Paris mourns passing of a cathedral of industry

As 90 years of French social and industrial history falls to the bulldozer,John Lichfield looks at what will replace Renault's fabled factory on the Seine

They are knocking down the old factory at last, ending 90 years of French industrial and social history. The original Renault plant occupies all of a long, curving, oval island in the Seine, only three miles downstream from the Eiffel Tower.

They are knocking down the old factory at last, ending 90 years of French industrial and social history. The original Renault plant occupies all of a long, curving, oval island in the Seine, only three miles downstream from the Eiffel Tower.

What is left of the white assembly sheds rises directly from the river, encouraging extravagant comparisons. A battleship? An ocean liner? An aircraft carrier? A blue-collar Alcatraz? A "Crusaders' castle of the proletariat"?

The island, and the factory, is three quarters of a mile long and 160 yards wide at its broadest point. The demolition diggers and bulldozers look like yellow, mechanical dinosaurs nibbling at an immense corpse. After two months of nibbling, three quarters of the carcass remains untouched. Demolition will take more than a year.

With its associated workshops on either side of the Seine, this was once the largest and most modern factory in Europe, birthplace of classic cars which radiated French practicality and panache: the Dauphin in the 1950s, the Renault 5 in the 1970s, the Espace in the 1980s. The great car plant, at Boulogne- Billancourt, on the doorstep of Paris, became the symbol of French industrial strength; a melting pot for 40 or more immigrant nationalities; the birth-place of the French Communist Party; the crucible of the French trade union movement. Here, Jean-Paul Sartre lectured bemused workers on the true political significance of the student and worker revolts of May 1968.

In 1992, the last car rolled off the production lines as Renault, by then state-owned, scattered production to sites in France and across the world. For a dozen years, the abandoned factory has been the object of a sentimental and aesthetic tug-of-love. Should the île Seguin be cleared to build offices, homes and a park? Or should the sinister but impressive jumble of workshops be converted, rather like the Bankside power station in London, into something useful for the modern, post-industrial age?

The world's greatest architects quarrelled and submitted plans for one of the largest urban renewal projects in Europe. Some proposed razing the place; some suggested the factory could become flats or hotels or artists' workshops. Now it seems the fate of the île Seguin is sealed. Or is it?

In the next three months, the western third of the factory, on the narrow prow of the island, familiar to Parisians heading out over the Pont de Sèvres towards the A10 autoroute, will be flattened and the site levelled. In November, the self-made billionaire François Pinault, friend of President Jacques Chirac, owner of Gucci, Christie's, Printemps, FNAC, hopes to lay the foundation stone of his new vision for the île Seguin.

M. Pinault plans to build the biggest privately funded museum in France, a treasury of contemporary American and European art, mostly drawn from his vast, unseen collection. He has hired the internationally celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design a building which will, he insists, rival in size and majesty and innovation the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Mr Ando's final plan, unveiled last week, is reminiscent of a giant, ocean liner, or space-ship, moored in the Seine.

On the new île Seguin, Renault, the symbol of state-willed industrial power will be replaced by Pinault, the symbol of buccaneering entrepreneurialism. Manufacturing will give way to culture and tourism; industry to services.

But there are rumours that all is not well with the good ship Pinault. So far, his takeover of the Gucci empire has been a disaster. He is being pursued by criminal and civil actions in the United States arising from his purchase of the junk-bond portfolios of a Californian insurance company in the 1990s, a deal which transformed him overnight from a multimillionaire into a billionaire.

Does he still have the cash to build himself a €152m (£100m) museum? There have been articles in the French art press questioning his ability to handle the scheme. The doubts have been contemptuously waved away by M. Pinault. The Fondation Pinault will be open by 2007, he insisted last week.

If there have been delays, the billionaire says, it is the fault of Boulogne-Billancourt town hall, which keeps changing its mind on what it wants to do with the other two-thirds of the island. From 50 architectural proposals submitted for the remainder of the île Seguin, the town has chosen four. All follow the town hall's instructions that they should imitate, celebrate and commemorate the slab-sided, factory structures they are to replace. The winning project will be announced in September.

But was it really necessary to close the Billancourt factory? And if so, was it really necessary to flatten the buildings, before commemorating them? In 1899, at the age of 21, Louis Renault built a small car in a workshop in his parents' home in Billancourt, in the western suburbs of Paris. By 1909, he obtained permission to build a factory on an island in the Seine, close to his home. By 1914, there were 4,000 workers on the island. By the end of the 1920s, when the factory extended to every inch of the île Seguin, 40,000 people were working there.

