Whilst nowadays the Comédie de Reims — symbol of cultural life in Reims — is a place of work and performance, it is also the symbol of something else: a pivotal moment in the evolution of cultural policies in France, and an architectural movement of major importance: Brutalism.
Like all ‘Maisons de la Culture’ which started being built in France from 1961, the one in Reims — which would go on to become La Comédie, National Dramatic Centre of Reims — was part of the policy of democratisation and decentralisation of culture initiated by André Malraux. By forming a network across the country, these multidisciplinary structures were intended so that wider audiences, and not just Parisians, could have access to “humanity’s major works”. Forums for interacting with the arts face-to-face, these Maisons de la Culture were also envisaged as places of meeting and conversations— a spirit of openness that Comédie director, Chloé Dabert, hopes to perpetuate by making this establishment a “home for artists and audiences”.
Brutalism, a radical architectural trend
Construction of the Maison de la Culture in Reims began in 1966. The government and the mayor of Reims at the time, Jean Taittinger, called upon architect Jean Le Couteur, who would design a building with a Brutalist soul.
Appearing in the post-war 1950s, Brutalism responded to an architectural desire for modernity and truth. The result was the removal of ornament and the use of raw materials. “There was no longer a language that recalled earlier architecture,” explains Giovanni Pace, architect and president of the Maison de l’Architecture de Champagne-Ardenne. The trend was magnified by the use of reinforced concrete, a quite magical material since it facilitates an almost sculptural expression of architecture thanks to the technique of formwork. It was using this technique that Reims’ Maison de la Culture was built. You can see the imprints left in the concrete by the planks which were placed next to each other to form the mould.”
The identity of the Comédie de Reims building, however, is not only rooted in concrete, it is also characterised by the brick which covers the façades, “another raw material, in the sense that it is neither plastered nor covered by stone. Brutalists favoured concrete, bricks and Corten steel — a steel that rusts — because they are materials that retain traces of drips and the passage of time. Brutalists wanted to bring buildings to life and to show the material as it was, with its qualities and its flaws. Nothing was hidden, it was a return to basics. In Brutalism, there’s nothing left to take away. ”
Although the Maison de la Culture of Reims was built in the purest Brutalist tradition, Jean Le Couteur, its architect, has never claimed to have been following a trend. His extremely diverse work is marked more by the rejection of all preconceived ideas and by the empiricism he demonstrates for each project, than by the use of certain materials or construction techniques.
La Comédie de Reims, a building “that lives”
In the Maison de la Culture of Reims, Jean Le Couteur has designed a spacious, interlinked, versatile building, articulated around a central foyer. “La Comédie is reminiscent of the curved shapes of Alvar Aalto, emphasizes Giovanni Pace. Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect who was greatly inspired by nature. It has been designed organically, that is to say in small pieces, as if organs were being placed next to each other so that the building could come to life. The architecture gives the impression of air flowing through. It is not a lump, it is alive. ”
This feeling of life is accentuated by the play of light that bathes the interior of the building. “Jean Le Couteur has used tall concrete modules on the façades, almost like vertical vents, which allow light to filter in. The result is a building made up of light and shade. The foyer is already a theatre in itself. ”
The building responds to a desire for purity, honesty of structure and material, both specific to Brutalism but also characteristic of all of Jean Le Couteur’s work. Disappearing shortly after the 1970s, Brutalism remains today a very important architectural movement — as a reflection of its time — as well as a great source of inspiration for architects of our time who are sympathetic to minimalist aesthetics.