Club to Cloud

Independent stage designer and music journalist Axel Simon explores La Station - Gare des Mines, a cultural space carved into a former train station on the outskirts of Paris. Over the years the venue gathered an ardent community while building itself a solid reputation in the French underground circuit. Through this interview, Olivier Le Gal and David Georges-François from La Station, and Roman Szymczak from Atelier Craft, the design studio behind the venue’s stagecraft, open the doors to a constantly evolving space merging activism and interdisciplinarity.

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Author: Axel Simon

Photo credit: Axel Simon

Who is behind La Station – Gare des Mines, and what is the history of the club?

Olivier Le Gal & David Georges-François (La Station), Roman Szymczak (Atelier CRAFT): Collectif MU is behind La Station. We founded the collective in 2002, long before the club opened in 2016, with the aim of imagining creative ways of presenting art. We made a name for ourselves thanks to “sound trails” in the public space, then by organising the “Filmer la musique” festival at la Gaîté Lyrique. In 2012, we opened the Garage MU, a concert hall with a capacity of 130 people, located in the 18th arrondissement of Paris.

All of these initiatives for creation, diffusion and production came together in La Station – Gare des Mines, when we responded to a call for projects launched by the French railway company (SNCF) to use the premises of La Station Sud.

We could take over the premises for six months and use them only for outdoor concerts at first. That’s when Atelier CRAFT offered to design and build La Station’s stage, in exchange for a workshop space in the venue. As the first season went well, we were extended for a second year during which we fitted out the interiors of La Station Sud. It allowed us to organise club nights. We were then extended every six months. 

In 2020 we opened the outdoor space of La Station Nord, and its indoor space in March 2022. Today, we are in a more and more durable situation and we are in dialogue with the Paris City Council to ensure that we have a long-term perspective, after the 2024 Olympic Games and beyond.

Where is the club located? What is the history of the buildings in which it is located?

La Station – Gare des Mines is located in the north of Paris, along the périphérique, a motorway that runs around the city. In a district that is gradually being transformed from an industrial area into a residential area. Today the space is open around La Station, but from the end of this decade, buildings will surround the club.

La Station – Gare des Mines is a former railway station that was used to bring coal to Paris, and whose activity continued until the 70s. This station covered an area on which there were rails, which can still be seen in places. The southern part then became an African nightclub, the Balafon, and the northern part was home to a building materials company, Raboni.

Where does the name “La Station – Gare des Mines” come from?

“La Station” is a direct reference to the original train station. A station within a network, like a subway station can be. The fact that it’s on the edge of the périphérique also brings this idea of a service station. It’s also a name that refers to radio stations. Hence the name of our radio, which is called “Station Station – la radio de La Station”.

There was already a place called La Station in Nice, which is a space for contemporary art. To avoid taking the same name, we added the subtitle “Gare des Mines”. Moreover, we thought that if one day we had to move, “La Station – Gare des Mines” could become “La Station – something-else” elsewhere in Paris.

© Adèle Meunier / “Doré, 2019, Dominique Gilliot – Artwork hung for he opening of the north building”

How would you describe La Station’s scene, musically and aesthetically?

At the beginning, we wanted La Station to become a space for the alternative, underground, confidential scene which could be found at Zorba, Café de Paris, Espace B… all these places which are important and allow a lot of bands to make their first steps. Our programmer, Eric Daviron, who had already programmed for the Garage MU and Filmer la musique, had organized a large number of concerts. Valentin Toqué and Mathilde Quéguiner joined Eric very quickly and were really proactive in terms of programming, especially in the field of new electronic scenes for Mathilde, who is also a DJ under the name of Keki

Today, it is a space for creation and experimentation, open to emerging scenes and attracting established acts. It is no longer just a venue for artists who have proven themselves, it is now seen as an important venue from an artistic point of view. The new spaces of La Station Nord and new desires within the team lead to more crossovers between other arts and music. A club night can follow a performance, with a scenography that lends itself to exhibitions, screenings, light installations, etc.

It is also a place that is well identified by the queer and LGBTQIA+ communities. We had a few collectives which have organised events that have brought in this audience. Polychrome was a precursor, then Berlinons-Paris and La Culottée. Spectrum came later, it was the first club night in the interiors of La Station. Dora Diamant organised several parties as well, inviting Mykki Blanco among others.

Is there a mix that represents your club well?

The mix that represents well La Station-Gare des Mines since it’s a condensed version of the electronic music we chose to defend. Namely, some kind of hybridisation between UK breaks, abrasive ambient, noise, grime, IDM… Several artists present in this mix have played or will soon play here (Know V.A., Aho Ssan, Aamourocean…)

Does La Station – Gare des Mines have a political, social or militant dimension?

It is a place that is as inclusive as possible, that has a real concern for opening up to the widest possible audience. Starting with the most precarious. We have created a space called “L’aire de repos” (the rest area), which is a day centre for minor refugees. It’s also a place that tries to dialogue with the surrounding neighbourhood, in order to be part of future developments.

