I had an upstairs seat on the Lille-Lens train this morning – almost as satisfying as sitting at the front upstairs on a bus. It didn’t make the scenery any more inspiring, though. It’s not just the flatness: there’s something lowering about the thought of First World War slaughter combined with my Germinal-and-pneumoconiosis-inflected view of coal-mining. (In 1906 1,099 miners were killed in an explosion just outside Lens. I realised afterwards that I had passed through that railway station.)
Lens was occupied and shelled for the full four years of the war. Its inhabitants fled then returned after the war – because coal needed to be mined once again – to a town that was more than 90% destroyed. It was a fate suffered by many northern French and Flemish towns. Some, like Ypres, chose to recreate the pre-war town; others, like Lens, were receptive to newer styles. Nothing was prescribed or proscribed in Lens.
The 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris was significant in spreading Art Deco ideas . . . but by the time they got to Lens they must have collided with existing tastes, so here it makes for a very eclectic bunch of buildings. You arrive at the railway station and are charmed by the barrel vault and locomotive outline of the building, mistakenly thinking you’ve hit a rich pure Art Deco seam:
The mosaics inside announce that you have entered a mining town x 4:
Two of the grandest buildings in town are the former offices of the Société des Mines de Lens and the trade union headquarters:
As for the rest of Lens, there are plenty of decorative ceramics, mosaics/tesserae and fruit/floral/foliage plasterwork on façades. The reconstruction of the town must have kept local builders and artisans very busy.
The last coal mine closed in 1990. I can’t think of what that does to a single-industry town. Like many eastern German towns that I have passed through, Lens (and Roubaix too) teamed up with another struggling municipality to form a larger agglomeration, and is reinventing itself – or being reinvented by central government – as a cultural tourist destination.
So, with my (ahem) cultural tourist hat on, behold me in Lens.