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Art Reveals the River & Metropolis: Lessons From Nan...

Art Reveals the River & Metropolis: Lessons From Nantes, France's Loire Estuary

The Loire Estuary, in France, was formerly an ill-known and difficult to access territory. Through a multitude of punctual interventions, today, it has become the spine of the Nantes-Saint Nazaire metropolis, and it catalyzes the identity and the cultural richness of the entire territory. River, metropolis, identity, culture – words that do not exist without

Le Grand Éléphant, Elephant art installation, Nantes, France

The Loire Estuary, in France, was formerly an ill-known and difficult to access territory. Through a multitude of punctual interventions, today, it has become the spine of the Nantes-Saint Nazaire metropolis, and it catalyzes the identity and the cultural richness of the entire territory. River, metropolis, identity, culture - words that do not exist without bringing to mind the aspirations that we have for our Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. The inhabitants of the region of Nantes were not aware of the wealth of the landscape and the Loire Estuary before 2007, the beginning of the first of the three phases of the Projet Estuaire. The river was quite visible on the maps, but it did not really exist in the imagination and daily life of the population. After three rounds and with relics of this project strewn across the whole territory, the estuary became a place of culture and pride for the entire Nantes-Saint Nazaire metropolis.

The process that led to the reappropriation of the river is a great lesson on how to develop cities and territories in the 21st century, as much for planning professionals as for decision-makers and cultural institutions.

We were able to meet with David Moinard, in charge of the artistic programming for Projet Estuaire, who was passing through Montreal Sept. 19, 2014 for a conference on public art: new territories, new stakes.

The River as Identity Support

David Moinard shyly confirmed that in his eyes, the estuary of the Loire was nothing exceptional compared to the greatness of the Saint Lawrence. However, he was forced to admit that our emblematic river is more visible on the maps than in the city: "I saw it flying over as I was arriving on my plane, but it's true that in the city you do not feel it."

Ile de Nantes, France, Nantes Estuary art installation

This difficult relationship with the river was a common point between the Loire in Nantes, France and the Saint Lawrence in Quebec, Canada. Before the project was implemented, the Loire Estuary was an ill-known and difficult to access place. "There was no planning at all, and it was rarely accessible. It was a funny feeling being near a river that one could not see," he recalls.

This river became a first-tier concern during the creation of the Nantes-Saint Nazaire metropolis, two cities along the Loire separated by 60 km: "The metropolis existed then politically, but not symbolically. The idea of the estuary came out of a political will of cultural democratization, and rested on this project of the Nantes-Saint Nazaire metropolis; it became a must that we do something for this metropolis," explained Moinard. Developed in three stages, in 2007, 2009 and 2012, the project gave way to the creation of a permanent collection of 29 works dispersed throughout the territory, and the crux of the project resides on this immaterial link that unites the whole and positions the Loire as the heart of the cultural identity of the metropolis.

"The territory was fascinating and unknown, two extraordinary advantages for creating a display. We started with an event in order to get to a permanent collection, with a structuring dimension."

Nantes Projet Estuaire, France

The Journey Along the Estuary: An Innovative Approach

The Projet Estuaire knew how to demonstrate in what way contemporary art could have a structuring role for territories. Rather than developing a linear project, there was no total planning here, but the creation of a multitude of places and interest points, whose only link was the river. Consequently, the restructuring started to develop into certain points. As trajectories of desire, these restructurings were deployed in a vernacular way, following a local logic rather than a uniform plan.

"Our project was not based on an already determined planning project, already designed. This engendered restructurings that also escaped us, and that is quite wonderful. It allowed its places to be structured according to the public that was coming to visit."

"In this sense, we took the approach of Chemetov on the Ile de Nantes, contrary to poor participatory procedures of many urban projects, where we have the tendency to create a tabula rassa and impose a vision, we wanted to conserve all the layers, to not put all the efforts into one point but rather a little bit into different places, the interstices fabricating themselves little by little. And this is a very innovative approach."

"The architectural mode is urbanistic and almost the same in the entire western world, so if the city of Lyon does this, then the city of Montreal will do something similar ... so, resting on what is already there in these places makes the project unique, and makes it more justified to the way the inhabitants live."

Here, the work is not put under glass, but takes place in the spaces of daily life. It's an "anti-sculpture park: In a sculpture park, one is in an enclosure; people know that they are going to see art, that they have an accompaniment. Here there are no walls between the territory and the work. You can totally stumble on things."

Nantes, France Projet Estuaire, contemporary art installation

The Art, the Project's Funding and the Support of the Imaginary

After years of following a reductive approach to public art, very often considered as the cherry on top, the structuring potential of the works was forgotten. However, as this project demonstrates, art has the power to create new landmarks, and new points of interest that urban planning alone cannot create.

