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Inspired by pine forests A large open-plan meeting space occupies the majority of the first floor Storage is built in to the length of the wall so as not to block sightines A limited palette of wood, stone and sand-coloured walls keep it simple The building's timber skeleton
13 Apr 2012

VL Office's agricultural chic

Words by  Photo by Vanessa Larrere
  • Architect: VL Office
  • Client: Groupe Larrère & Fils
  • Location: Liposthey, France
  • Cost: £183,000
  • Duration: February 2011 - September 2011
  • Floor Space: 275sq m

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.”

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