As we said, it is a place that is well identified by the queer and LGBTQIA+ communities, especially the more militant ones. Within the team were also quite a few people close to these circles. We ran a militant feminist festival, “Comme nous brûlons”. It was a project driven by the Station team and outside people.

The militant dimension of La Station is also brought by Line Gigot through her Visual Arts programme. We also welcome Queer Education, which is an association that reflects on gender issues within the framework of the French National Education system. It’s a bit like having a militant collective in residency.

What makes up the scenography of La Station?

The first step was the creation of an outdoor stage. Atelier CRAFT designed it in a search for symbiosis with the surrounding environment, and particularly the building of La Station Sud. They built a stage made of metal tubes painted black, echoing the old coal station and of a somewhat rough side of the existing building. A “minimalistic” stage as a sort of natural extension of the existing building, with a slight Japanese touch. It does not have the proportions of a normal stage at all, and it’s open on all sides in order to let the sunlight in, but also to make the concerts visible from everywhere.

© Axel Simon

Year after year, the exterior of La Station Sud has been improved. We added a fence made of burnt wood using the Shou-Sugi-Ban technique, awnings made of a light wooden structure to protect the bar, a sound desk and seating areas. Inside La Station Sud, Atelier CRAFT installed metal tubes vertically between the floor and the ceiling, giving the impression that they were props without which the ceiling would not hold.

As for the exteriors of La Station Nord, we needed to make the junction between the interior level of the existing building and the exterior floor. This junction was thought out in a straightforward manner rather than putting a tiny staircase in a corner. This led to the creation of a large L-shaped wooden agora. A structure was then created to house a dining area, open to catch the light to the south and the sunset to the west.

The new interior space of La Station Nord was designed to be a 100% multi-purpose space. It wasn’t originally conceived as a concert and club space, but when we realised that it would be interesting to do so, we focused on an important acoustic treatment, which we left visible. The new sound system installed, with speakers throughout the space, allows a real immersion in the sound.

How did the scenography contribute to the identity of La Station as it is today?

As we are both an indoor and an outdoor club, the scenography of the venue is not only what we built. We’re on the edge of the highway, and as soon as you step onto the steps of La Station Sud you see the flow of cars, there’s something quite extraordinary about it. It’s something that makes you feel like you’re here and not elsewhere. What’s more, we are oriented due west, and for the moment there are no buildings to hide the sun, which shines right down to the last rays and penetrates the buildings. Our number one projector is the sun! This makes for late afternoons and early evenings that are part of the La Station experience.

The highway, an industrial aesthetic, the brick itself, and the site’s relationship with light speak a lot to La Station’s audiences. Many people mention Berlin when they come. We even have the Berlin Wall! It’s the big wall that runs alongside La Station Nord, which was used to support piles of coal. It marks the physical limit between Paris and the suburbs. For us it is an exhibition space. It is a piece of scenography that was already there.

The stage of La Station Sud, open on all sides, contributed to the identity of the outdoor live shows. Its aesthetic made of black painted metal tubes is inspired by the history of the place, but also by the musical programming, and has become a support element for the programme as such.

The metal tubes installed inside La Station Sud helped to give a sense of movement, with the desire not to pretend that it is an ephemeral, trashy place.

On the north side, the exteriors were initially designed without thinking about the imagery that underlies La Station – Gare des Mines, but adding containers in line with the wooden platform made us realise that it creates a kind of station platform. And that the containers are wagons that park on the side. It was as if the scenography was self-created and echoed the heritage of the place. Moreover, we created a real parallel between the language of the wooden structure and that of the building’s large doors.

How did the scenography contribute to the visitors experience?

The interior of La Station Sud has two club spaces. One on the ground floor, with a capacity of 300 people, the other in the basement, for just under 100 people. When we do club nights, we use both spaces, and the public has to go from one space to the other from outside. The outdoor stage is a lively place full of movement. It serves as a stage, but sometimes people just sit on it when we are doing indoor club nights. So much so that there are people who spend their evenings at La Station without really going inside. For them, La Station Sud is a place that could almost be perceived as a city plaza.

© Adèle Meunier

When we designed the outdoor space of La Station Nord, we had an immediate desire to reorganise a square, by creating an L shape with the new platform and the steps that catch up with the level of the platform and the ground. These steps became a kind of terrace from which people could watch a performance below. Or, on the contrary, sometimes the bands play from the top of the steps with people at the bottom. We have this same informal mood with the Sud stage where the uses are not 100% defined. This configuration with the steps forming a kind of agora works very well.

There is a certain freedom in the experience that people have when they come to La Station. The uses are not predefined, the spaces allow for a great deal of freedom of movement, and there is a sort of trashy aesthetic. People have fewer limits of expression, they are tagging the walls, which is also part of La Station’s identity. The new space is fairly clean, but it’s only a matter of days before the walls are covered in tags again. And then

One of the obvious marks of appropriation is a small space inside La Station Sud called La Bergerie. It’s a sitting area surrounded with props. We soon realised that it had become pole dancing bars! And that the tables we had made out of cinder blocks strapped down became podiums! This space has become the hottest of La Station.

