by Zohra KhanOct 06, 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?
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.