18 April 2016

Invisibles Vertus

Franck Boutté

Writing about LAN is a bit like writing about ourselves, and for me, like writing about myself, so I will warn you from the get-go that this piece will tend towards the introspective. The first project that we worked together on was Fréquel Fontarabie. The competition began in 2006. Oh my... It was one of LAN’s first projects, and they just celebrated their tenth year anniversary; it was also one of the Franck Boutté firm’s first projects, and we are about to celebrate our first ten years!

Our meeting LAN began with a bet. At the time they occupied a rather large portion of the second floor of a beautiful, former industrial building in the 11th arrondissement, in the Cité de l’Ameublement. I went there one night with Jacques Moussafir, who had been invited to give a lecture and present his work and projects by the two guys who headed LAN. Somewhat unusually for architects, Benoit and Umberto, who weren’t well known at the time, believed that shared knowledge and debate were essential, if not indispensable for creative arts and practice. Which is why they organized presentations, exchanges, and debates at their studio among their colleagues (and friends) in these circles.   

After Jacques’ lengthy but impassioned presentation of his work and philosophy, dinner became the occasion for other kinds of conversations. Benoit confessed disbelief and disappointment to me over the new engineering firms that had begun to tackle the questions of energy efficiency and the environment, or HQE, as it is regrettably called. He was still feeling the sting of losing a recent competition due to, among other things, the engineering firm’s inability to champion the project’s intrinsic environmental value. Feeling rather uninhibited in such a convivial environment, I blurted out: “If you don’t want to be disappointed, work with me. I’ll try my best to convince you that these questions are so important, that they go right to the heart of the project’s architecture.”

Not long after, Benoit called our office and we submitted a joint bid for a multi-building housing project in the mixed development zone of Fréquel Fontarabie in Paris. The developer for the sector, the SIEMP, and especially the AMO, Terre Eco, wanted – for the first time ever in France – to develop “passive” buildings on the site, in the German sense of the term, meaning buildings which, in order not to consume any energy for heating, would be ultra everything: ultra solar, ultra insulated, and ultra airtight.

I had some experience with German passivity and its many, very specific requirements from working on a dense, single family home residential neighborhood and intermediary habitat developed on the outskirts of Limoges with ING RED (which unfortunately went out of business after) and the architects at Périphériques. I knew that the buildings had to be compact, not have too much window area, that the windows had to face south, that the walls needed 25-30cm of insulation, and that the joinery had to be perfectly airtight, and so forth.

There were a lot of contradictions to overcome. For example, the allocated parcels didn’t want to play up their passivity that much; they wanted to create a connection to the city and therefore orient themselves towards the north, the one direction in which any effort to recover contributions from the sun is almost useless, which the calculated approach of the passive label doesn’t like at all. There were a number of battles to fight, and a lot of time was lost to confrontations, some of which were productive and others that were not. At the end of the day, we won the competition and in constructing the buildings, we managed to show that one could merge passive performance with an active urban engagement, even if that meant turning a few ideological assumptions on their head that defendants of the German passive orthodoxy hold dear. It was a textbook case and a rite of passage for the collaboration between our two firms.

ANARCHITECTURE

A quick confession that Umberto made to me on the occasion of a Fréquel meeting in his characteristic Neapolitan accent that I unfortunately cannot recreate here. When I asked him what the acronym LAN meant, he told me that it stood for Local Architecture Network (using the example of IT networks to talk about the local, the private, what can be appropriated, as opposed to what is farther away, public, and shared, what you could call a WAN). This expresses their attachment to context, but also, because “anarchitecture” expressed their predilection for adversarial debate and the refusal of preset rules. Duly noted. I liked that; actually, I liked it a lot.

All the projects that we have developed together since Fréquel Fonta­rabie are the result of a critical process and analytical approach that never hesitate to question or challenge accepted paradigms and dogmas concerning urban, architectural, and functional issues, as well as the performance of programs and operations.

