Le B.E.A.U Ephemeral Bureau of Urban Activation

Saint-Etienne, France


For our upcoming summer school and events programme Test Unit we have been researching projects that offer public space to facilitate engagement and open access to information within the context of important urban change.  These spaces are often shaped as temporary, relocatable or bespoke spaces associated to a construction site or a wider regeneration plan. They can offer a central hub for information about the construction, its impact on the neighbourhood, and also a space for public events, debates, workshops for participation and activation of the site.

Here we look at Le B.E.A.U (Ephemeral Bureau of Urban Activation) in Saint-Etienne, France 

This project office was part of the fringe programme of the 2015 Saint-Etienne Design Biennale.  It took place in a central but deprived area of the city where about 60% of the street-level shops are vacant. The main objectives were to develop solutions to activate the vacant shops, help improve the image of the neighbourhood and initiate a regeneration masterplan for the area.

A local organisation was commissioned by the city council to occupy a vacant unit at the crossing of the two main roads of the neighbourhood. They painted the space with bright colours and it became the temporary ‘Bureau of Urban Activation’ a space for neighbours to meet, local resident to consult the masterplan, where people could experiment with new urban furniture, and generate new ideas for uses of the vacant shops.

During the three weeks of the action, a range of diverse activities were held indoors and outdoors: participatory mapping of the vacant and active shops, a board “I have / I need” to connect owners and project holders, a radio station was set up to gather stories of the local residents and inviting people from the city council to talk. Outside, guided tours of the neighbourhood along with temporary use of some vacant street-level shops for people to organise their own activity; yoga class, pop-up gallery, typography atelier, construction of urban furniture out of wooden pallets.

Although the project was much appreciated and responded to a genuine need to activate the neighbourhood, the experiment only lasted for the 3 weeks of the Design Biennale.  According to people who experienced the project, following the intensive programme of activity the closure and lack of follow-up left people with more questions than answers – an issue that is often reoccurring with short-term activation of space.

Le B.E.A.U - Street view

Le B.E.A.U – Street view


Le B.E.A.U - participatory mapping of the vacants / active shops

Le B.E.A.U – participatory mapping of the vacant / active shops



Le BEAU – Radio show in the project office “What’s the future for the vacant street-level shops?”



Le BEAU – Atelier of participatory typography. The final goal was to create a bespoke font with all the sign letters from the vacant street-level shops



Le BEAU – the font “made in Saint-Etienne”


All pictures from Le B.E.A.U Website here (in French)


If you were involved with the project or have experience of similar initiatives we would be keen to get your thoughts, please get in touch – [email protected]