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23 April 2016


“The form of a city is always the form of a particular time in the city, and there are multiple times in the formation of a city.”
A Rossi, Architecture of the city, op.cit.

A project may begin from the fact that one identifies and recognizes a city on the basis of its urban forms, and that these forms tend to evolve over time. If you believe this, every project becomes a piece of a puzzle, part of a larger composition. Its raison d’être lies in the notion of letting the other pieces attach themselves to it. This is a classical attitude, a frame of mind whereby architecture is there to serve the city through projects that answer questions left unresolved at earlier stages and that create systems that are open to future projects. It is a matter of recognizing the close link between the architectural project and the city’s character, of confirming the dialectical relationship between buildings and the evolution of the urban fabric.

If we imagine the relationship between city and project, between the life of a city and architecture as a permanent, intertwining loop, and regard this as the only way of loosening objects from their specific purpose and integrating them into a more collective way of thinking, then the crucial issue is which method to use to trace this process.

The project itself can become a manifestation of this trajectory. Office projects are among the most productive experiences for testing architecture’s “operational adaptability.”

These are generic objects par excellence, and they must be designed without any knowledge of their future occupants or usages. “Flexibility” is the key word used by people in this line of business.

This condition has over time created a form of maximum standardization to fit all requirements. On the basis of a framework (specific to each country), these projects have to allow for spatial reconfigurations at minimum cost. In France, the current module is 1.35 meters, and in the US, it is 5 ft (1.5 meters).

The idea underlying these numbers is to define the optimal (i.e., minimal) work unit by joining two modules together. For example, a “compartmentalized” office will have two window lit areas (that is, 2 x 1.35 meters = 2.70 meters) along a stretch of roughly 5 meters, giving a surface area of roughly 13.5 m² for this type of office. This golden ratio will extend to everything, from cable lengths to furniture size to the coffee machine. It’s hard to do anything else without significantly increasing a project’s costs.

This is a huge planning restriction, and in some cases the idea of the window-lit area can be seen as a real obstacle to the project’s success. Nevertheless, it does define a matrix for optimizing the available space on the one hand and controlling the costs of the project on the other. The generic nature of these buildings means they can be seen as catalysts of urban life and data that the matrix arranges into an “urban object.”

The Euralille, T6C, and Massy projects are all based on this typological method to initiate a phase of planning that is specifically related to the surrounding territory. Each project begins with an interpretation of the site, an analytical and subjective effort that reveals lost traces, original forms, forgotten vernacular histories, typical architectural and urban configurations, and visual relations that define the site’s identity. The challenge with this approach is to reveal the singularity of the context by clearly affirming a moment and a time that the project will then showcase.

The Tour Avenir at Euralille is the keystone of the urban development project launched in 1990 by Pierre Mauroy (then Mayor of Lille) with the goal of transforming the Lille metropolitan area into an international business center. Lying at the crossroads between the three major metropolises of Paris, Brussels, and London, this urban development grew and developed around the new Lille Europe station. This ambitious and determined policy encouraged and stimulated economic, demographic, and tourism exchanges that de facto erased national boundaries and made Lille a truly European city.

Rem Koolhaas, who was in charge of the project, proclaimed a break with Lille’s past and based his urban ambitions on connectivity, networks, and the idea that “the urban development plan should be a structure open to possibilities and able to adapt to rapid changes in building projects.”[2]