In the afternoon sun the steel girders cast a web of shadow over the brickwork.
It’s an eye-catching building with a surprising place in the industrial history of the city.
From 1890 to its closure in 1994, this steam powered factory on Quai Panhard-et-Levassor supplied compressed air to a network that once rivaled electricity as a convenient source of motive power. Engineer and businessman Victor Popp introduced the concept of air powered machines to Paris in 1867, installing synchronised pneumatic clocks at all the city’s railway stations. By the time these clocks were taken out of service, in 1927, the uses of compressed air had developed to include lathes, sewing machines, elevators and beer pumps.
Demand increased and the Compagnie Parisienne de l’Air Comprimé (CPAC) continued to develop its network through the first half of the 20th century, supplying nearly 10,000 clients by 1960. A third factory was brought into production in 1961 but by 1970 demand was declining alongside declining local industry. As maintenance of the supply network became uneconomic the renamed Société Urbaine de Distribution d’Air Comprimé (SUDAC) redirected its business towards small scale, on-site production of compressed air, installing the first production unit for a client in 1973.
The Paris compressed air supply network finally closed in 1994. Subsidiary buildings around the factory were demolished but the main block was listed for its historic significance. It is now part of the new campus of the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Val-de-Seine, opened in 2007, with the school’s library installed in the restored machine hall which runs the length of the building.
Over the last twenty years the Quartier de la Gare has been completely redeveloped. The compressed air factory, reflected in the windows of some of its new neighbours, offers just a glimpse of the area’s industrial past. (Click on any of the photos for a closer view)
Most of the information in this post came from the website of SUDAC where there’s an illustrated history of the company. The conversion of the former factory and design of the adjacent university buildings was the work of architect Frédéric Borel whose website showcases the project here.