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The Secret History of Buildings: The Bourse du Travail, Lyon

The late 19th-century saw the creation of a series of bourses du travail across France.
One of their principal functions was as a labour exchange. For working people they also provided education, training, services such as libraries, and a place to meet; and for unions they provided an opportunity to pool resources and coordinate activities.
The French Third Republic provided financial support, in turn enabling the authorities to keep an eye on subversive worker activity.
The idea that the workers’ movement could be kept in check by institutionalisation was tested severely in Lyon, where the Bourse du Travail had a turbulent start.
It opened on February 8, 1891, in the city’s sixth arrondissement. Within 10 days, tensions with the town hall had risen to such an extent that its Secretary General, Benjamin Péronin, refused to make any of the required declarations to the Prefecture, an affront to an administration that was, even more than now, run on paper.
By May 1, the Bourse was officially applying “revolutionary doctrines”, leading to its occupation by the military and the arrest of Péronin. In particular, the municipality objected to the site being used for political campaigning, and, in 1892, it cut off all funding, causing the Bourse to close.
The loss of the Bourse du Travail was enough of a blow for the workers of Lyon that, in September that year, they negotiated a compromise: the Bourse would reopen on condition that none of its public meetings were of a “political nature”.
Relations with the town hall were never again as explosive as they had been at first, though the Bourse continued to be a magnet for revolutionary worker activity into the first decade of the 20th century.
Under Édouard Herriot, who as well as being French Prime Minister three times, was Mayor of Lyon for more than 50 years, labour relations in the city improved considerably.
Herriot considered workers deserved a building more practical and appropriate than an old theatre and, in the 1930s, oversaw the building of a new Bourse du Travail in the third arrondissement.
The new Bourse du Travail was designed by Charles Meysson in the art-deco style and was completed in 1935.
It sits at an angle to Place Guichard, creating the illusion, reinforced by a series of small hexagonal windows, of a hexagonal structure, although in fact it is conventionally rectangular in shape. It is built from concrete and its function is announced above the principal entrance in the crude block lettering characteristic of the art-deco aesthetic.
One of the Bourse du Travail’s most impressive features is a vast mosaic, which, despite being 26 metres in length, is almost tucked away on one side of the building.
The mosaic, designed by Lyon-born painter Fernand Fargeot, is comprised of 11,000 coloured fragments applied directly to the wall by 36 artists. Its theme is “the city enhanced by work”: it depicts a crowd representative of all the traditional trades, as well as the service and middle-class professions. In amongst these trades the architect can be found, as can Herriot himself.
It is ironic that, at the time when Lyon’s workers were given the honour of having prestigious new premises built for them at the heart of the city, the role that labour exchanges played in training workers and finding jobs was being taken over by the State, thus rendering such institutions defunct.
Lyon’s Bourse du Travail is still emblematic of the worker’s movement — a 2015 visit there made by Emmanuel Macron to promote his economic reforms was widely viewed as a “provocation”, for example — but it is now far better known as a concert hall and theatre.

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