French architecture firm Sériès et Sériès has designed an elegant extension to this Jean Prouvé office building in Vitrolles, France, for engineering group SETEC. Sitting perpendicular to the existing structure, which Prouvé designed in the 1970s, the new addition is wrapped in stretched archways that frame and shade the building’s large floor to ceiling windows. They also provide shelter for the walkway and outside space bordering the building on the ground floor, and according to the practice, visually emulate the effect of a pine forest canopy.
Sériès et Sériès intended for the structure’s minimal aesthetic to be complementary to the original architecture, taking inspiration from Prouvé’s functional and efficient approach to materials. The arches are made from white resin and the main structure is steel, while inside has an open plan layout, aiming to make the extension economical and flexible for other future uses.
The new addition to the building has provided space for 10 new offices and archives.
Crumbling whitewashed walls and vine-covered exteriors might be the first things that spring to mind when conjuring up a French farming business, but it couldn’t be further from the reality of agricultural firm Groupe Larrère & Fils’ new office. The building’s Mondrian-like wooden skeleton frames large rectangles of glass, creating vertical stripes of timber resembling the nearby pine forests.
Based in Liposthey in the Landes region of southern France, the family-run farm had previously only used a small office situated in the manager’s on-site home. But the business had blossomed considerably over the last few years and new administrative and management roles required a larger building to house its 12-and-counting employees.
In keeping with its family-run ethos, Groupe Larrère & Fils appointed architect and relative Vanessa Larrère of VL Office to design the new building. Tasked with the project while still a student, Larrère was given an enticingly open brief, asked only to translate the farm’s aims of organic, healthy and environmentally friendly agriculture into the design. Inspired by the surrounding landscape, Larrère set out to create an exposed external shell for the building that would have the same sort of rhythm as the experience of passing under the shadows of trees when driving through the French countryside. She says: “The repetition of wooden posts produces variations in light and shadow, which are accentuated when you view it in motion from the road. This was inspired by the countryside around it – the forests of the Landes with their repetitive sequences of pine trees.”
As well as housing the growing workforce, the new building was also intended to pull together a number of existing hangers and barns. “The building is actually an extension of the agricultural buildings, which are laid out in an anarchic way because of the successive extensions,” Larrère explains. “In order to give a sense of cohesion to this messy layout, it was necessary to place a foundation element at the heart of it, simplifying everything and making it more ordered.”
The new extension stretches the entire length of these existing agricultural buildings, giving the site a more consistent feel from the roadside. Larrère also commissioned the same carpenter that created the existing buildings to work with her on the project, mimicking the original construction system apart from opting for a wooden internal skeleton rather than the steel ribs that lined the hangers.
Just as the likeness to the nearby forests was integral to the outside aesthetic of the new office, wood plays a huge role in the building’s interior, dominating the internal spaces with structural and decorative use. The double-height reception area is panelled with intricate lattices of pine, and wood also lines the stairways and balcony as well as protruding externally from the full-length windows like the ridges of a spine.
Larrère says: “I wanted to work with wood for its ecological qualities and negative carbon footprint, both of which align themselves nicely with the client’s work – moving towards agriculture that is respectful of the environment. But it was also an aesthetic choice. What interests me is to choose a material and employ it in different forms throughout the building, in order to reach a kind of unity through different iterations.”
The reception area, like most of the spaces in the building, has been kept clean and minimal. A cubic desk, painted with the same sandstone hue of the walls, hides paperwork and computers behind its high sides and is coupled with budget-friendly contemporary furniture from Ikea.
“I wanted an atmosphere that was calming and light all the way through the building, says Larrère. “Warmth is brought in by the wood, but also by the light sand colour of the walls. White is only used to delineate the fronts of the internal cupboards, and also for some of the furniture.”
The full-height windows mean that light and views of the surrounding countryside flood into the office. However, so as not to break their impressive line, they cannot be opened, leading Larrère to devise a separate ventilation system of opaque panels.
On the ground floor the reception is joined by three small offices and a bathroom, each furnished with a combination of mass-produced Ikea staples alongside a few designer pieces from the likes of Bo Concept. The offices have 1.2 metre-wide full-height swing doors, which stay open most of the time to allow people to move around easily.
Larrère has created a lighting system that is entirely integrated into the intricate panelling of the ceiling, choosing Spanish manufacturer Faro for the sleek, unobtrusive fittings. In the reception, different sizes of globular paper lanterns hang sculpturally from the double-height ceiling, to create a centrepoint to this otherwise minimal space.
Both upstairs and below, the floorplan has been designed to optimise space, with storage and even fire extinguishers built in to the walls so as not to break the clean silhouette. Cupboards line the whole length and height of where the extension meets the existing building towards the rear of the building, freeing up space in the office and also creating a wall that insulates the noise from the machines just behind.
