La Piscine, Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Roubaix, Lille

Venture outside the centre of any city or town in search of new attractions and the effort always pays off. In the case of Lille, it pays off spectacularly with a visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie (Museum of Art and Industry) in Roubaix.

La Piscine Roubaix is full of surprises, starting with this splendid museum, housed in an Art Deco swimming pool and bath house, originally built in 1932 for the citizens of Roubaix. During the 19th century workers flooded into the city to work in the factories and mills of the then thriving textile town, but their houses lacked hot water and inside toilets. The socially minded mayor employed the architect Albert Baert to build a ‘Temple of Hygene’ for the ‘city of a thousand chimneys’. La piscine was hugely important; it was the place where the classes mixed; where the poor came to take a hot bath and everyone came to learn how to swim. The decline of the textile industry in the 20th century was inevitably accompanied by the decline of La Piscine and by the mid-1980s the empty building was in danger of destruction. So what to do with it? Turn it into the museum was the surprisingly innovative and adventurous solution.

History of Roubaix The architect Jean-Paul Philippon, who designed the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, undertook the commission which included incorporating the original Hannart-Prouvost weaving plant. The result was a stunning museum, proving such a success that in 2018 the same architect returned to expand the museum. La Piscine re-opened last October after 18 months work including a 6-month closure and a 9-million euro (£7.9million) budget.   

The museum houses an impressive collection of fine and applied art and mixes painting and sculpture, glass and ceramics, textiles, clothing and jewellery. You start with a new History of Roubaix gallery where a massive painting of the re-opening of the Town Hall sets the scene for a visit taking in both the art and the story of Roubaix. The work of local artists hangs alongside major 19th and 20th century paintings and sculptures from names like Giacometti, Camille Claudel, Rodin, Picasso and Dufy, Bonnard and Von Dongen, collected by Roubaix’s astute rich merchants and factory owners.

Bouchard studio The new extension gives more exhibition space and much of it has been specifically designed around the collections. There’s also a reconstruction of the Paris studio of the less well-known sculptor, Henri Bouchard (1975-1960), showing his works, his tools and how his sculptures were constructed. Bouchard was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and subsequently assigned to a footnote in history. The museum display should reinstate his reputation as an important artistic figure though his enthusiasm for Nazi Germany’s support of artists following a visit organized by Joseph Goebbels in 1941 might take longer to be forgiven.

The undoubted star of La Piscine is the swimming pool itself. The central part of the pool has been kept, the gently rippling water reflecting the huge stained-glass windows that light up the long 3-storyed space like the morning and evening sun. Statues are displayed down each side while behind the monumental 19th and 20th century figures the former tiled changing rooms hold more exhibits. There’s a stunning collection of ceramics taking you from the classic shapes and colours of classic porcelain manufacturers like Sèvres to the modernists and Picasso’s wildly imaginative pieces. Ceramics Textiles and clothes conjure up Roubaix’s past wealth; there’s a whole section housing a vast collection of sample books to study the fashions of the past.

There are good temporary and frequently changing exhibitions. The 2019 shows include the Orientalist painter Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887), photographs by Naime Merabet, an Algerian who arrived in Roubaix in 1981, and exhibitions of their permanent collection of works on paper, including drawings of textiles and ceramics, plus posters of different exhibitions of the past.

La Piscine is just the right size, with enough variety to satisfy everyone. Spend the day here; it’s easy to reach from the centre of Lille, has a good shop, a garden for sunny days and an excellent cafe and restaurant run by Méert whose Art Deco tea room in Lille is well worth a visit.

More information

La Piscine Museum entrance Musée d’Art et d’Industrie
23 rue de L’esperance
59100 Roubaix, Nord
Tel:  00 33 (0)3 20 69 23 60

Opening Hours:
Tuesday- Thursday 11am-6pm
Friday 11am-8pm
Saturday, Sunday 1pm-6pm
Closed Mondays
Also closed: 1st January, 1st May, Ascension Day, 14th July, 15th August, 1st November, 25th December.

Adult 9 euros; 11 euros with temporary exhibitions.
Free for under 18 years; on the first Sunday of the month

The museum is wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchairs, free of charge, are available at the main desk.

Getting to Roubaix:
Roubaix is part of Greater Lille which is accessible by Eurostar from London or TGV from Paris and Brussels. From Lille, take the Metro Line 2 towards Ch Dron and get out at the stop Gare Jean Lebas. It’s a 500-metre walk from there. Or take the train to Roubaix station; again, it’s a 500-metre walk. For bus information, ask at the Tourist Office.

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Mary Anne Evans

Food & travel writer, member of BGTW

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