Our firm develops conceptual tools and matrix-type approaches that mix the issues and challenges of operations with the scale and timeframe for developing projects: urban-ness, implantation, morphology, materiality, spatiality, systems. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the projects we have worked on together with LAN followed this critical process.

This is neither unique nor exceptional. What is, however, impressive, is the way that LAN is capable of constructing a very unified, rational approach to its project, one that is highly coherent throughout the process, and at the same time, the way they are able to integrate data into this process that is exogenous to their practice and discipline. Thus, behind the appearances of their established, recognizable style, the issues of climate and energy, comfort and ambience, quantity and quality of materials, to name a few, also become an integral part and a raw material in their process of designing and realizing a project.

These are invisible virtues. The performances developed with LAN on projects disappear behind the surface of their urban-ness or territorial specificity, the evidence of their morphology, the strength of their materiality, and the sensitivity of their spatiality. Perfor­mance dissolves into the city and into the architecture.

The black brick, triptych façade the student residence on rue Pajol is well known, but what is less known is that the volumetric division of the 143 units into six blocks is the result of a refined heliotropic shaping in which the volumes were designed progressively, by paying close attention to the way in which the sun’s rays fill the courtyard within the block and provide light and warmth to a maximum number of the rooms. It is also far less known that the materials were chosen to reflect and re-illuminate the shared, central social space.

The iconic, spellbinding volume of the EDF archives in Bure in Lorraine is well known, but what most people don’t know is that this building, contrary to what the program demanded, seduced and convinced the jury because it offered the ideal form that, on the one hand, allowed for a drastic reduction at the source of the building’s energy consumption, complying with EDF’s very high energy efficiency ambitions, and on the other, it simplified the routes and significantly reduced the movement of vehicles transporting the archives.

What most people don’t know is that this highly dense volume not only exploits the sun’s heating and cooling resources for the building’s energy needs, but it also independently manages and reuses rainwater and gray water for the building’s operations. We remain fascinated by the material of this almost perfectly cubic volume, but what we don’t always know, given our inability to observe the building year-round, is that the pointillist mirrors embedded in the concrete participate in the rhythm of the seasons, camouflaging this impressive volume amidst the largely flat countryside.

TRANSFORMATIONS

Everybody knows the lovely volumetrics and the light façade of the housing units in Bègles, but what not everyone knows is that these small buildings have heralded a paradigm shift in terms of performances and flexibility. Because they are of a variable compactness, they respond adequately to each season: compact and airtight in the winter, porous and open in the summer, and adjustable throughout the rest of the year.  This is an inter-seasonal architecture; for three months of the year, the buildings are Germanic, for three other months, they are Mediterranean, and the rest of the year they are, well, Bèglian! By integrating the reserved, empty spaces, the buildings offer the possibility of densifying in accordance with the demographic and organizational evolution of their occupants’ needs.  

Everyone knows the urban, Parisian character of the Saussure building, but what is less obvious is that, taking its cue from the surrounding, Haussmann-era buildings, this construction embodies and materializes the notion that durability means transformability. This volume and structure currently houses forty housing and commercial units, but tomorrow it could just as easily host an office program, a veritable mix of usages. Unfortunately, what most people haven’t seen, because the projects were stopped or lost, are the morphological and material mechanisms developed in response to more difficult climates like Beirut, or even more hostile ones like the Atacama Desert in Chile, or even the glass cube, a veritable climate factory that was proposed for the Saint-Gobain research center in Aubervilliers, these among many others.

The critical processes, the volumetric and material challenges, the program inductions, the appropriations of different usages: these some of the many of the things that we have developed with LAN. While it is appropriate to stop the list here, let’s hope that we never stop inventing and putting into practice. Starting with the Grand Palais, whose launch we await impatiently, whose creative space may well be tightly circumscribed, but which nevertheless remains highly respectable.

One last word about the two men behind LAN. Umberto knows how to do everything, better than anyone else; that’s a fact. Benoit is pretty great too, even if he never says so.

Text by Franck Boutté, published in Portait of a Firm, the special AMC issue for the month of December 2015.