The Chapelle Saint-Joseph, in Lille, situated in the northernmost tip of France, should remain standing in testimony to the beauty of France. The chapel has been abandoned by the city government. The French ministry of culture has refused to classify it as a monument worthy of preservation. Its demolition and replacement by a mammoth and culturally insensitive university complex is set to begin in earnest late in February.
The preservation organization Urgences Patrimoine and its founder Alexandra Sobczak-Romanski seek interim relief before the president of the administrative court of Lille to delay the demolition. The ministry’s decision in November refusing to classify the chapel can be addressed thereafter if its supporters are granted time to persuade the minister of culture, Roselyne Bachelot, that her predecessor’s deputies have offered poor advice. The chapel would be replaced by a huge university edifice in a modernist architectural language insensitive to the surrounding campus of the College of Saint-Paul, designed by August Marcou, architect of the chapel and the Palais Rameau nearby.
Chapelle Saint-Joseph should be saved, and the proposed educational facility, incorporating the chapel, should be designed to fit into its setting. The resources are there to pursue such an alternative.
The fight to save Chapelle Saint-Joseph, built in 1880-1886 near the already protected palace, takes place against the backdrop of a broad international movement to protect the world’s fragile built heritage, including recent new elements of that movement that promote new development sympathetic with its surroundings. The British government has just announced reforms in the local development process that boost the public’s role in judging a project’s beauty. In the United States, the new administration will soon decide whether to carry forward with its predecessor’s mandate to favor tradition in government architecture going forward.
France has already decided to rebuild the damaged Cathedral of Notre-Dame in its historical style. Surely the president, the senate and the ministry of culture felt the pressure of the French citizenry in their quest to protect France’s greatest landmark. No doubt France feels akin to the Americans in their dominant preference for tradition over experimentation in architecture, a preference identified as nearly three-quarters by the Harris polling organization this past October – a finding that only confirms longstanding evidence of the popularity of tradition from both anecdotal and academic sources.
What sense could it make to save the Palaise Rameau and the College of Saint-Paul if in the end their beauty and their sense of place are to be smothered by an architectural elephantiasis within their midst? Saint-Joseph’s unique architecture – “eclectic,” the ministry avers – is a reason for not against its classification as a monument. Its Gothic virtuosity is remarkable. Its style carries the lovely whiff of Sainte Chapelle. Its embellishments inside and out, and especially its overhanging complex of bell towers, are enough to justify the chapel’s classification. Étienne Poncelet, chief architect of the monuments division, notes the chapel’s curious layout based on the number seven: the nave’s seven bays, the choir’s seven bays, the seven apses evoking the pilgrimage to the seven Roman basilicas.
It may be seen as less than fair, indeed as discriminatory, for the French ministry of culture to focus its protective concern so much on Paris, leaving the heritage of the exterior districts up for grabs in the commercial rumble and tumble of our age. Lille, or at least the citizens of Lille, and the citizens of the world who might visit Lille, deserves its beauty in spite of itself. Chapelle Saint-Joseph deserves to live. Its demolition, when there are alternatives that serve the interests of both sides, would be a crime against the history and the culture of France. Please do not let it happen!
Here is the email of the organization seeking to save the chapel: firstname.lastname@example.org