The factory became a theater
The Bâtiment des Forces Motrices is an example of the successful restoration and transformation of an industrial site. Two official inaugurations have thus taken place during its existence, one in May 1886 as a factory and the other in September 1997 when it became an opera house.
This majestic edifice was built between 1883 and 1892 by Théodore Turrettini, engineer and politician, in the middle of the Rhône river-bed.
In September 1882, the Grand Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva granted the City of Geneva a concession for harnessing the hydraulic power of the River Rhône. The way was then open to Théodore Turretini for developing his plan to build a factory to deliver water under pressure from the Rhône for use in the fountains, houses and factories of the city.
Work began in November 1883, taking advantage of the season when the water level was low. The branch of the River Rhône was dried out in two stages in order to construct the building, the hydraulic system for distributing water to the city and the curtain weir of the Pont de la Machine.
The first five turbine plants were operational for the inauguration in May 1886. Two supplied water to the city, and the three remaining to places outside (up to 10km away).
By 1892 the principle wing of the edifice was completed. 18 pumping and turbine plants were in operation.
The edifice with its classical facades appears to be floating on the river. It is L-shaped, with the longer wing aligned in the direction of the river. Huge arch windows made of concrete and stone shape the facades. Similar arches form the base of the building, like the tops of columns holding up a bridge.
Inside the two wings the space and volume is immense, uninterrupted by any walls. A metal framework supports the roof.
Only the front of the edifice, oriented towards the city and lake, is decorated with statues of Neptune, Ceres and Mercury along the edge of the rooftop.
To avoid any dangerous excess pressure, a floodgate was installed in the River Rhône near the main wing. It evacuated the water and at the same time created Geneva’s first jet d’eau.
The building was decommissioned during the 1960’s when the industry moved to the outskirts of the town.
A new vocation
Classified as a historic building in 1988, a number of mainly cultural options for its future were considered.
In 1994, the management of the Grand Théâtre, Place Neuve, needed to modernise their technical installations and were looking for another theatre location for their 1997-1998 season.
After several contacts with the department responsible for the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and thanks to the generosity of a Geneva philanthropist, the decision was taken to build a new theatre in the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices with 1'000 seats to meet the needs of the Grand Théâtre. For the first year this facility would be used for all the Grand Théâtre productions, and thereafter for events or for performing plays, concerts, etc.
The underlying idea, carried out by the architect Bernard Picenni, was simple. A reception area was to be created in the smaller wing of the building, while a theatre would be installed in the main wing.
From a technical perspective, the constraints were numerous: limited width and height, the darkness of the place, no open space available laterally …
The auditorium – named Salle Théodore Turrettini – is entirely in wood (for acoustic reasons, and to ensure a light structure). There are 801 seats in the stalls and 144 in the dress circle. To compensate for the lack of space laterally, the stage is extremely deep. The floor of the orchestra pit can be raised or lowered depending on the requirements of the performance.
The building is divided into two well-defined parts: the public area (cloakrooms, bars, ticket sales desk, theatre, foyer…) and the private area (offices, wings, cloakrooms, machine rooms …).
The public area, a so-called multi-purpose section facing the Place des Volontaires, may now be used for events and receptions. It was decided to maintain its original volume and to leave it empty to allow for decorations to be set up, exhibitions to be organised and visitors received as needed. Only two pumps remain in the small wing, bearing witness to the edifice’s industrial past.
The place has thus assumed a new identity and a new name: BFM. It is under the emblem of these three letters that the Bâtiment des Forces Motricesis now open to the public for festive, promotional or cultural events.