Architectural dreams

St. Pierre Church at the Le Corbusier site in Firminy,in the Saint-Étienne region.

Designers from the Captain Ludd collective.

Puits Couriot, a mining museum and park.

Cube Gigogne, a structure residents can use for events and activities.

A classroom in the former school in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.

A classroom in the former school in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.

Cité des affaires conçue par Manuelle Gautrand Architecture

Mathilde Besse membre du collectif Ici-Bientôt.

Façade du projet municipal Vitr’In destiné à habiller les vitrines des magasins vacants.

Architecture professors Xavier Wrona and Pierre-Albert Perrillat.

Signature reinforced concrete and primary colors at the Le Corbusier site.

Signature reinforced concrete and primary colors at the Le Corbusier site.

Inter-climatic greenhouse at the Cité du Design.

Inter-climatic greenhouse at the Cité du Design.

Bain matinal des chevaux, près du champ de courses de Bridgetown.

Morning dip for the horses, near the Bridgetown racecourse.

Maison de la Culture, by Le Corbusier.

Elevator at the Crêt de Roc.

Buildings at the Musée de la Mine dating from 1913.

The miners’ changing room, Musée de la Mine.

The miners’ changing room, Musée de la Mine.

ESADSE student in the Manufacture district.

Bossu’s House without Stairs, 1940.

Entrance to the Cité du Design, in the former arms factory.

<b>© Fondation Le Corbusier, ADAGP Paris 2017</b>

Saint-Étienne is building a joyful utopia of collective, interconnected initiatives that blend aesthetics and technical prowess.

This city has been celebrating a defeat for the past 40 years: the one in 1976 that saw “Les Verts” (Saint-Étienne soccer team’s nickname) miss out on the European Champions Cup in Glasgow, because the ball hit the opposite team’s goalpost twice. Had that goalpost been round, the ball would have gone in, sending Dominique Rocheteau and his teammates into eternal glory. But it was square. In a city where design is a hallmark and emblem, this geometric refrain, this endlessly recounted story, this yo-yoing between an evil square and a more propitious round shape, is symbolic. This is a city where form is content.

In times past, the content was mining, with its coal, slag heaps and sooty faces. Steel then brought the infernal staccato of hammers and rolling mills. In 1764, the central government ordered Saint-Étienne to make arms. It took its role seriously, even calling itself “Armeville” at one time. Given the influence of the Lyon silk factories, it added the more agreeable industry of textile manufacturing. As a result of the power of the textile industries and the skilled weaving and lace artisans, the Saint-Étienne Chamber of Commerce soon became known as the “Chamber of Ribbons.” Ribbon was more than an accessory: it was a path to follow, and even the city appeared to develop in a line, arranging its squares one after the other along a thread. Today, the Place du Peuple, Place Dorian, Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville and Place Jean-Jaurès still form a long litany of welcoming spaces. Covered with café terraces, crisscrossed by streetcar lines, they swelled as people arrived from the surrounding region and neighboring countries. Farmers from the Nivernais region and emigrants from Poland, Italy and North Africa contributed to the wealth of the city, which lacks exceptional monuments or impressive statues, but has a big heart.

“Here you didn’t stay a miner your whole life,” explains Philippe Peyre, director and curator of the splendid Puits Couriot mining museum, with its patina of rust and grit. “This is seen in the collective memory of working-class people. There’s no proletarian pride here as in northern France. People aspired to become members of the petty bourgeoisie, and there was respect for technological progress.” The Stéphanois spirit was forged in a love of precision, even excellence, and this is something that persists to this day, infusing the entire region. But this fact is little known in France. To everyone’s surprise, it turns out that Saint-Étienne is a place of invention and imagination. The watchwords are expertise and talent. Precision optics, quality fabrics for the most prestigious couture houses, cutting-edge industries and digital technology everywhere. They’re the city’s bread and butter.

The factory of tomorrow

As proof of this excellence, the city became a UNESCO City of Design in 2010, the only one in France. Design here means far more than dreaming up sleek, ergonomically designed objects or gadgets. In Saint-Étienne the term embraces a multiplicity of approaches and initiatives. It’s about the changing world of work, shaking up established hierarchies, creating networks for individuals and companies, devising strategies for adapting to global changes, a fierce desire to be at the forefront of our age by making it more fluid, generous and human. It is exhilarating. A victim of so many economic slumps, Saint-Étienne is one of France’s least expensive cities. “When you leave school,” says Mathilde Besse, an urban policy student and member of the Ici-Bientôt collective that aims to revitalize the city center, “if you’re unemployed, you can still get by.” Housing is affordable, and the many young people in this university city find lodging by sharing huge apartments.

