A ‘light’ urban restoration of the Place Saint Sernin reclaims its public realm

The development of an 18,000 sqm public space in the historic centre of Toulouse, France, reclaims its social character, architectural grandeur and biodiversity.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Oct 12, 2022

What happens when a place falls short in upholding the beauty of a piece of architecture? In places where a certain disorder has flourished for long, how does one tie the enclosed and the enclosure to create a unified urban scenography?

Basilica Saint Sernin and its historic context | Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
Basilica Saint Sernin and its historic context Image: © 2020 BAU

Consider the case of Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse in Toulouse, France – a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best preserved and the largest Romanesque churches in Europe. The magnificence of this monument could not be fully appreciated for years as it was enveloped by an incongruous 175-space car parking. In place of what should have been a surrounding that reflected impressions of its shifting architectural vocabulary and historic grandeur, the context of the church – known as the Place Saint Sernin - was instead defined by motorists in transit, exhaust noises, road signages, and an overarching sense of chaos. It is also said that in the 80s, when Queen Elizabeth of England was visiting Toulouse and came here, her encounter was well put in her reaction when she said, “What a strange idea to have erected such a beautiful basilica in the middle of a parking lot!”

The developed public plaza outside the basilica| Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
The developed public plaza outside the basilica Image: © 2020 BAU

To bring some order to the place, which in addition to the basilica also located other important civic buildings such as Musée St Raymond, l’Hôtel du Barry, the Lycée Saint Sernin, and the CGT headquarters, an urban intervention was carried out by Barcelona-based firm BAU. The urban design and urban planning studio, led by architect Prof. John Busquets, transformed the 18,000 sqm area by connecting the architecture to its dissociated public realm. With fewer former green spaces, the scheme also created new public gardens, and revived existing landscapes such as the 19th century apse garden, and Lycée Garden. The urban design focused on reconnecting the residents of the centre to their neighbourhood through means of increased pedestrianisation, in addition to opening up its beauty to curious travellers.

Place Saint Sernin – masterplan by BAU| Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
Place Saint Sernin – masterplan by BAU Image: © 2020 BAU

The scheme follows a light construction that enabled the activation of the public space without tweaking the urban character and environment of the square. A 19th century public garden surrounding the apse has been expanded and redesigned as an introverted meeting space for people. Facing the basilica, the intervention of a circular Comblanchien stone fountain on the cobbled parvis becomes another meeting place. Paths and pavements are redone using a combination of Porphyre from the Alps and French Comblanchien as pavers. The natural stone aesthetic resonates with the site’s history, while its shifting patterns and finishes adapt to the different atmospheres of the place.

  • Shaded walkways surround the church area | Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    Shaded walkways surround the church area Image: © 2020 BAU
  • A large green cover envelope the apse | Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    A large green cover envelope the apse Image: © 2020 BAU
  • A series of new trees have been planted on site | Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    A series of new trees have been planted on site Image: © 2020 BAU
  • Shifting patterns of the natural stone pavers adapt to the different atmospheres of the place | Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    Shifting patterns of the natural stone pavers adapt to the different atmospheres of the place Image: © 2020 BAU

Adding to the greenscape, a series of trees have been planted that also double as the missing third façade of the parvis of the basilica. In place of the vacant Palais Abbatial, an elevated garden has also been given form. Vast shaded walkways and seating nooks, green pockets, and wider pedestrian-friendly roads revive the public realm surrounding the Basilica Saint Sernin.

  • The project revives the biodiversity of the place in addition to bringing back sociability| Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    The project revives the biodiversity of the place in addition to bringing back sociability Image: © 2020 BAU
  • Place Saint Sernin in the evening| Place Saint Sernin | France | STIRworld
    Place Saint Sernin in the evening Image: © 2020 BAU

Initiated in 2015, the project involved contributions from local residents, visitors, associations and enthusiasts. In 2016, it was presented to the National Commission for Historic Monuments at the Ministry of Culture where it received a favourable opinion. Having taken five years in completion, Place Saint Sernin finally received a unified urban image in 2020. The project is one of the five finalists of The European Prize for Urban Public Space 2022, a biennial initiative by the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) recognising public intervention project in European cities. Other works shortlisted for the award are Catharijnesingel in Utrecht, The Netherlands, by OKRA Landscape Architects, urban community garden “Sporta pils dārzi” in Latvia, open-air swimming pool FLOW in Brussels, Belgium, and urban courtyard Hage in Lund, Sweden.

What do you think?

About Author

Recommended

LOAD MORE
see more articles
4015,3840,4007,4055,4151

Keep it stirring

get regular updates SIGN UP

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.
LEARN MORE AGREE