to the site. The layout in spokes of a wheel corresponds to the model of a panoptical prison, recommended by Jeremy Bentham at the end of the 18th century in his work Panopticon. The solution was to simplify surveillance with fewer guards, thanks to a central tower.

The Perrache neighborhood, surrounded by railway tracks, highways and bypasses, is particularly unwelcoming. The station has been deformed by the disgusting wart placed on it in the 1970’s. The reutilization of the Saint Paul and Saint Joseph prisons should be combined with a complete rehabilitation of the entire complex, thus freeing the 19th century train station from what the residents of Lyon call the “blockhaus”. This would be a complex undertaking but it would rehumanize a neighborhood which has been distorted by the concrete loving mayor, Louis Pradel.

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 20 avril 2009


[1] A search on the internet provides many examples : the Charles Street prison in Boston, now the Liberty Hotel, or the Kronohäktet prison in Stockholm, also turned into a hotel. In Avignon, the former Saint Anne prison will also soon become a luxury hotel. The newspaper, Le Progrès, quoted on the blog Sauvons les prisons de Lyon, also gives the Coulommiers prison, transformed into a library, the one in Basel which is now the Musée des instruments de musique and Salamanca which is now a museum of contemporary art.

[2] Due to school holidays, we were not able to speak either with the Université de Lyon II. Its interest in the buildings and the price of 23 million euros were quoted in several newspapers in Lyon.

[3] We do regret that the site for the petition is so poorly presented and only offers the first names (unless the user types in his full name in the “first name” line)…The results of any petition depend of course on the number, but also the quality of the signatures.

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