A large meeting room, complete with lounge and bar, makes up the majority of the first floor, using the same white furniture, subdued paints and grey tile flooring as on the ground level. Here, as with the rest of the building, internal adornment has been kept to a minimum to fully frame the vista of the surrounding countryside. Larrère adds: “The alternation of solidity and empty space at the front allows each office to have a lot of light regardless of where it is. The vertical form of the windows brings the outside in.”
Interior photograph by Arnaud Thomas
The French town of Blagnac is probably not instantly recognisable to anyone other than diehard Francophiles and plane-spotting enthusiasts. Situated just outside Toulouse, its main claim to fame is being home to aircraft manufacturer Airbus – the brains behind jet age behemoth the Airbus A380. Standing not too far from the airplane manufacturer is Le Galilée, an arresting sculptural office by Paris-based architects Studio Bellecour. Comprising two large buildings joined by a white concrete helix, the project marks the beginning of a more comprehensive urban renewal plan, UDZ Andromède, which is due to unfurl over the next decade. The prime mover behind the development was SEM Constellation, a semi-public company charged with delivering the regeneration programme. SEM called for a landmark workplace that was aesthetically impressive – and paid careful attention to its urban context.
Working with developer Altarea Cogedim, Studio Bellecour took inspiration from the Airbus factory’s undulating roof and combined this with the need to create an inclusive, welcoming building. “The context was very important. It [the helix] reminds you of an aircraft wing,” explains Studio Bellecour’s principal Wilfrid Bellecour, the project leader. Dubbed the veil, the spiralling construction nourishes a fluid connection between the two large blocks while revealing a public patio and courtyard behind. In the front of the building runs a street that links to a park that encircles the building’s derriere. Noting this, Bellecour sought to avoid passers-by being overwhelmed by a single superstructure. “We wanted to respond to the street so people aren’t facing a building with no opening. Here we have a way to invite people into the building.”
Fashioning the veil proved a stiff architectural challenge. Measuring 80m in length and comprising 530 cubic metres of concrete, its construction required a machine created specifically for the project. Engineers SGI constructed a steel mould that twisted to form the helix in increments. This was a painstaking process taking four months of casting – not to mention the eight months of research into the contraption’s design. “We used computers, but once you are on site you have to adjust everything. I have to say there are some little details that have changed from the computer, but the result is still pretty great,” says Bellecour. It’s undoubtedly a bold architectural statement and one that is partly a consequence of the affluence of 2007 – before the world economic disintegration. “It was at the time when the market was still working. They were really daring to say ‘we are going to have the most expensive building around,’” he adds.
Once visitors have passed under the veil the project opens out into a large communal space sandwiched on either side by the office blocks. Searching for a focal point to ground the space Bellecour designed a curved white concrete dome supported by an internal steel cage. Nicknamed the Shingle, the structure is actually a futuristic-looking bike shed. “Around you there all these horizontal shades, but nothing was really stopping you. Something was missing from the composition.” Wrapping horizontally around the building are a dynamic series of sunshades, which help reduce solar gain in the summer while reflecting light to the floorplate’s centre during the winter months. The shades are deceptively inorganic: at first glance they appear wooden. In fact they are made from aluminium. “I didn’t want to use wood because in a few years we would have a very ugly building. I worked on that colour for a long time so that everyone would have to take a moment to realise it is not wood. It is good to have that ambiguity.”
On the southern elevation rectangular fire access windows punctuate the facade, breaking the uniformity and softening the building’s appearance. Two dark vertical lines give away the welding joint, an initial bone of contention for Bellecour. “I was very unhappy about those things. I really wanted them the same as the colour as the sunshades, but this was not possible. When I saw, it was even better because it looked like someone had sewed them together like a fabric. It gives you a good sensation.” A striking and practical addition, the shades caused some consternation for the client –who was concerned about the view from the interior. Any fears of a bar-coded landscape proved unfounded, however. “They visited and were like ‘wow, we cannot even see them’. They are something that just underlines the landscape. We adjusted them so that when you are sitting at a desk you only see the thin edge.”
Pinning down how to reflect light into the building was another problem, which required lateral thinking as well as a good deal of patience. Despite the prescience of naturally lit buildings on the sustainability agenda, calculating how to harness indirect light remains an inexact science. Bellecour devised a photographic system to determine which colours were most effective at delivering light to the floorplate’s centre. “It’s funny. We are very concerned about this but we still have no way of calculating it,” says Bellecour.
Internally the office plan follows a classical layout. Core services and meeting rooms are found in the centre of the floor while the desks are aligned alongside the wide lowlighter windows. The office space is ventilated by a cocktail of mechanical and natural means and the intelligent BMS cuts out in areas where windows are opened.
Despite the beauty of the structure, take-up has been slow; a slightly depressing sign that economic hardship continues. “This is a blank building made for everyone. At the time we thought we might have one company on each building, but with the economic crisis we are thinking one for each floor … maybe two for each floor,” laughs Bellocour. Reaction to the building has been overwhelmingly positive and Galilée’s success landed the practice a 100 unit housing project nearby, the cherry on top of a very tasty architectural pie. “We are very, very happy. When we first showed the renders everyone said ‘yes, very nice but you will never make it like that’. But when you look, they match exactly.”
