La Piscine means “the swimming pool” in French, and the La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry really lives up to it’s name – located on the site of the former municipal swimming pool in Roubaix, northern France.
History of La Piscine, Roubaix
It is an unique art deco building which was created between 1927 and 1932 at the instigation of the Mayor of Roubaix, Jean-Baptise Lebas and designed by architect Albert Baert.
Mayor Lebas was a dedicated socialist who set out to improve the lot of the people of Roubaix which was famous for its textile production. Keen to improve hygiene when elected in 1912 he opened schools, TB clinics, created social housing and promoted vaccinations. A fascinating character who was much loved by the people of his town and who became a hero in World War I for refusing to hand over the name of young men to the occupying forces – he was imprisoned for his defiance. In World War II he was again arrested because of his activities in the French Resistance, this time he did not survive and is thought to have died in March 1944. So great was the respect of the people that they voted him in as Mayor in that year’s election despite his death. His name is synonymous with buildings and schools throughout the area.
Mayor Lebas also, whilst in power, instructed architect Albert Baert to “build the most beautiful pool in France” for the benefit of the people – and Baert certainly delivered on the remit.
The swimming pool was magnificent. Stained glass windows fill the walls at either end of the pool, designed to symbolise the rising and setting sun in bright reds and oranges and throwing light and colour through the room. The water was heated – a real luxury at that time. Of course the swimming sessions in the early days of the pool were segregated and a pair of large woollen pants on display are an indication of the level of “extra protection” that was popular in the day!
There were also bathtubs, a hair salon, manicure and pedicure rooms, steam baths, an industrial laundry and a central courtyard garden with a terraced area for enjoying the sun. Visitors were issued a piece of soap and towel as part of the price of admission and were able to wash their clothes as well as themselves in the steaming hot water in the baths .
The baths were so popular that the staff devised a way to manage the timings by issuing giant briefs with numbers on so that they could tell how long a person had been in the pool!
The art deco look is a triumph; there are shades of Japanese, Roman and Byzantine influence which converge to create a feeling of luxury, beauty and purity.
La Piscine was a temple to hygiene and well-being and in use for more than 50 years before being closed in 1985.
The city council took care to preserve it exactly as it was – the art deco railings, tiles, the glass ceilings, the stained glass windows – everything was retained while they discussed what the next steps would be.
La Piscine Museum
The Council of Roubaix decided that La Piscine should house artworks and in 1990, architect Jean-Paul Philippon won a competition to turn the pool into a museum. He was already famous for his work at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a train station conversion to a major museum. Work began on La Piscine in 1998 and was finally completed in 2001. Philippon was careful to preserve the original look of La Piscine. He made the pool narrower and shallower (which is just as well as people are known to step in the pool from time to time when taking photos!) but kept it in its original setting. Keeping this pool changes the light in the room and the water provides a reflection of the fabulous sculptures.
Philippon kept the tiled changing rooms as they were. Some of them provide entrance ways to the first floor balcony, some of them have become exhibition areas.
The baths and treatment rooms can still be seen, the signs are still up, old photographs show the baths in use in their hey day. Inside the museum shop the giant filtering system that was in use is still in situ providing an eclectic backdrop to the art work and books on sale and art deco lamps light the walk ways and halls.
The museum’s collections reflect the town’s importance as a textile producing town. In 1835, textile producers commenced a collection of samples of textiles that were manufactured in Roubaix and the books are held at La Piscine. Drawered cabinets contain samples of textiles and visitors are encouraged to open the drawers and feel the materials – it is a very tactile exhibition as well as visually strong. An extraordinary rich collection of fabrics dating from ancient Egypt to today with the displays changed every 3 months. So dramatic and beautiful is the setting that fashion house Hermés staged a fashion show here around the pool.
There is a large collection of fine arts from the end of the 19th Century through to the late 20th Century. A bust by Camille Claudel, the lover of Rodin in displayed alongside works by Francois Pompon and other major sculptors including Picasso; paintings by Foujita, Courmes and even Robert de Niro Senior which prompted a visit by his son the actor Robert de Niro, to the museum a few years back.
The magnificent portico porch which stands at one end of the pool was manufactured in Sèvres for the world exhibition in Ghent in 1913 – it is a superb example of art deco porcelain and its immensity is dramatic and magnificent. Facing it at the other end of the pool is a sandstone Neptune sculpture spewing water into the pool.
A beautiful museum, a fabulous collection and with a restaurant and café managed by famous chocolate and pastry makers Meert from Lille – this is a must see attraction for visitors to Roubaix or nearby Lille.
La Piscine, 23, rue de l’Espérance 59100 Roubaix
How to get to La Piscine
Approximately 1.5 hours from Calais via the motorway (no tolls)
From Lille 20 minutes via metro to Roubaix station
Details of opening hours, temporary exhibitions and the collection from the La Piscine website where you can also take a virtual 3D Tour: http://www.roubaix-lapiscine.com/
More information from the Roubaix Tourism and Lille Tourism websites