Beyond these spatial configurations, Atelier CRAFT sought to recreate part of what brings specificity and comfort to the club experience, namely to create several small spaces within the large space. These characteristics are often found in clubs in Berlin.

Did the architecture and scenography contribute to the durability of the club?

We showed the city council and planners that the project was solid. It’s not just architecture and the scenography of the place, it’s also the programming and the attendance to our events that count. But it’s certainly one of the reasons for the success. I think it’s important. It may not be as trashy or as much in the spirit of the early days, but it tells people that La Station can last.

Even the first scenographic gestures, thought to be relatively ephemeral, created a landscape that made La Station quickly stand out from other clubs and DIY/temporary spots. This has gone a long way to underlining that La Station is not just a brewery to sell beer in the summer.

© Adèle Meunier

How does the scenography of La Station take into account current sustainability issues?

The first scenography projects were built without any money. La Station has a strong DIY aesthetic, using a lot of recycled materials. We were meant to be there only for six months, and then for renewable six-month periods, so we were always building in a hurry and with the idea that it would last only six months. All the first elements created for La Station Sud can be dismantled. As the installation became increasingly long-lasting, we gradually switched from metal to wood for a little warmth in the materials used.

For La Station Nord, we had more time to design as we knew that the project had to last at least 4 or 5 years. That’s why we went for much larger sections, as for a permanent construction. On the other hand, we wanted to keep as much reversibility as possible. The pavilion can be assembled and disassembled and the structural elements are only bolted together with as few transformations as possible to guarantee a potential reuse.

On Atelier CRAFT’s website, it says that this outdoor structure was designed as “a mobile station that moves when it is needed”. The idea was not that it would move around in the same form, but that all the elements that were used in the design could be reused very easily. We only used standard lengths of wood. On the floor we even managed to make a layout where we had no off-cut. The off-cut from the last board was used to start the other side.

Moreover, for the outside platform, there are no foundations. The whole structure and floor are laid on heavy-duty plates.

Does the scenography lead to safer, more inclusive spaces?

La Station is well identified as a safe and inclusive space. These are discussions that we had with all the teams. As for the ways in which the architecture contributes to this, there may be a way of thinking about it, but we don’t yet know how.

At the moment, we are mainly focusing on awareness and training. Design is not just about space. It is also the design of governance, the design of organisations. The question of protocols, procedures, awareness-raising and training is also part of it. How do you report an assault, for example? What are the tools to do so?

And how do you welcome people? How do you look out for them and watch out for any incident or discomfort? That was something that was very quickly noticed by the public here. We’re in a place where there’s a desire to welcome people, to make them feel good. But we are also careful not to police people – that can have its negative effects. But La Station remains a place where people are generally left in peace.

As we want to be as inclusive as possible, we have made all existing spaces wheelchair friendly and the toilets are gender neutral. We are currently thinking about how to rename the different spaces and deploy signage that supports this.

How do you see the future of La Station?

We have told the city of Paris that we want to stay beyond the transitional period and the 2024 Olympic Games. We think that the place is important for Paris and that there are still things to develop here. Even though we know that there is a very dense urban project, which will be developed over the period 2025-2032.

We are now discussing how to re-configure the space that’s been developed horizontally into something more compact, distributed between the historic buildings that we occupy and the base of the buildings that will face us. And perhaps to rebalance what we’re going to lose on the West side towards the East side. We’re having a fairly open discussion about the form that this new Station could take. Maybe creating a new concert space and finding a more architectural way of linking the two buildings.

In terms of programming, it will generally be more varied formats than concert or club, and more hybrid. We also want to better welcome the refugees, do gardening and urban agriculture, and keep the restaurant going.

© Axel Simon

How do you see the future of clubs?

In recent years, club offers have been popping up on the outskirts of Paris, in areas that are much less central than before. Less qualified spaces, making people more mobile. If there is a desirable future for clubs, this is it. There seems to be a desire among the new generations to articulate clubs with other forms, to hybridize clubs with other things, in a more interdisciplinary and activist way.

It is undoubtedly the overly static aspect of historic clubs that is failing them today. This capacity for adaptability and transformation must be encouraged by the architecture. The role of the club designer is to find the right balance: on the one hand, the design of a strong identity based on uses and a context, and on the other hand, spaces that keep a degree of freedom, whose functions are not all defined and set in stone. A place needs to be experienced and needs to be able to evolve over time, to reinvent itself.

Clubs only become interesting when they create a community. And clubs must remain a space for aesthetic adventures. People come to clubs to listen to good music and discover artists. It should be a pleasure not only in terms of sound, but also in terms of the visual aspect, which has to do with the design and the environment.

There is something noble about the club.

About the author

French independent stage designer based in Paris, Axel Simon worked on a club projet at Bureau Betak. He writes for the webzine Listen Up, and previously worked for whypeopledance and United We Stream Asia.

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