Lille France: The Art City of Hauts-de-France
By Max Hartshorne
At the very top of France, in French Flanders, Lille is the center city that is full of all manner of art.
The city, with about 250,000 residents, is filled with galleries, large art exhibitions and, during our visit in April 2019, was in resplendent contemplation of Eldorado, that glittering gold that was sought after over the centuries in South America.
Lille 3000 celebrates the future of this city, which is one of the oldest in France. Lille was named World design capital for 2020 – launch starts December 7, 2019 & runs through the year – It is France’s & French Flanders great Northern Capital.
Not only are the art galleries rife with new work and an excited populace, but the whole way the city was built took into account the art and design of the times.
Famous architect Rem Koolhaas created the series of giant buildings that all lined up resemble the RMS Titanic with the five smokestacks replaced by high rises in EuroLille.
Here, the signature building for EuroLille is shaped like a giant L. In the downtown, among the grandest buildings is the tower of the Lille Chamber of Commerce.
The switch is profound, between the old and new. That’s what Lille is all about.
In another part of town, another tower was built in 1932, it’s City Hall. The subway we rode in is totally automated. No conductors, no one to take fares. A bit spooky, but like JFK’s AirTrain monorail, it works well.
The buildings here have the Flemish decorative curly cues that make them all look rather regal. And as you step through an archway, you transition between modern “Euro Lille” and the 1800s look of the rest of the old city, called Vieux-Lille.
Lille really celebrates its artists with spaces like this, there are many others around the city. The way the modern Euro Lille section of the city was built seems like a work of art as well, with carefully arranged features making a true statement with the architecture, both old and new.
Lille is full of cobblestoned back alleys and areas that were once textile manufacturing hubs, and today they’re boutiques or cafes. In this part of Lille, there is a treat you have to sample. It’s a Meert wafer pastry, filled with sugary goodness and flat as a dry pancake.
La Piscine Museum
The city of Lille is blessed with a few stellar art museums. The most striking is a converted bathhouse, called La Piscine, that today is among the country’s top ten art attractions. website
This museum is housed in the Art Deco-style former swimming pool of Roubaix, part of Lille, and a building remodeled in 2000 to accommodate and exhibit 19th and 20th-century collections of the city.
After being closed for two years of renovation works and extension, it was reopened to the public in October 2018, becoming more successful than ever before. The building and the town of Roubaix have a long interesting history.
For many decades, the local populace relied on the public baths to clean up during the city’s textile boom, when thousands of looms roared into the night and there were children as well as women doing the hard labor at the looms.
The swimming pool was built in 1927 and used for many generations until finally closing in 1985. It takes a while to try and see all of the artwork here, we began in a large airy room where the paintings depicted what the town of Roubaix looked like during its textiles heyday.
The Town of a Thousand Smokestacks
It was not pretty. Smoggy skies, desultory workers having to toil on the looms amid the smokestacks, it was a sad picture that today has all changed. Roubaix today also has another museum, La Manufacture, which is the reference textile museum in northern France. It is hosted in an old weaving factory.
The other art museum is the Lille Metropole Musee d’art moderne, a purpose-built modern temple to the world’s best sculpture and paintings.
Our visit was during a wide-ranging exhibit about Alberto Giacometti, covering his whole life and including many, of his finest works.
I noticed a young boy in the gallery, about 7 or 8, listening with rapture to the headphones that discuss the artist and his complicated work.
He was intrigued. I can’t imagine this happening in America, it seems like the ability to grasp complex ideas is more common here in France.
LeLaM has some priceless works by Picasso, Joan Miro, Modigliani and others. The building is set among a garden of outdoor sculptures, including large works by Picasso, Calder and Eugene Dodeigne.
The galleries provide space for many different exhibits at the same time.
The Cavrois Villa
Another Lille museum is an impressive restored modernist home, located on a leafy street where the richest of Lille’s citizens lived back in the day.
The Cavrois Villa was built in 1932, designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, and was the home of the Cavrois family until 1987.
The years 1980 til 2001 were not kind to this magnificent villa, as photos of the scene proved. It was a total wreck, lived in by squatters, and almost totally destroyed.
But France’s powerful Centre des Monuments Nationaux would not be daunted, and they started a massive 23 million euro renovation, in an effort to preserve this classic example of modernism and “to safeguard the cultural dynamism of its regions.”
Today visitors flock to the neighborhood to view the elegant villa and hear the story of the Cavroises at the same time. It’s a modern miracle when you see how bad it had gotten, but everyone in the area today is very proud to show off this classic example of Modernism.
Dining in Lille
Downtown Lille is a walkable city and there are many great restaurants to choose from. We were quite impressed with Le Lion Bossu, on the second floor, on Place du Lion d’Or. website.
One of the city’s most famous dishes is carbonade flamande, a stew of beef simmered in beer and brown sugar and served with beer. You can enjoy this dish at the Chez la Vieille tavern at 60, rue de Gand, Lille. Here are the Tourism board’s top five restaurants in Lille.
Lille might not be your first choice when you’re planning a trip to France, but I’d recommend adding it to your itinerary. The people are eager to meet you and the welcome mat is out!
My trip to Lille was sponsored by the tourism board, but the opinions are the author’s own. Find out more about visiting Lille at their tourism website.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.