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California Air in Antique Setting : Toulouse: Medieval City Joins Space Age

November 15, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

TOULOUSE, France — In the Middle Ages, the counts of Toulouse ruled as the most powerful lords of southern France. The elegance and sophistication of their court was renowned throughout Europe.

Bolstered by this legacy, Toulouse, with a population of 650,000, is now regarded as one of the most medieval of French cities, a city of enormous Romanesque churches, of narrow, twisting streets shadowed by the antique, rose-colored stone facades of 16th- and 17th-Century buildings, of neighborhoods crowding around fountains from bygone epochs.

In the suburbs, however, the city has a different look, more in tune with the 21st Century than the Middle Ages. France has built its largest space center there, with gleaming white buildings, towers, laboratories and dish antennas.

Ranch-Style Homes

The center has brought a California air to an antique town. Young people in sweat suits jog under trees by a canal. Scientists and engineers build ranch-style homes in the hills on the rim of the city. The walls are white, pink, beige and peach stucco, and the roofs are made of Spanish tile.

"Space has brought the third industrial revolution to Toulouse," Dominique Baudis, the 38-year-old mayor, said in a recent interview in his office in the 18th-Century city hall known as the Capitole. "That represents a great bit of luck for us. We now have a space center lying side by side with an old medieval city. It's fantastic."

For centuries, Toulouse had lived in the past, showing visitors its magnificent churches, the bones of St. Thomas Aquinas, and little more. Its quaintness, however, did not attract everyone.

The American novelist Henry James, touring the city in 1882, found its streets "dark, dirty, crooked, . . . irregular without being eccentric" and its people "stunted, shabby, rather vitiated looking." Early in the 19th Century, the French novelist Stendhal found the city's cobblestones unpleasant to walk on, reminding him of "kidneys on a skewer."

Resisted Change

The city Establishment resisted industrialization and modernization in the 19th Century, keeping Toulouse too small and insignificant for sophisticated tastes. As the French Institute of Architecture described them in a recent study, the rich of Toulouse in the 19th Century preferred "writing bad poetry and playing dominoes rather than directing factories."

By 1900, Mayor Baudis explained, "This city had become a forgotten city. People called it a big village. After all its greatness, it was in a decline. By the beginning of the century, Toulouse was only an administrative city, a university town, and a market for the surrounding area."

Now, Toulouse hosts the main center of the National Center of Space Studies (as the French Space Agency is known); Aerospatiale, the manufacturer of the Concorde and Airbus airplanes; the National Higher School of Aeronautics and Space; the National School of Civil Aviation, and various allied industries and laboratories.

On top of this, Baudis and the Chamber of Commerce have embarked on a promotional campaign to persuade the French government to build the proposed European space shuttle Hermes in Toulouse. The advertisements in the campaign describe Toulouse as "the aerospace capital of Europe."

Shift of Power

The transformation of Toulouse is partly due to war, partly due to luck, partly due to a conscious policy of the French government to decentralize, moving some of the power and wealth of Paris to smaller cities.

When the decision was made in the late 1960s to set up the key space center in Toulouse, it was not a popular one. "There was a problem of recruitment at first," said Jean Claude Husson, the director of the space center, in a recent interview. "People did not like to leave Paris. But I have no problem now. I have more applicants than I need."

The problem was eased by moving the major French space and aeronautics schools along with the space agency. "Young people now, from an early age on, know that if they choose space, Toulouse is their likely home," Husson said.

Suburb Created

Since they could not tear up the medieval quarters of Toulouse, French officials had little choice but create an industrial, scientific and educational park--"in the American manner," as Husson put it--in a suburb called Ranguil.

In a major city like Paris, the educated and rich French tend to live downtown, not in the suburbs. The suburbs are usually reserved for high-rise apartment buildings rented by low-paid workers. But the placement of the space agency insured that most of the educated space personnel would live in the suburbs of Toulouse.

The presence of a highly educated and well-paid population of space scientists and bureaucrats has made Toulouse more sophisticated. Toulouse has long been regarded as an isolated city of France, far in the south, caught between the central highlands of France and the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain.

Boutiques Arrive

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