L’Université Foraine (The Fairground University)

Towards a collaborative architecture, France

The Atelier in the vacant space (Clermont-Ferrand), from the UFO blog here

The Fairground University is a side project of the architecture practice Notre Atelier Commun. It calls for experimental urban programming at people level and promotes a collective learning by doing. A several-month residency programme for architects, based on a construction site aims to understand the needs of the local residents to build collectively.

Close-up on La Gauthière: an economically and socially deprived area, at the edge of the city of Clermont-Ferrand. Between the multi-storey flats stands a vacant space, resulting from the demolition of two building blocks and a mall. The grass starts to grow again. The city of Clermont-Ferrand planned to build the brand new “Nelson Mandela community center” in this central space of the neighborhood. A concert hall, rehearsal studios, meeting spaces were planned to open this fall.

Unsure if this project would match the needs and expectations of the locals, the city officials asked The Fairground University to operate on the field. Two young architects Suzie & Esther moved into the neighbourhood in November 2014 for a several-month residency programme. Going without a master plan in advance, they learned about the territory from the people who live there. The neutral observation of the local’s everyday use of the space was the only modus operandi.

They settled their Atelier in the prefabricated structures by the vacant space wich hosted the community centre and the office for social housing. They started mapping the neighbourhood by organising; events for the children, workshops, DIY activities, debates, performances, exhibitions… By activating the space, it aimed to give the opportunity for the inhabitants, the local actors, contractors, students to express how they were using the space and how they pictured its evolution.

A DIY srigraphy day with prints of La Gauthière's architecture. From the UFO blog here

Initiated in Rennes, (Western France) the Fairground University also has a residency in Avignon (Southern France) where it focused on a post office factory building that had been vacant for several years. The different potential functions of the building were explored trough collaborative workshops and artistic practices. This community-inclusive experimental way of urban planning enabled the Fairground University, along with the local organisations, to design the function and the future of the building.

2015.09.01-AGILE CITY-Universite foraine (4)

2015.01.09-AGILE CITY-Universite Foraine (5)

Outside and Inside of the former post-office factor building. From the UFO blog here

After acting at the scale of a building, and a neighbourhood, the Fairground University is now starting a new experiment at a city-scale. They recently won a public call to explore Bataville, a semi-rural city located in the Eastern part of France that was very active in the shoe-making industry in the early 20th century (The Bata Brand gave its name to the city). However, since the closing of the factories, the economy is struggling and the inhabitants are leaving. The common approach of transforming the huge vacant industrial building into a cultural centre will be insufficient in this case, and lack the understanding of the local context. The Fairground University’s residency, staring in September, will explore ways to reactivate the city’s economy and dynamism trough the collaboration with the local communities.


Trailer of “Bienvenue à Bataville” (2008) a film by François Caillat

Because of the recession, public investment in huge anchor projects cannot be the only mean to reactivate the city’s economy. The purpose of the Fairground University is to consider what’s already there. By focusing on the local communities, on their use of space and aspirations, its ambition is a reunion of both human and urban within the same scale.


You can read about the different projects and philosophy of the Fairground University here (In French)

Agile City has previously looked at the theme of experimental architecture with the Bellastock festival – read about it here

You can also explore different uses for vacant spaces by reading about NZ organisation Gap Filler – here