They came from all over Europe and, in their thousands, from North Africa. Entire villages in Algeria were transplanted to provide labour. By the 1930s, 40 different nationalities worked on the island.

The île Seguin or "Billancourt" forged a reputation for trade union militancy, or, depending on your viewpoint, leading the charge for social progress. Strikes at Billancourt brought down governments, and local agreements anticipated, by many years, the movement towards generous, paid holidays in France.

What Americans said of Detroit, and the British said of Manchester, the French said of the île Seguin: "When Billancourt sneezes, France catches cold." By the 1970s, production began to be transferred. Renault said the site could no longer keep up with the modern, automated techniques of factories in Japan or the US. The removal of new cars from the island by barge to assembly points was costly and inefficient. From the beginning, there were suspicions of submerged political motives. Billancourt was a blue-collar island between two relatively wealthy suburbs. There were pressures to shift all smoky factories away from Paris.

President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing came to power in 1974 promising a white-hot technological revolution. The île Seguin had come to represent "old, heavy industry" rather than industrial innovation. Renault emigrated to a new factory in the suburbs at Flins to alter rigid work practices at Billancourt, or, seen from another viewpoint, the trade union solidarity which had won so many social advances. Mokrane Hamil, 63, emigrated from Algeria in 1965 and worked in the paint shop for 37 years. "The île Seguin was a special place, a mythical place," he said. "We had a sense of pride in working in a factory which was still, despite what they say, one of the most advanced in Europe when it closed.

"And despite all the nationalities, all the races, all the religions, there were never racial problems on the island. We were all Renaults, the people of Renault. The factory could have adapted, as it had many times before. There was no reason to destroy it.

"It grieves me now, as it grieves many old Renaults, to see a place which once provided the livelihood for so many and became a symbol of social solidarity, transformed into a shrine to capitalism, a place to gratify the ego of a billionaire."

Political interference or not, one may doubt whether a factory on an urban island, with a jumble of buildings mostly constructed during the 1920s, could have been adapted to the robot revolution. But what of the buildings themselves? Could they have been saved?

For years, Jean Nouvel, one of the most distinguished French architects, who designed the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and the Guggenheim museum in Tokyo, said that the factory was an important architectural and historical site and should be preserved.

"The completeness of the wall of outer buildings to the water's edge gives the factory a nobility, which ordinarily one finds only in chateaux or military fortifications," Nouvel wrote in Le Monde in 1999. "It is as beautiful as the Krak des Chevaliers [a celebrated Crusader castle in Syria]. It is the Krak of the proletariat."

Nouvel set up an "association for the transformation of the île Seguin", which held that the fate of the island was an important precedent for urban renewal worldwide. In future, development should be rooted in respect for the past, he said. "The time of bulldozer planning is over. We should start from the principle that we must keep, at least in part, existing structures ... to make two histories live together, that of yesterday and that of today.

"Look at London. Who could have imagined that the Tate Modern - the new contemporary art museum - would be installed in an old power station in the centre of the city for which no one spared a glance? In France, we have a tendency, after a building is old and worn out, to destroy it."

Can he really be talking about France? The essential style of Paris has remained unchanged for 125 years. True, but with one or two exceptions, such as the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Institut Arabe, the handful of modern developments in Paris have been poor or disastrous.

The reconstruction of Les Halles, the former wholesale food market, was so badly bungled in the 1980s that the town hall now wants to rip it up and start again. This project, and the île Seguin, are the two developments which will, for good or ill, define the architectural legacy of the early 21st century to the world's most beautiful city.

Nouvel's campaign to preserve at least part of the buildings on the île Seguin has been lost in practice, and partly won in spirit. A blue suspension bridge across the river and a small former headquarters building inscribed with the word "Renault" will be all that remains of the original structures. And the local council has agreed that development of the eastern two-thirds of the island - a 10-acre park, a scientific complex, shops and flats - should "preserve the industrial memory of the site".

Jean-Pierre Fourcade, the mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt, has decreed that there must be an 11-metre high "wall" of buildings at the water's edge to preserve "the silhouette of the island as it was in Renault's time, like an ocean liner moored in the middle of the Seine".

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