18 November 2013

Rue Feuillat

A long wall interspersed by many tall windows and just as many rainwater pipes stretches most of the way along Rue Feuillat between Cours Albert Thomas and Avenue Lacassagne in the 3rd Arrondisement. Halfway down, an imposing stone gate with intricate ironwork and stained-glass clear denotes what must once have been the main entrance. Peering through the smashed safety glass of the windows, you can still see an elaborate iron roof and get a sense that this was once something big.

Big it was indeed. The stepped walls enclose a behemoth of a site spanning 75,000m² and employing nearly two thousand people in its heyday. For this is the oldest existing car factory in Lyon, although the grounds have changed hands many times over the last century.

Entrance to the Rochet-Schneider factory, 1911
(Photo courtesy Fondation Berliet)

The factory was designed and built in 1899 along what was then Chemin Feuillat by industrial architect Louis Payet to house the workshops of the fledgling though highly successful car company of Edouard Rochet and Théodore Schneider. The site was soon the talk of the town, a "model" factory hailed as one of the most important industrial sites worldwide at the time.

Cleverly stepped so that the ground was on a single level along its entire 510-metre length, the wrought-iron superstructure featured sloping glass-and-metal rooves and light, airy "sheds" broken up by iron pillars at only 12-metre intervals. Covered avenues running along inside the factory were so broad that two lorries could comfortably pass one another. The factory boasted state-of-the-art machinery and employed lean production methods. And in another novelty, two large underground galleries safely distributed steam, gas and electricity to wherever they were needed.

Aerial view of Rochet-Schneider factory on Rue Feuillat
(Photo courtesy Fondation Berliet)
Within a few years, Rochet-Schneider had become one of the world's top ten automobile manufacturers. Its cars were especially adept at scaling hilly terrain, justifiably earned the nickname "the French Rolls-Royce". By 1902, it was exporting to the US and selling licenses to Switzerland and Italy. For the next three decades, Rochet-Schneider would build the finest cars in Lyon – if not all of France.

The Zénith "Z" is still clearly
recognisable on the gate
Meanwhile a Lyonnais engineer called François Baverey was putting the finishing touches to a revolutionary new carburettor, which he patented in 1906. Schneider and Rochet gave Baverey access to their laboratory and allowed him to test his "Zénith" carburettor on their cars. By 1908, all Rochet-Schneider vehicles were fitted with it. The following year, the Société du Carbureteur Zénith was formed, almost entirely with Rochet-Schneider money. The two companies' fortunes would be intertwined symbiotically from then onwards.

Zénith proved such an overwhelming success that more and more space at the Feuillat plant was given over to producing its carburettors, which were eventually making far more money than Rochet-Schneider's car business was. Henry Ford was so impressed by Baverey's carburettor that he ordered it installed in all his cars. And in 1919, fully two-thirds of the vehicles at the Paris Auto Show were fitted with Zénith carburettors.

(Courtesy Fondation Berliet)
Due to this overwhelming demand, the Feuillat factory had to be expanded twice, first in 1910-1912 – when the monumental gate was added – and then again in 1918. As a result, it was churning out 110,000 carburettors a month by 1928, even though Zénith had opened additional plants in Paris, London, Berlin, Brussels, The Hague, Milan and even Detroit.

As Zénith's fortunes rose, those of Rochet-Schneider dwindled. After the First World War, the car-maker was hit by a triple whammy of the Depression, the global stock market crash and ever increasing competition from rival auto manufacturers. With fewer and fewer people able to afford its luxury cars, Rochet-Schneider ceased being profitable in 1930 and was forced to switch entirely to making busses and trucks in 1933, although these were on a par with those of another Lyonnais truck manufacturer, Marius Berliet.
Inside the main entrance of Zénith, 1913
(Photo courtesy Fondation Berliet)

World War II dealt another blow to Rochet-Schneider, and by 1951 the company had stopped vehicle production altogether. But rather than sending its entire workforce into unemployment, the company operated as a sub-contractor for others. Its sheds were used for storage.

It was at this stage that rival Berliet stepped in, first renting the Rochet-Schneider site for its own use and eventually acquiring the company itself in December 1959, using the site for its spare parts and after-sales department. Three years later, Zénith sold its part of the site to Berliet and moved its operations elsewhere.

The Berliet logo
Over the next decade, Berliet and the factory passed from one owner to another as the French auto industry consolidated. In June 1967, Berliet voluntarily joined Citroën (then owned by tyre manufacturer Michelin) in order to develop a European-level car and truck group. Then, in 1974, Renault acquired Berliet when Peugeot acquired Citroën as part of a government-approved restructuring of the industry. Six years later, in 1980, the name Berliet disappeared completely when Renault merged Berliet with its Saviem division to create Renault Véhicules Industriels (RVI, though since renamed Renault Trucks). The Feuillat site was relegated to a warehouse for spare parts.

In 1998, almost exactly a century after Payet built the original factory for Rochet-Schneider there, RVI closed the Feuillat site altogether and moved its storage facilities to Renault's far larger and newer complex in Vénissieux. Just over half of the land (41,000m²) was sold to a developer to build a vocational training centre in 2000, while the remaining 34,000m² were bought by Grand Lyon.

Inside what's left of the Rue Feuillat factory
Whereas the newly-erected training centre, the SEPR, opened its doors in 2004, questions remained about what to do with the rest, which was clearly too architecturally significant to simply tear down. Briefly used to host an art festival in 2001, a number of ideas were mooted, including setting up a technology museum and making the space available for SMEs. In somewhat late recognition of its significance to French industrial history, the remaining "sheds" and main gate along Rue Feuillat were declared a national monument.

In 2003, the city of Lyon took the rather bold move of officially authorising artists to occupy the splendid vacant buildings, prompting them to form a self-governing non-profit organisation, the Collectif Friche Autogérée RVI. At its height, some 400 painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers and dancers had set up studios in the well-lit, airy buildings.

However, the century-old walls and rooves were rapidly showing their age, and no longer met the necessary safety regulations. The collective was therefore permitted to admit the public only during the annual National Heritage Days, thus considerably limiting the scope of its activities. By mid-2010 the state of the buildings had deteriorated to such an extent that the city decided to close the friche (former industrial area). The artists and some 50 squatters who were living there illegally were therefore given six months to move out. The collective was still fighting this eviction when a major fire broke out on 10 December, gutting two-thirds of the buildings and bringing an abrupt end to the daring social experiment.

Since then, the once-glorious site has been boarded up and left to rot, its windows smashed, its wrought-iron superstructure exposed to the sky.

But all has not been lost. The collective and the frichards may be gone, but graffiti artists have taken on the artistic mantle, drawing inspiration from the industrial architecture as well as the massive canvasses provided by the former factory's inner walls to spray a stunning collection of larger-than-life artworks that I encourage anyone to go and experience while they still exist.

One of the many graffiti in the abandoned factory
Grand Lyon also has plans for the site. Over the next few years, a small park is to be set up in the north-eastern section. The rest is to be developed into a library, council flats, a gym and student accommodation. The vast façade along Rue Feuillat and the monumental gate – the last vestiges of the history of the Lyonnais auto industry – are to be renovated and preserved for posterity.

Locate the Rue Feuillat site and photos of some of the graffiti on Google Maps

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