Something from nothing
In 2006 the Franco-British Union of Architects awarded me a bursary to investigate the work of the French architects Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton. Since then the report has been languishing on my bookshelf, so I thought I would present some of the research here. For me, Lacaton and Vassal’s architecture is a great example of transnationalism. Their inventive use of materials and references to ‘far-away’ places is not a literal transference of architectural style, but it borrows from different cultures to create evocative, poetic buildings.
Their successful adaptation of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris has highlighted their imaginative responses to a tight budget, yet cost-effectiveness is not the driving force behind their work. As Vassal explains: ‘At the start there are always very ambitious intentions and choices, and cost-effectiveness is simply what permits us to realise them, whatever the budget we may be given.’
Photomontage showing the bookshop enclosed by Heras fencing, Palais de Tokyo interior, 2006.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Jean Philippe Vassal, held on 5th September 2006, in which he describes the project to transform the neo-classical Palais de Tokyo (built for the 1937 Paris Exposition) into a contemporary art gallery and museum:
Jessica Holland The Palais de Tokyo is not a museum in the traditional sense. I was discussing with a colleague whether your work there can be considered as “architecture” or not, because the intervention is very minimal…
Jean Philippe Vassal [Our work at the Palais de Tokyo] is to give possibilities. Precisely if it’s artists that will go there after, you can do even less… because they want to have space to do things on the floors, on the wall, so you have to give them the possibility to do that. I like the idea that architecture could give freedom to do things and this for me, is probably most important: to adapt spaces, climates, ambiences where things can happen. Always, this freedom is essential.
There was always a reason. For the Palais de Tokyo the budget was very low, but it is not a problem. All the time you can do what you need to – this is one of the things I learnt in Africa. I was in Morocco then after my studies I went to Niger for five years. Niger is one of the poorest countries south of the Sahara desert. It was incredible what people there could do and make from absolutely nothing. It’s strange because when you are in the desert and there is almost nothing, it’s only in your mind that you can find something. The work of architects is not about materials and things like that, it is just invention – to find a solution to a situation. So this question about is it still architecture or is it not architecture, I don’t know… A great architect said: “Less is more”, and that was fifty years ago!
… In architecture I feel you have a sort of invisible direction; more and more the architectural fact will become less and less visible. If you look from Roman architecture to Gothic to Modernism, always there is a search for higher, for lighter, for more. You arrive at the Farnsworth House, which is just a box, so for me; we are still on this journey. Architecture can be just a gesture, even nothing sometimes.
We have done a project in Bordeaux for a little plaza where the outcome was to say: “There is nothing to do, it’s okay.” The client asked us to make this plaza beautiful but it is beautiful. So the way to look at things is important: are you sure she is not beautiful; it is not beautiful? Then you convince them it is beautiful and what is this question of beauty? So, in Africa it was really this challenge: with the minimum of things, what can you do?
JH And what did you do there? Why did you decide to go back to Africa?
JPV I went after my Diploma to work for the Ministry of Construction for one year as an architect. In fact, when I arrived they said they did not need an architect, they just needed somebody to work on urban planning. So for three years I worked on the development of a little village in the desert. What happens when they find water, when wells are dug, what happens to the society and structure of the village? I worked on these questions. I also worked on the master plan for Niger’s capital, Niamey.
JH Going back to the Palais de Tokyo – have you been there recently?
JPV Yeah, two weeks ago.
JH Does it keep changing?
JPV Yes, I see new things, new partitions… So, about museums: I think it is probably too serious or perhaps it is too complex, the way you enter and buy your ticket and then you go into a specific room and see some paintings. Sometimes I like the fact when you are in the city, you walk around the city and for example, you go inside a church – you don’t know why, but you see this door, which is nearly open and you go in, and it is completely dark and it is fresh. You walk inside, you sit for a while and then you leave, back into the city.
I would like the possibility to be in a museum like that, where there is no limit between public space and space inside the museum. I like the idea of a museum as a promenade, a walk – something very delicate.
JH And why do you talk specifically of a church – because you enter into one large volume of space?
JPV Yes, perhaps. I give the example of a church because it’s a monument you can go inside but in a library you also have this feeling of a very public space. It’s a sort of inclusion of the outside, with seats, chairs, tables and books.
For me, the question of architecture is how to live. When we designed the Palais de Tokyo we had several ideas, such as the Place Djemma-el-Fnaa, but also this idea of living – how we can inhabit spaces. We are not only inhabitants of our homes, but of the city, on a bank by the side of a river and also in churches, museums, and libraries. I like the idea of architecture being determined by this idea of living, so it’s not something tangible shown in a sketch or a model, it is something you are always a part of. It is your own space and you are able to travel freely through those public spaces; there is a continuity that is important.
I have a lot of difficulty with the question of scale in my work. As an architect you are always making models or little drawings. At the moment when you make a drawing it is not real dimensions, but immediately when you produce a model, it is two hundred times smaller than the real space, you cannot go inside! Always I have to feel the space and it’s real dimensions, to move inside it. It’s a real problem in architecture. I teach at the School of Architecture in Versailles and students, they are very instinctive and inventive. When you ask them to design, for example, architectural clothing around themselves, elements of wood, elements of tissue, but at the moment you ask them to think a bit larger for a little house and begin to make models, forms, shapes, this same spirit is lost. So architecture: you can do it, design it, and use it as something you have on your shoulders.
Thanks very much to Jean-Philippe for taking the time to explain these ideas to me.