The Cité du Design, a former arms factory, symbolizes this extraordinary vitality, with intense reflection taking place on every floor. Once hidden from view, the place is now home to students, artists and start-ups. Everyone is collaborating on the vast project of reinvigorating society through a profusion of initiatives. One focuses on how to make station and tram platforms more user-friendly, others on transforming urban lighting, the future of local post offices, connected benches, a type of plaster that purifies the air, and a pedagogical beehive that alerts us to the disappearance of bees, highlighting how we’re all connectedas in a beehive.

A school the ESADSE, École Supérieure d’Art et de Design (founded in 1803, but under another name)artist studios, exhibition spaces, a restaurant, a greenhouse bristling with the ferns that used to grow on slag heaps are all housed in old but well-preserved buildings. A creative quarter is emerging in this old industrial zone, home to a number of engineering schools, together with small and not-so-small businesses, and an incubator for new ventures. Along one side is a long metal parallelepiped with lozenge-shaped panels and panes, La Platine, its controversial architecture (by Finn Geipel + Giulia Andi) a testament to its boldness. The site is also home to Le Mixeur, a nursery for start-ups. But that’s not all. For varying stretches of time, the former Forces Motrices building, at the heart of the complex, serves as a canteen. The kitchens are run by voluntary workers overseen by the La Fabrique association. “Every day,” explains director Philippe Chappat, “we collect unsold produce from the day before from organic foodstores, and cook up dishes at affordable prices that are popular with students and visitors. Customers can have lunch, help out in the kitchen or prepare meals.” The foodie operation’s code name: FabLabouffe, FabLab + bouffe (grub)a technically perfect name.

Design every which way

This catering enterprise is no childish prank. The whole city is driven by mini-initiatives aimed at revitalizing a social fabric that was hit by a severe economic slump in the 1980s. Take the Captain Ludd collective. It is based at the foot of the Crêt de Roc, one of the city’s seven hills, and its creative projects range from graphics to architecture, t-shirt printing and furniture design. They have just done the tables and chairs for a new backpackers’ hotel, La Maison Rouge. “Our aim,” says Pierrick Faure, “is to make design accessible to everyone. Chic design is only the tip of the iceberg.” Josyane Franc, who’s behind the city’s recognition by UNESCO, chimes in: “In Saint-Étienne, design is a bit scruffy, put together with whatever’s on hand, using both traditional techniques and new technologies. This is why you can’t compare Saint-Étienne to Bordeaux or Lyon, but to Detroit.”

Just opposite the Captain Ludd premises, a sleek wine shop, À Vin Pas des Marches, has just opened. “I invested in this run-down neighborhood,” says the owner, in front of his wall of whiskeys and craft beers, “because I could sense that it’ll soon be like Lyon’s La Croix-Rousse here. A boho district.” A wholesale grocery and an alternative school are due to open. All over, urban design collectives are trying to give the many abandoned premises a new lease on life, be it through a pop-up store, an ephemeral project or an event. All these artists, graphic designers, architects, industrial designers and engineers are enthusiastically demonstrating that you can be part of an alternative movement, even call yourself an anarchist, yet still believe in private initiatives, virtuous business ventures and profit. This is why the Cité du Design, whose president is the city’s mayor, Gaël Perdriau, is forging more and more partnerships with local companies. Business leaders know they have a lot to gain from working with young people brimming with new ideas.

“Saint-Étienne has always been a city of social utopias,” says Pierre-Albert Perrillat, professor at the architecture school. Indeed, architecture provides multiple examples. Auguste Bossu’s House without Stairs (1940), whose floors are reached by a ramp like the one at the iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York, offers all residents the same gentle ascension. Elsewhere, Manuelle Gautrand has designed a business district bristling with metallic facades and vibrant yellow walls. Rudy Ricciotti came up with a Maison de l’Emploi (jobs center) featuring rows of windows inspired by the potato-shaped abstract forms of painter Claude Viallat. As for Norman Foster, he did the Zénith concert hall. Saint-Étienne has its “starchitects” too. An architectural gem, recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, can be found in Firminy, some 15 kilometers from Saint-Étienne, where Le Corbusier designed a kind of manifesto: a cultural center, stadium, church and residential block, bringing together, mental, physical, spiritual and social well-being all on a single site. “This is the place for anyone who wants to discover Le Corbusier,” says Géraldine Dabrigeon, director of the complex.