"The practice of 1 percent evolved in the good sense, but there was a whole period when we took this lightly, something that took away from the credibility of art in the public space. It's good to integrate the artist in the construction of a public building, but there is also a concern, that is to say, that it's always like the cherry on top, it's not the cake itself. It's always a bit problematic that something should be added, it's like a guarantee. The notion of artistic guarantee is obviously dangerous."

Here, the art is the base of the project, and the territory was the only theme. We ended up with a collection of works which intimately interact with the river and the imaginary that comes with it. The imaginary of the territory is heightened by an evocative force that is almost cinematographic, telling of a post-industrial territory.

"All of these works have something in common. They exist in order to alter the view of their immediate environment. Indeed, in the city, the force of habit makes us look at things more, but these works really have a revelatory capacity, as much in the city as in the landscape."

Mètre à ruban, Le Voyage à Nantes, France, Estuary are installation

Works Appropriated by Local Communities

Elements that have now become part of the estuary landscape, these works have become unavoidable. "What is interesting is that the narration is also created by layers; the works that are installed today create other stories, which are local stories, speaking of a very precise site, but also participate in the more general story of the estuary. It's this that makes the collection endure: there are layers of stories that add themselves on without stop, and which escape us completely. And that is intense when something escapes you and it does not belong to you anymore, that is totally erased behind what it generates. This is part of the identity of the communities."

"The boat of Erwin Wurm, that open boat, for a moment, there was a question about removing it because we did not have the authorization to leave it there permanently. But the population mobilized itself to preserve it because the canal was not at all known and became a place for taking walks. It makes one laugh, it makes one smile, it questions. Tons of feelings emerge, among them a certain melancholy."

Misconceivable by Erwin Wurm, Nantes, France

Culture as a Sustainable Investment

The Projet Estuaire was born in a political context, which bet abundantly on culture as an element for economic and territorial development, and these investments had impressive consequences. Every phase of the Estuaire was completed with a budget of 8 million euros (around 12 million dollars), and it is estimated that for each euro invested, around 3 to 6 eruos were returned to the collective.

The art was not seen as an expense, a tax, but like an investment. In this sense, the Projet Estuaire was, according to David Moinard, a veritable "accelerator for the metropolis, which consequently allowed for projects to happen more quickly and in a more thoughtful manner."

"Before 2007, it was always necessary to convince that this was not a caprice of the people of culture who want to put art in the pretty countryside. It was necessary to prove the sincerity of the project. In 2009, with the second phase, things changed. That time it was the communes, the companies that came to us to say "we want artwork," and this was quite extraordinary. But it's because this was designed together, for a territory and by a territory. Ninty-nine percent of the financing was local, by private companies across the territory. Also, we wanted to show proof that the project was constructed for the territory and by the territory."

Lesson and Perspectives

If other cities have looked to reproduce the success observed at Nantes, France with more or less success, the analysis of the Projet Estuaire brings new perspectives for the planning of our large territories, like the Isle of Montreal, or even its archipelago.

Point d origine, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Indeed, it is the proof that the development of such spaces does not happen forcibly through planning at a large scale, but could happen through a network of punctual interventions, creating as many points of attraction that offer a new view of the landscape. It is also proof that art can have a structuring power, but that it should be handled with caution and authenticity; it should be seen as a great project and not a simple agreement, if it wants to continue to move and inspire rather than become banal.

Public Art in Montreal

There is a favorable wind in the Montreal metropolis. Large urban projects are on the table, and the Office of Public Art now takes part in their planning systematically. Artists are engaged sooner, in the same capacity as the consultants collaborating closely with planning professionals. These comings and goings allow for a more integrated conception of art. For Laurent Vernet, Head of the Office of Public Art, we are no longer talking about independent gestures added one to the other:

"We not longer have 'plop art' . This is no longer the sculpture in front of the building, the painting in the entryway. We look at the building or the project for what it is, what we can add to it that will not be something plated."

Revolutions by Michel de Broin, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The Office of Public Art works to make art a total part of urban development, like an investment capable of reinforcing the identity of the project and the quality of the planning. Always putting interdisciplinarity first, the Office has been collaborating extensively on major projects that will soon come to light. Among them, notably, the environmental complex of Saint Michel, which will soon welcome a major collection of open-air art in what will be the second largest park in the city - and the Bonaventure Highway transformation project, dedicated to becoming an emblematic entrance into the metropolis.

How does public art enhance the user experience of public space? How has your city incorporated art into public spaces? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments are below. 

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.

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Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud,, and, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D...

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