For the center of the European city, keeping density up-to-date is desired. But in the name of ‘history’, or ‘quality’, this natural re-actualisation process is discontinued. Void Capital proposes a template, an open source architectural blueprint for urban densification.
Its tools are fundamental typologies of the periphery. They are assembled on the same site, creating ever-new architectural arrangements. Implemented in Paris, the project renegotiates the typologies of: the Grand Ensemble (the Housing District) and the Quartier d’Affaires (the Business District), both once positive icons of modernity, now fallen into despair.
In the first case, void is seen as a meeting place and a hedonistic urban rituals retreat. In the second, void is an architectural device which creates site-specific adaptable infrastructures that evolve through time and various economic contexts. A now closed Parisian department store (La Samaritaine) accommodates the two halves. Together, they form the Department City, an ephemeral scenario rather than a finite project.
Who influences you graphically?
Marcel Broodthaers, Philippe Parreno, Robert Wilson, John Hejduk, Cycladic artefacts, Laurenz Brunner, Auguste Choisy, early OMA, Bernard Tschumi, Zero Movement, Late 17th century French engravers (Mellan, Monnoyer etc.)
What defined Europe as site for the architectural speculation, more specifically Paris?
From the beginning of the 20th century up until the mid 80s, the architects’ interest has been intense for the Western European city center. In the following years, the architectural discourse about cities has undoubtedly expanded, covering new territories, like the Global South or the European periphery. At the same time however, the issue of the form of the Western European city center seemed to become a matter of “commonly accepted” terms, like history or beauty, rather than a matter of discussion within the discipline. Now we are aware that when a city center is desirable, it becomes itself less and less, city-like. Here, every change is strictly prohibited. But in reality, it is a hollow kind of history that is preserved. Most of the buildings have been entirely made over, their façades kept intact. The city seems to be another version of an museum, where all unpredictable social practices are expulsed. Gentrification and museification come into the fore.
In that sense, La Samaritaine appeared as an ideal departure point: It is built at the heart of Paris’ historical centre, a Unesco protected site and it is also situated in the threshold between the old bourgeois and working-class parts of Paris, an at the moment rapidly changing neighborhood. SANAA’s controversial project for La Samaritaine is the landmark of this process. Furthermore, Paris offers another chance: to renegotiate -by architectural means- the unique dichotomy of the urban fabric between the city’s periphery and its center, itself always in need of further densification.
The project attempts to take a position vis-à-vis those issues by proposing an evolving, dense and inclusive, perpetually modern urban centrality.
What is your take on colour?
When people appropriate a building, or when life takes over spaces that architects have previously designed, architecture can be colourful. Here, only a few departments are treated in vivid colors. Blue, on the other hand, is a condition rather than a colour. It is about the state of the architecture as it is left by the architect’s hands when it is delivered to society. It used to be the colour of the blueprint. Today, in the age of realistic digital renders, designing in blue requires an acceptance of the fact that there are many things that we, as architects, cannot dictate about life. It is a rather blurred, uncertain depiction of how things are supposed to evolve.
What was your work process in terms of project development and production of drawings?
I think that there are certain drawings that can be conceived well before they actually come into being. This could even take years sometimes. It is the formulation of an urban agenda that takes more time. It requires working with the original archives, discovering and documenting the city. In other words, there is no linear way, or a single narrative, to analyse a work process since the drawing -as an end product- was not in itself of primal concern. I prefer seeing the drawing as a form of informal writing, a sort of a palimpsest that can constantly change and evolve into new territories, while recording the state of the project.
What dictated the different drawings through which you articulate the speculation? Are some more important than others?
Different parts of the project are documented using different media. This was decided based on the field of research which nourished each part. For example, the Business District makes use of plans mostly, since it is a fruit of a mere “architectural” approach; while the Housing District, as it conveys a dream-like condition, it follows a more illustrative approach. The most important drawings are the ones which describe the interrelations between the parts of the program: the worm’s eye view, the section, the masterplan.
What defined the medium of the drawing as a tool through which to explore the proposal?
From an early stage, there was the conscious denial of introducing any kind of perspective view of the project. This decision, by bringing the traditional means of representation to the fore, immediately places the project at the heart of today’s questions about the architectural discipline.
What role did the model play in the exploration of the proposal?
This project started as a two-dimensional exercise. The reconstructed plans of La Samaritaine were revealed as transcriptions of a sort of a language; its most basic vocabulary were some basic, recurrent typologies (e.g. the Free Plan). This was a language which was spoken out of the building itself, not externally imposed by any architect, but developed in an almost organic way out of constraints, needs, fashions, outrageous ambitions and various phantasmagorias. Then, a three-dimensional work with digital and physical test models allowed an understanding of the syntax of this language. Simple parts of the building could be composed together into more complex but autonomous entities, the departments.
To what extent is the drawing a site for exploration or/and a final product?
The drawing is nothing more than a momentary record of the experimentations which are taking place within someone’s head. Besides, drawings are not exclusively architectural. I often find that other disciplines use them in quite novel and interesting forms and often I draw inspiration from them. Most importantly, other disciplines are not bound to deliver finite results, which may be intriguing, but simultaneously limited regarding our dreams.
When talking about being inspired with regards to how other disciplines use the drawing is interesting new ways, could you give us some examples?
An example I’m fascinated about is the archaeological drawing. Some years ago, I spent a summer in an excavation, working on documents which were supposed to record a site in an ever changing condition, in plan and stratigraphy-layering. It soon became clear that the drawings became themselves documents in a constant state of evolution; their image was depending on what was coming out of the ground. It is the only project illustration about what it was, instead of what it will be. Those are notions that follow my research after that experience.
How, if any, has your approach to drawing changed when working in a firm like OMA?
Void Capital was not conceived while working in OMA, and I believe that a drawing approach can more easily evolve and receive influences, rather than actually changing. In the last decades, OMA has consistently developed, and to a large extent still follows, a visually compelling language which, while it can be extremely rough in its details, it has a striking effect on the viewer. The reduction of visual techniques to some necessary basics, aiming to focus on the architectural impact is definitely of my interest and I think that it will influence my graphic work in the years to come.