A project’s success or failure often hinges on the relationship between architect and client. This delicate alliance can be all the more fraught when the client in question happens to be an architectural organisation. So when Bordeaux-based practice Fabre/deMarien won the competition to transform a 1930s electrical powerstation into a headquarters for the Aquitaine Order of Architects (a regional government institution and regulatory body), they must have suspected their architectural knowledge and persuasive skills would be tested in equal measure. “I think it was hard for them to not give ideas or propose some solution,” says project architect Julie Fabre.
The brief was multi-faceted, comprising offices and training facilities for the Order and offices for Bordeaux-based architectural watchdog Architecture and Public Contracts (A&PC). Previously, the factions lived in separate buildings in Bordeaux’s town centre. “They wanted to create a spot for architecture and maybe also to communicate better,” says Fabre. To achieve this, the practice broke the project down into three sections: the courtyard, the existing building and a new extension ensuring clearly defined yet connected spaces. Providing a natural buffer from the roadside, Le 308’s courtyard can be used to exhibit large-scale architectural prototypes and as an area where visitors and staff can break out the baguettes and camembert. The courtyard is overlooked by large windows set in an industrial facade. The simple symmetry and elegant proportions ensure the building isn’t a domineering presence. Any wannabe architects must surely be inspired by the Bordeaux crest of arms above the entrance.
Access to the building was to be the first bone of contention between client and architect. To protect against inclement weather, Fabre proposed a second glazed curtain wall set two metres back from the original concrete – thereby creating a loggia with the first-floor office space. This had the added bonus of shielding the glazing from the sun. “It was difficult to make them understand because they wanted more space on the inside,” says Fabre. On this occasion architectural acumen took precedence over floor meterage and the practice got its way. Connecting the two levels is a steel staircase retained from the original building. Inside, Fabre took an unfussy approach to the design, leaving Le 308 in its purest form wherever possible. This was born partly from the inevitable budget restrains, but moreover an earnest desire to preserve the building’s integrity. “We proposed a very simple project because we did not have a lot of money. It was just adding some dress or decoration for the offices and leaving the factory,” says Fabre. The ground floor in the old factory is dedicated primarily to 220 sq m of exhibition space. Located in the new extension are the conference hall and architects’ centre.
Bisecting these sizeable communal spaces are three levels of offices housed in the factory’s electricity transformer silos. Stretching the width of the building, each office is double orientated for maximum natural light and ventilation, with stairs and walkways connecting the different floors. “This is important because more and more we see offices without opening windows,” says Fabre. Again, the architects used their resources frugally, partitioning a series of workspaces with glazing, but ultimately collaborating with the existing structure to form the building’s nerve centre. Towards the entrance above the ground-floor exhibition hall sit additional Order of Architects’ offices, separated from the other tenants by a steel staircase and a large meeting room. “Before all this they [the different groups] were in different buildings,” says Fabre. “They decided to go into one building but still needed to have different spaces. Although they are all architects, the exhibition, conference and learning centre could not be in the same area.”
Cramming all these entities into one structure forced Fabre to build on any and all space available. Therefore the new extension pushed the site restrictions to the limit. A white, single-storey, metal-framework construction housing both the training centre and conference room, it was in danger of blocking out sunlight from the lower level silo offices. To solve this little conundrum, Fabre constructed an inversed double-sloping roof that tapers down to an apex in the centre. Neatly matching this detail are trapezoid-shaped windows in the office block. Throughout the building electrical infrastructure is intombed in galvanised metal casing – “the vocabulary of factories”, says Fabre. “It was hard for us – it was like another project in itself to make the route of each cable,” she says. “Normally, you don’t care about that because it is all in the ceiling. We decided to make it really visible.”
Revamps of existing structures are inherently sustainable projects, but it’s fair to say Le 308 is not an environmental vanguard. Biomass boilers are eschewed for a more old-fashioned gas version, while the new build relies on a double-flow air-conditioning system, which can be run at night to cool the building. The existing building is insulated externally and a double-skin cladding on the extension complements adjustable textile solar screens on the northwest elevation. Despite Fabre’s major efforts to ensure the factory’s original fabric remained intact, the stripped-down industrial feel was a step too far for the client. “Two months ago they decided to paint the walls white,” she says. “They used to be in a very cold building so it was quite a shock for them.” This snub came as quite a shock to the practice too. “We used to love it,” says Fabre. With an architect as a client, a difference of opinion was almost inevitable, but it seems a pity to tamper with a soulful building like Le 308. However, as Fabre admits, had the purse strings been longer the building could have looked radically different. “Maybe if the budget was two times bigger we would have done a totally different project. But we think what we have done is very interesting, even though we didn’t have much money.” We concur.