Hannah Arendt Campus

Avignon and the University : 700 years of history

To compete with the creation of the Sorbonne, judged too close to the French royal power, Pope Boniface VIII founded the University of Avignon on July 2nd 1303. It developed with the presence of the popes in Avignon, competing with the universities of Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence, to the point of welcoming 17 000 students. Then, after the return of the popes to Rome, the University, which focused on law, lost its prestige to the Jesuits and the seminaries.

During the French Revolution, the city was annexed to France and the university was abolished, like all French universities, by the decree of September 15, 1793.

Avignon became a university again in 1963, with the opening of a Centre for Higher Scientific Education, followed the next year by a Centre for Higher Literary Education. The two entities depend respectively on the Faculty of Sciences and the Faculty of Letters of Aix-Marseille.

In 1972, the two teaching and research units were merged into a university centre, which became a full university (independent of the University of Aix-Marseille) on 17 July 1984 under the name of University of Avignon and the Pays de Vaucluse. At that time, three UFR (Humanities and Social Sciences, Exact and Natural Sciences, Applied Sciences and Languages) shared 2,000 students. The fourth pole, the legal one, was created from the creation of a law faculty in place of an annex of the University of Aix Marseille III. This was followed by a University Institute of Technology in 1990 and a Professionalized University Institute in 1992.

In order to avoid too much dispersion of students (there were 10 sites in 1991) and to revitalize the city center, it was decided to move the different courses to a single site, which would be able to accommodate collective facilities (notably the university library and restaurant). The development of the former Sainte Marthe hospital was launched, and was completed in September 1997.
History and architecture of the former Sainte Marthe Hospital
Founded in 1354 with the donation of ten thousand gold florins by the knight Bernard Rascas, marshal of justice, and placed under the patronage of Sainte Marthe, the hospital was municipalized in 1482 by the cardinal-legate Julien de la Rovère. A series of construction sites spread out between 1667 and 1830 allowed the elaboration of a sumptuous façade of one hundred and seventy-five meters long. Jean Péru, who worked on it between 1689 and 1693, imposed the design: narrow and tight bays, with two levels of windows, topped by a picturesque dormer window. On this model, J.-B. Franque built the eastern wing between 1743 and 1745, then, with the help of his son François, he built the portico with the powerful columns of the central pavilion.
The façade
Jean Péru (1656-1723) was already well known when he was chosen for a new construction campaign. Of the façade of Sainte Marthe, he completed only part of the west wing (1689-1693), Jean-Baptiste Franque continued the work (1743-1745), using the same design for the right-hand side, and the work of 1830 extended the west wing begun by Péru. The whole is remarkably homogeneous despite the different hands that participated in its realization.

The façade stretches over 175 metres in length. Its elevation has two visible levels, a very high ground floor and above it a single floor, barely less high, all highlighted by blind dormers. The ornamentation on the first floor is marked by windows topped alternately by curvilinear and triangular pediments. The dormer windows, highlighted by a very dynamic circular arc at the ends, crown the whole. Their number is equivalent to that of the windows. The astonishing length of the façade, the curvilinear rhythm opposed to the triangular rhythm of the pediments, enriched by the rounded note of the dormers, creates a skilful play of curves, a dynamic, a movement that responds to the taste for Italianate eloquence. This play of opposition between rigour and movement has a high point, the portico that dresses the front part of the pavilion of the Borde staircase.

Jean-Baptiste Franque, with his son François, drew up the plans and specifications (1746). The portico stands out on a central body in advance, the columns with two superimposed orders protrude for a moment on the astonishing horizontality. A large triangular pediment brings the final touch to this immense façade, the largest in Avignon at that time.

The great hall of the north building
Jean-André Borde and François d'Elbène took up the design of Paul de Royers de la Valfenière, who died in 1667, to create the central pavilion housing the grand staircase. After a vast vestibule with arcades, the colossal staircase on a square plan is articulated in perfect rhythms. If an impression of balance and sobriety is imposed by the size of the proportions, a baroque tendency towards elegance characterizes the whole.

On either side of the hall, in the alcoves, stand the statues of Bernard de Rascas, founder of the hospital of Saint Martha (on the left) and Bénézet. According to the stories, in 1177, Benezet, a young shepherd from the Ardèche, heard the voice of Christ ordering him to go and build a bridge over the Rhône. Guided by an angel, he arrived on the right bank of the Rhone and was taken across by a boatman to whom he gave the last three coins he had. Benezet then announced his mission to the bishop of Avignon, who took him for a simpleton and sent him to the judge.

The judge, in order to test him, pointed to a huge stone and said that if he was able to carry it, he thought he could build the bridge. Benezet lifted the stone and placed it in the river at the start of the future bridge. Immediately, alms poured in and the decision was made to build the bridge. Although there was never an official canonization, Benezet was qualified as a saint from the beginning of the 13th century and his cult spread, his iconography representing him most often with the stone on his shoulder.

The southern building: a response to the architecture of the former Saint Martha's Hospital
The metamorphosis of the Sainte Marthe hospital into a university was carried out by the Sauget-Girard group.

The 16,000 square meters of rehabilitation were not enough to accommodate 7,000 students, so a new construction of 14,000 square meters was budgeted. Jean-Pierre Buffi and G. Varnitzky were the architects. The desire of these architects was to provide a contemporary response to the building and its late 17th century façade. The new building will not be conceived as an "annex to the existing historic building, but will have to participate in the setting up of a complex and balanced device whose two parts create an architectural confrontation of a very high level".

The same long facade is also inscribed in two phases, verticality-horizontality. The liveliness of this façade is underlined by the ground floor base in light-coloured stone with openings in the manner of Saint Martha, giving light to the lecture halls and the cafeteria. On the two upper floors, glass is omnipresent. It introduces a play of mirrors reflecting the nuances of the Provencal light and the hundred-year-old plane trees. This glass wall allows light to flood into this immense vessel, the library. As in the Hôtel-Dieu, the hall is the heart of the building. It articulates the spaces and its predominantly curved shape, in opposition to the vertical and horizontal lines of the building, corresponds to its vocation as a place of passage and meeting. The two flights of stairs on four levels intersect each other in a fine harmony of counter-curves. In these volumes and lines, should we not see the evocation of a baroque reminiscence?

In response to the interior courtyards that punctuate the old building, the new one is punctuated by terraces that were intended to be "lounges" for reading outside to the north and south. Between the two buildings, the architects have preserved a "garden square" where mineral and vegetation welcome those who animate this university. This architectural site, with its rich past and promising future, is a clear response to the interplay of styles and periods.

Date of update June 17, 2021