Model city

On the one side, architecture; and everywhere, culture. The Musée d’Art Moderne, with its 19,000 works of art, is celebrating its 30th year. With France’s second largest collection after that of the Pompidou Center, it’s a must-see. It’s true that Marcel Duchamp, master of the ready-made, was fascinated by the Manufrance mail order catalogue, another of the city’s former claims to fame, renowned for a century for its weapons and bicycles. In town, the sumptuous Musée d’Art et d’Industrie, with its timeless atmosphere, is also worth visiting. “In the past,” says its director Nadine Besse, “the ribbon makers worked at home with their Jacquard looms. Today, designers, who are the driving forces of urban renewal, work at home with their computers. In the final analysis, nothing much has changed in Saint-Étienne.” It’s true that in this citynicknamed “the city of a thousand patents” in the late 19th century new patents are constantly being registered, whole batches of them. The world has started to catch on to this, and each International Design Biennale is more crowded than the last. The next one, the tenth, takes place from March 9 to April 9, and focuses on changes in the world of work. “The city has a lot to teach people,” says the inventive, effervescent Xavier Wrona, architect and teacher in Saint-Étienne. “It has survived one economic crisis after another, and has managed to absorb waves of foreigners. Its experience could be an example for the entire world.” And that’s what design’s about, too: it’s a way of uniting people in the face of adversity, while bringing new magic into the world.

© Fondation Le Corbusier, ADAGP Paris 2017 - José Oubrerie. Conception, Le Corbusier architecte, José Oubrerie assistant (1960-65). Réalisation, José Oubrerie architecte (1970-2006)

© Fondation Le Corbusier, ADAGP Paris 2017

© Manuelle Gautrand Architecture

© Fondation Le Corbusier, ADAGP Paris 2017 - Agence LIN, Finn Geipel + Giulia Andi

© Fondation Le Corbusier

Alcohol abuse is harmful to your health. Drink in moderation


A special touch

Carnet d’adresses

Bar & restaurant

Restaurant du musée d’Art moderne

For once, while feasting your eyes, you can beguile your taste buds. This museum restaurant has its own chef, just as the galleries have their masterpieces: Stéphane Laurier officiates in the kitchen.

La Terrasse, Saint-Priest-en-Jarez.
Tél. +33 (0)4 77 79 24 52.


his wine store also hosts cooking classes. A serious contestant for the title of most stylish store in the city, this elegant place is a must for anyone interested in food. For €42, you get three hours of gourmet instruction, and at the end of the class, you sample what you’ve cooked.

1, place Grenette. Tél. +33 (0)4 77 32 26 82.

Les Persiennes Framboises

To recover from a big dose of modernity, after exploring the various buildings designed by Le Corbusier, retreat to this restaurant, half-cellar, half-terrace, with its funky, hippie vibethe perfect antidote. The subtle yet invigorating dishes are served in a floral decor. They sell tea and craft objects. 

99, rue Jean-Jaurès, Firminy.
Tél. +33 (0)4 77 56 89 81.


Cordonnerie Saint-Crépin

This timeless store on a sloping side street opened in 1928. For 17 years, Hratch Jingoezian, originally from Beirut, has been working leather and producing made-to-measure shoes at unbeatable prices. Vintage storefront, with crocodile hides in the window. 

17, rue de la Ville. Tél. +33 (0)4 77 32 38 65.

Les 7 cailloux

This store, a stone’s throw from the Cordonnerie Saint-Crépin, is a fun place. Vincent Loffreda offers toys made from soft leather that he manufactures himself, together with games and toys by contemporary designers. Browsing here is entertainment in itself.

26, rue de la Ville. Tél. +33 (0)4 82 37 51 73.


la maison Rouge

This hotel is aimed at backpackers, so there’s little in the way of comfort. The dormitories have beds concealed in tents, forming canvas capsules, complete with electric socket and light. This unpretentious place was designed by Captain Ludd and launched by a former engineer full of ideas. 

7, rue Paul-Appel. Tél. +33 (0)7 83 95 27 66.
Address Book

Going There

Flight frequency

AIR FRANCE has 20 weekly flights to Lyon from Paris-Orly.
HOP! AIR FRANCE flies daily to Lyon from French and European cities.
KLM has 21 weekly flights to Lyon from Amsterdam.
AIR FRANCE has 3 daily flights to Clermont-Ferrand from Paris-CDG and 4 from Paris-Orly with HOP! Air France.

Arrival airports

Aéroport de Lyon Saint-Exupéry.
À 25 km.
Tél. +33 (0)826 80 08 26.

Aéroport de Clermont-Ferrand-Auvergne.
À 6 km.
Tél. +33 (0)4 73 62 71 00.

Air France KLM offices

Aux aéroports.


— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

Car rental

Hertz, à l'aéroport.
à Lyon Saint-Exupéry.
Tél. +33 (0)825 006 969.
à Clermont-Ferrand-Auvergne.
Tél. +33 (0)825 845 220.

Further reading

AuvergneGallimard, coll. GEOGuide.
Guide d’architecture de Saint-Étienne Jörn Garleff et Luc Pecquet. Éditions Alternatives/Ensase.
Le Corbusier à Firminy-Vert Gilles Ragot. Éditions du Patrimoine. Centre des Monuments nationaux.
Le Ruban, c’est la mode Collectif. Silvana Editoriale et musée d’Art et d’Industrie de Saint-Étienne.

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only