Lille’s complex history is visible in the architecture of its prominent buildings. From the cobbled quarter of Saint André, to the tinted glass of the Euralille shopping centre, a walk through the city tells a story of constant evolution through the diversity of its façades.
As part of the old County of Flanders in the very northwest of France, Lille’s language and culture has been heavily influenced by the Netherlands, Spain, England, Belgium and of course, France among others. It was also at the forefront of a textile boom during The Industrial Revolution and in the early 20th century, heavy involvement in both world wars further marked its streets.
I was interested to see what identity these eras of occupation, industrialisation, and conflict had created. Would the many cultures that had settled in Lille over the centuries still be visible in its latest reincarnation: A city on the Eurostar route connecting London with Brussels, the administrative centre of Europe.
The Grand Place
Lille’s urban centre is marked by an impressive, wide square officially known as Place du Général-de-Gaulle. Remarkably different from the smaller, medieval town squares in the south of France, the surrounding colourful façades show a strong eastern-European influence.
Once a finance hub, the function of most buildings behind their ornate finishings has changed, however several of the theatres and shop fronts framing the square still bare scars from an Austrian siege of the city in 1792. Lille’s resistance to the attack, that lasted over a week but was eventually overcome, is celebrated in the Column of the Goddess statue that has towered over pedestrians since 1842.
La Voix Du La Nord
A slightly more modern façade in the Grand Place, completed in the 1930s, is the Voice of the North newspaper office. It arguably demonstrates recent political ties with neighbouring regions in France’s Nord Department. The places listed represent the 28 areas in which the newspaper is printed and the three female statuettes on top symbolise the provinces of Artois, Flanders and Hainault.
Opéra de Lille
Behind the Grand Place, the imposing neo-classical columns of Lille’s opera house stand watch over the modern-day café culture. Erected to replace the original 18th century opera hall, even this grand structure wasn’t immune to the destruction of the First World War. After being occupied by German forces and its furniture used elsewhere, it was finally completed and opened in 1923.
L’Eglise Saint Maurice
This church is possibly the structure that has lived through most of the city’s reincarnations. Design and building started here in the early 14th century, following the medieval Hallekerque (barnlike) style, which was suited to the soft Flanders’ soil. As Lille has evolved, so has the Saint Maurice Church: The most recent parts of its architecture date into the late 19th century.
Since the early years of The Industrial Revolution Lille has used trains to transport textiles, agricultural produce and people across Europe. The Gare de Lille Flandres is a pretty building, but in 2016 it’s dwarfed by the latest addition: The Gare de Lille Europe. The Eurostar station and its neighbouring sparkly shopping centre embody modern-day Lille. In fact, it might be the only area of the city that some visitors experience. High-speed TGV services travel into the UK, Netherlands and Belgium within just two hours.
It seems appropriate to me that Lille, forced to bear the stamp of different European empires for centuries, now has an opportunity to put its stamp on Europe – by connecting the continent’s largest areas of commerce and politics.
In 2016, Lille holds onto its unique feel but as ever, continues to adapt and add to its myriad architectural styles to host new services, industries and an ever-growing population of inquisitive visitors.