Architectural Icon: Cercle Cité
Named for Luxembourg's literary enthusiasts, the Cercle Cité has a 100-year history at the centre of the capital’s social life in the city centre's Place d’Armes.
You may not know it, but Cercle Cité comprises two buildings linked by a glass-panelled footbridge. They are the Cercle Municipal which was originally built in the early 19th century, and the 1950s Cité Cinema. They were together transformed into a social and cultural space, city library and conference centre between 2005 and 2011.
The building has long been a forum for literature, arts, music, and all things cultural, including the annual Photothèque summer exhibition at the Ratskeller. It's also hosted stately visits, royal banquets and, in 2019, the Russian and the Viennese Balls.
History of Cercle Municipal
In 1901 the College of Aldermen decided to commission a grand administrative building on the site of former a barracks and guardhouse. Originally the location had been home to Cercle Littéraire (Literary Circle), founded in 1825, and from which the current building takes its name.
The new municipal palace had a dual function. Rooms were needed for official receptions, balls, concerts and celebrations, and a music school. But the aldermen also needed a place for the architect’s administration, meeting rooms for committees, and space for a fire and a police station.
A competition for architects was launched in 1902. The winning design chosen in 1904 was by father and son duo Pierre and Paul Funck. The barracks on Place d’Armes and the original Cercle on rue Genistre were demolished to make way for a French-style, neo-baroque palace based on a design entitled Le Coq (the rooster).
The Cercle Municipal was inaugurated in 1910, although many administrative offices had already moved in. It contained a Grand Salle and a large drawing rooms for official receptions. It also housed a fire station located on rue de Curé and a police office on rue Genistre.
The design aimed to capture the pride Luxembourgers felt in their rapidly-expanding city. There is a turret that rises up from the first floor on the right-hand side, and a clock. The entrance has three arches, whilst the main ballroom above it has three big windows opening on to a terrace/balcony and a three-sided bay window as part of the turret.
Wooden floors were installed to absorb sound and all the building materials, from stone to marble, were sourced locally. The craftsman, from masons to painters, came mostly from Luxembourg. The 28 mirrors were provided by Jacques Bradké, and the mosaics by Michel Funck. Some elements were commissioned from outside Luxembourg, with Wilhelm Mans of Frankfurt supplying the 58 bronze and crystal chandeliers, and the parquet f looringwas provided by the company which fitted out the Grand Ducal Palace.
The building displays a giant frieze above the balcony and turret windows by Jean-Pierre Federspiel showing the charter of emancipation presented by Countess Ermesinde to the city in 1244. The frieze shows the countess with her two sons, Henri and Gerard, her two ladies in waiting, a page, and five horsemen. On the left you can see aldermen, religious figures, and artisans from Grund and Clausen. The departure of foreign troops from Luxembourg in 1867 can also be seen on the building’s façade.
Federspiel taught sculpture in what is today’s Lycée Technique des Arts et Metiers. He was also the creator of the Dick-Lentz monument, the 15 portraits at the central railway station, and busts on display at the town hall.
Inside the Cercle, the stained-glass windows and stucco show the symbol of the rose, with garlands of roses also crowning the columns, in recognition of the reputation of Luxembourg’s rose growers at that time.
As a national and international forum, over the years the palace for the people became a place for discussion and remembrance and a key forum for Luxembourgers. It hosted an international table tennis tournament in 1939, and was home to boxing matches and national lottery draws.
On 10 September 1944 at the end of Nazi occupation, Crown Prince Felix (later the Grand Duke) addressed the crowds from the Cercle balcony. From 1951 until 1969, the building hosted the Court of Justice and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the forerunner to the European Union.
More recently, it was the temporary home to the Chamber of Deputies from 2020 to 2021 during the Covid-19 because lawmakers were able to better spread out during meetings.
History of Le Cité
Originally built as a cinema in a project initiated by notary Charles Michel and the managers of the Marivaux & Victory Cinemas, Louis Freysing and Isidore Thill, the building was inaugurated in October 1958. The opening film was David Lean’s Bridge over the River Kwai starring Alec Guinness.
The air-conditioned cinema seated 800 people and had a screen 10m by 4.5m. It was conceived by architect Robert Lentz, who promoted the works of Luxembourgish artists commissioning a glass frieze by Frantz Kinnen and a wall painting by Lou Theisen.
By the 1980s, cinema audiences began to decline and the theatre was divided into two smaller ones. The basement was kitted out with three mini-theatres. Eventually it shut down in 1997.
Restoration and the creation of Cercle Cité
Over the years, the Cercle underwent different restoration work. In 1952 the Great Hall was fitted out to accommodate the ECSC, and other parts were renovated in 1970 and 1989.
However, it was assembled into the group of buildings we now know between 2005 and 2011, reopening in the latter year at the end of April after budgeted renovations of some €21 million.
Today, it has a floor area of 8,300sqm, including a fully equipped conference centre. The salons on the third floor of the original building, including the Grande Salle and Blue Salon, were meticulously restored. The fifth floor was transformed into a conference centre.
The Ratskeller, which housed a 3D model of the city, was redeveloped into a 490sqm exhibition space, which can be accessed directly from rue de Curé. In 2015, Cecil’s Box was created on the ground floor providing a window space, for temporary displays by local artists.
The new complex was designed by Atelier d’Architecture BENG (also the architects of Rockhal) to be innovative and user-friendly, deliberately contrasting the historic monumental architecture of the municipal palace with the contemporary light and transparent design of the old cinema, adding a glass panelled footbridge to connect the two. The latter reflects the outline of the Cercle.
Renovation had to meet current health and safety standards whilst preserving the historic architecture, particularly the entrance hall, stairwell, and salons. It took place in two stages.
From 2005 to 2009, the conference centre and suspended auditorium, together with the city’s library were put in place. The city library (and media library) on the ground floor and basements is lit naturally by south facing bay windows and a patio to the north side. The old cinema complex also incorporates a Japanese restaurant and an auditorium encased in a red box suspended from the roof and visible from the outside thanks to the transparent facade.
In the second stage from 2008 to 2011, the original palace was renovated with new curtains, chandeliers, and parquet flooring. Acoustic correction panels and technical systems integrated into the wood panelling were fitted into the roof spaces and wells. The stained-glass windows were restored and double glazed.
The architects note on their website that “the challenge was to rethink the functioning of the Cercle … accessibility for people with reduced mobility, optimisation of the kitchen with its outbuildings, access to the closed inner courtyard to gain surface area: everything had to be functional while preserving the historic character of the building.”
Security installations included access control, fire detection and sound systems, whilst technical modifications addressed ventilation, voltage current and multimedia.
When to visit
The Ratskeller is currently hosting an exhibition by local artist Gast Michels entitled Movement in Colour, Form and Symbols. In February, it will host an exhibition Small Stories, featuring some 55 black-and-white photographs by acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch. From 19 January, Cecil’s Box will exhibit Miriam Rosner’s (aka Monogram) work My Dream Walked on Four Legs – My Dream Pushes Air. The Ratskeller is open daily from 11.00 to 19.00 and Cecil’s Box is visible 24/7.
The main Cercle Municipal building is only open to the public during listed events. Guided tours are given during the Portes Ouvertes (Open Doors) event in September or October. You can rent the Grand Salle, Blue Salon and other rooms for a private function by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.