Diderot University in Paris

Between 2006 and 2012 the University ‘Paris Diderot – Paris 7’ (named after the eighteenth century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot) gradually moved out of the dreadful Jessieu Campus and into this new ‘Paris Rive Gauche Campus’ on the left bank of the Seine. It is about three kilometers upstream from the old campus — ten or twelve minutes by bicycle.

In 2019 the Diderot University merged with the Descartes University (Paris V) to form the new Université de Paris. At the same time, the name of the campus was changed to Campus Grands Moulins.

The main building of this campus is a large white edifice labeled ‘Grands Moulins de Paris’ (first photo). It was originally built from 1917 to 1921 as an industrial flour mill by the architect Georges Wybo (1880-1943), who a few years earlier had built the big department store Au Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann in the center of Paris. So by coincidence I visited two of Wybo’s buildings in the same week — two very different buildings!

The Grands Moulins de Paris building was used for the large-scale production of white flour for seventy-five years, from 1921 to 1996. In its prime, this huge plant produced 790 tons of flour every day — twenty times the production of all other French mills combined, all twenty thousand of them.

To make all this flour, hundreds of tons of wheat were delivered by barge to the left bank of the Seine. Laborers carried the large bags of wheat on their shoulders up to the plant. The wheat was stored in large silos to await processing.

In the center of the plant there was a huge motor which was powered by a “thermal power plant” (steam?). The motor made a deafening noise and produced rotational power that was transmitted to all six floors of the factory by transmission belts. This rotational power moved hundreds of pulleys, elevators and counter-rotating cylinders that creaked and groaned throughout the building.

This gigantic mechanical monstrosity continued to churn out white flour until November 27, 1996, when production was finally moved to a more modern plant in the suburbs.

Then the building stood empty for a few years and started to deteriorate.

Campus Grands Moulins

Wallace Fountain on the campus — painted yellow, strangely enough, instead of the usual dark green

From 2004 to 2006 the old ‘Grands Moulins’ building was restored and redesigned by the architect Rudy Ricciotti, who transformed the old crumbling factory into a modern multi-purpose educational building for the administration, library and classrooms of Diderot University.

He preserved the outward appearance of the building (which he described as a ‘quasimodo in concrete’) but rearranged the interior to provide more natural light. He also added intermediate floors, removed interior structures such as old silos and installed new staircases and elevators.

Inner courtyard of the main building

Ricciotti, by the way, is the controversial and outspoken architect who recently completed the new National Museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille.

Quotation on a balcony

Attached to one of the balconies on campus was a red tarp printed with this sentence: Nos vertus ne sont pas plus désinteressees que nos vices, meaning “Our virtues are no more disinterested than our vices.” This is a quotation from Denis Diderot himself, from his first novel Les bijoux indiscrets (The indiscreet jewels), which he published anonymously (because of its erotic content) at age 35 in 1748.

Bookshop and first-generation Vélib’ station, 2013

Gibert Joseph is a large chain of bookshops that is active all over France, especially near universities. They have four or five stores in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne, and now they have opened this new one just above the Campus Grands Moulins. It’s a pleasant, modern store (I spent some time browsing) and it is air conditioned, which was welcome on such a hot day. 

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2020.

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2 thoughts on “Diderot University in Paris”

  1. I had never even heard of the name, “Diderot” and in one year, two of my students from France, actually had the name, Diderot!. It took me a while to learn to say it. Thanks Don!

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