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Albi at the end of the 20th century

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

At the end of the 20th century, following the rhythm of continuing urban evolution, an ambitious programme to renovate the town centre over a period of many years was defined. The aim was to improve the aesthetic of the town and to restore the Episcopal city its rightful place at the heart of town life.

The first step for this ambitious programme was the modification of the Vigan district, at the frontier between the town’s mediaeval centre and its modern surroundings (in the buffer zone) in 1996. This district was bordered by the towns fortifications up until the 18th century when they were demolished and the area was converted into a leisure spot where people came to ’faire du Vigan’, taking leisurely strolls on the place des lices. Over time, vehicles had replaced pedestrians but diverse modifications between 1996 and 2003 allowed not only to reorganise traffic and increase the number of parking spaces but also restore the Vigan’s previous importance in Albi life as a place where people come to wander and relax.

As part of the town’s rehabilitation programme the architect Olivier Bressac and Bernard Huet of the Town and Architecture agency were asked to define an urban renewal project over a surface of 35 hectares.

Modifications to the place Sainte-Cécile and its surroundings, completed in 2007, constituted the first act of this grand project. By modifying the very heart of the town it has been possible to open up the space and to put the monumental beauty of the Cathedral and the Berbie palace on show.

This aims of this project are:

  • to situate the modifications to the town’s public spaces within a perspective of conservation of town heritage
  • to give the heart of the city and its heritage back to the people of Albi
  • to join together the diverse components of the historic centre and the Episcopal city
  • to promote the elements structuring the urban landscape
  • to open the town onto the landscape of the town

This programme takes into account the complexities of current and future uses of the site such as: commercial activity, tourism, the daily life of thousands of residents, transport (including private vehicles, public transport, pedestrians, bicycles...), the daily maintenance work and the managements of events and public gatherings.

Parking places which obstructed the space have therefore been removed, shaded areas have been created around the place de la Pile while a passage allows access from the Castelnau district to the place Sainte-Cécile and the baldaquin. The place de la Pile has been opened up and re-marked, allowing it once again to be used for festivities and public gatherings without interrupting traffic.

Close to the western end of the Cathedral, the imposition of a no-parking zone in the place de la Trébaille, high above the river Tarn, has opened views on the river and the ’quartier de la Madeleine’, framed by three arches of the Cathedrals ancient Romanesque cloister. Beside the arches we can watch the reflection of the Cathedral’s bell tower in the 30 metre long ’table d’eau.’ Ornamental elements such as the limestone fountain opposite the baldaquin, provide a visual stepping stone between the viewer and the monumental scale of the Cathedral.

The light grey granite and the split beige-brown sandstone paving stones and the traditional cobblestones, red granite bricks laid in a chevron pattern at the base of the apse, the bands of grey granite or Belgian bluestone and the monolithic grey carved bollards with embedded lights all delimit, punctuate and add character to the diversity of spaces around the Cathedral, all the while preserving its overarching unity.

The modification of the place Sainte-Cécile has been conducted in tandem with the restructuring of another of the Episcopal city’s major sites: the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, situated in the ancient Epsicopal residence.

The thousands of works by this local painter constitute a remarkable collection which attracts 160,000 visitors every year, including many foreigners.

The museum also possesses a collection of modern art which invites us on an artistic journey from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century.

To accompany the museum into the 21st century an ambitious restructuring and extension project was entrusted to the architect Philippe-Charles Dubois in 1997. This impressive project aimed to meet the technical demands of a large contemporary museum of international renown, to assure the conservation of the museum’s collections and to promote these collections while emphasising the architectural quality of the building that houses them.

Though the third phase is only just beginning, the first two have already allowed the curators to design a new configuration for the collections, displaying the works according to a combined thematic and chronological approach. These renovations have also allowed the museum to optimise the visitor experience, offering pedagogical spaces and improving the capacity of the museum to offer activities relating to cultural discovery and training.

  • From 2001-2004 (phase 1), new spaces were installed such as the vast new entrance area accessible from the ’cour d’honneur,’ the museum shop and the cloakrooms. A new route, guiding visitors through the exhibition was devised, beginning in the lower rooms consecrated to Toulouse-Lautrec; it begins with a room dedicated to portraits of the painter by his friends as well as to his own early works including his first steps to becoming an artist. A second room is consecrated to portraits of Toulouse-Lautrec’s close friends and family. Finally, the space at the base of the keep presents the theme of brothels. These new spaces were previously inaccessible to the public.
  • From 2006 to 2008 (phase 2), the infrastructure of the museum was improved: an auditorium with a capacity of 180 under the cour d’honneur; technical installations; two floors for temporary exhibitions under the terrasse de Bernis; teaching workshops on the garden floor of the Suffragan’s wing.

Because of the exceptional character of the Berbie palace’s architecture, an official historic monument, this ambitious renovation depended on constant dialogue between the architect in charge of the museum development and France’s Chief Architect of Historic Monuments, guarantor of the building’s historical integrity.

For example, when, during works, the incomplete 13th century masonry of the vault was discovered in one of the rooms which was due to be plastered, the Chief Architect for Historic Monuments asked that it be conserved in its original state, presenting as it did an excellent demonstration of the 13th century building techniques.

The redeployment of the museum’s collection offers an exceptional presentation of the major works of Toulouse-Lautrec cat the heart of what could be considered a veritable brick presentation box: images of late 19th century Parisian celebrities (such as Yvette Guilbert and Jane Avril) evoked by the artist’s incisive and brilliant style, scenes from Montmartre’s café-concerts or from the theatres of Paris’ boulevards, together with the posters that made Toulouse-Lautrec famous. The restructuring of the museum conforms to a double logic: that of affirming its position among the great contemporary museums and of emphasising the exceptional architectural quality of the Berbie palace.

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