In 2019, Snøhetta submitted its design proposal for a new International Center of French Language which will be located in the castle of Villers-Cotterêts an hour and a half drive North-West of Paris.
The castle of Villers-Cotterêts was built in the mid-16th century on request by Francis I, the emblematic French king who initiated the Renaissance in France and who played an important role in the promotion of a standardized French language. The Villiers-Cotterêts castle is famous for being the place where Francis I signed the “Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts” [Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêt], which called for the use of French instead of Latin in all legal acts, notarized contracts and official legislation.
The castle is set to be restored to its 18th century state and the competition called for an interior renovation and scenographic additions to the castle. Once the castle reopens in 2022, it will become an important cultural hub promoting cultural creation through research and innovation, as well as exhibitions and performing arts.
Through its clear references to the history of the Villiers-Cotterêts castle and its innovative soaring roof and bold interior, Snøhetta’s design proposal offers a revitalization of this emblematic site, turning it into a cultural hub that celebrates both the past and future of the French language while also emphasizing its importance in shaping our modern world.
Snøhetta’s design proposal plays on a contrast between the ephemeral and immaterial aspects of the French language and the more durable and tangible physical expression of the castle itself. The synthesis of these elements translates into two major design features, one external and the other internal:
The exterior design comprises a hovering aerial roof soaring above the castle, supported by individual column structures separated from the castle itself. The rectangular frame-like shape of the roof allows for beautiful views overlooking the castle’s internal courtyard and the horizon beyond. The roof is well suited both for events featuring leading voices within French culture and language. Visitors can access the roof via a ramp situated at the castle’s ground level.
Contrasting the hovering roof’s aerial character, the interior spaces at ground level comprise heavy wooden furniture with dark reflective surfaces. The reflective surfaces contrast with the castle’s original floor tiling, creating a spatial crossing between the past and the present and evoking a sense of temporality when one moves through the building.
Snøhetta’s design proposal also includes public spaces such as a bookshop boutique and a café as well as spaces suited for workshops, education and meetings. The building will also house offices and an auditorium with a seating capacity of 260 people.
The scenography, which is developed by CASSON MANN, comprises a permanent exhibition on the castle’s second floor. The scenography immerges visitors into the history of French language by encouraging learning through ludic interaction. Indeed, each space is dedicated to action verbs such as “play”, “explore”, “read”, “listen” or “create”.