R+S by Kenneth Frampton

The work of Richard and Schoeller is at its best when the tectonic dimension rises to the fore as it decisively does in the Bagneux police headquarters. Here the dynamic counterpoint between mass and volume is held in place by an articulate, orthogonal matrix which permeates the entire work. What is absolutely essential in this work are the secondary but crucially expressive conditions, which come into being via the disposition of the space and the light, and through the framing and articulation of small to medium scale components throughout. All of this, in the last analysis, has an architectonic character rather being an aesthetic of a painterly or a musical origin. Thus, despite all the comings and goings in the architect’s speculative consciousness between abstract art, music, and architecture, building art or Baukunst as the Germans once called it, is of the essence in this work.

The Work of Isabelle Richard and Frederic Schoeller

By Kenneth Frampton

In spite of his major following in the inter-war years, the influence of Le Corbusier after the Second World War was somewhat uneven and particularly in France where, despite or even because of the realization of the Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, he remained somewhat marginal on the French scene until his death in 1965. Even though his post-war preference for bêton brut left its mark on the evolution of British and Japanese New Brutalism in the 1950’s, there was no serious attempt to reinterpret his prewar Purist legacy until the neo-avantgardist work of the so-called Five Architects in New York, in the late 60’s, when a Corbusian syntax was consciously cultivated by Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier, even though the other two, namely, Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk, separately elected to pursue the less familiar legacies of Italian Rationalism and Dutch Neo-Plasticism.

However, it is only after the Paris student revolt of 1968 and a subsequent dissolution of the previously all powerful Ecole des Beaux Arts that Neo-Corbusianism will begin to emerge as a didactic frame of reference, first with the Grand Palais School of Architecture in 1969 under the direction of André Gomis, and then with UPA/8, the school of Paris-Belleville which will be developed into a powerful pedagogical unit under the leadership of Bernard Huet and Henri Ciriani. This school will effectively give rise to a whole new generation of French architects including Isabelle Richard and Frederic Schoeller who graduated from the school in 1985. They would subsequently follow a post-graduate course at the GSAPP, Columbia University before returning to France to start their own office.

That this generation was able to inherit the syntactical legacy of Le Corbusier in an exceptional, fertile way was largely due to the very effective didactic methods of the Franco-Peruvian architect Ciriani, who would extend the Purist legacy into what one can only call a more dynamic ‘rotary plasticity.’ This disciplined, yet fertile mode, first comes fully to the fore in 1983 in Ciriani’s premiated design for an archeological museum in Arles, eventually realized in 1999, and in his Toray Nursery School, designed for the new town of Marne la Valleé in 1986. In both instances the received Corbusian syntax is opened up to accommodate more liberative spatiality without entering into the centrifugal obsessions of Theo Van Doesburg’s Neoplasticism. In other words, we may say that Ciriani was able to amplify the capacity of his students without sacrificing the articulate discipline of the canonical Five Points of a New Architecture, namely le toit jardin, les pilotis, le plan libre, la façade libre et la fenêtre en longeur.

It is this artistic leavening, will enable the progeny of UPA/8 to incorporate into their work more heterogeneous influences, among them being the painterly abstract avant gardist culture of such figures as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich. The hybrid aesthetic character of this approach as it variously developed is confirmed by the running gloss that accompanies, project by project, this collection of the work of Isabelle Richard and Frederic Schoeller. Thus, we encounter a quote from Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art of 1911 to the effect that the spiritual comprises a movement that may be expressed by the simple formula of forwards and upwards. Elsewhere they will characterize this serial, ascending movement, as it applies to architecture, as an intentional direction in which a collective spirit finds itself embodied in an unprecedented unity made out of disparate parts. Later, they will argue, after Malevich, that architecture derives from the interaction of static and dynamic forces and that the image of work arises out of this conjunction.

Their canonical design for a heliport, realized close to the center of Paris in 1997 is accompanied by a set of aesthetic reflections along these lines which do not, however, seem to demonstrably impact the work in an unequivocal way. This building, which is in effect a cube measuring 14.5 meters on its sides, is simply a prism made of fair-faced white concrete, cast in situ. It has been designed to serve as an unmistakable point of reference from the air, as a passenger terminal-cum-administration building and, above all, perhaps as a place of momentary respite for helicopter pilots. Structured and organized in section as a split-level, interstitial matrix it provides for a number of double-height spaces from which to overlook the runway. The roof garden, enclosed by a full height wall with a long slit window through which to view the Parisian skyline, seems to hark back, however unconsciously, to Le Corbusier’s Beistegu penthouse apartment of 1926. The square plan of each floor is loosely divided into nine squares gathered about a central switch-back stair and void which jointly serve to reveal the stacked floors as a set of clearly articulated horizontal planes. The abstract spatial layering of the interior is further accentuated by the flat bar steel railings that are attached to various stairs and passerelles throughout. The floor planes themselves are picked out in blue against white concrete wall planes and upstands. Inside and out, this autoplacant white concrete is extremely fluid and as a result, requires absolutely watertight formwork. This formwork, assembled on site, is made of standard wooden panels measuring 226 by 90 centimeters. The surface of the concrete is thus marked and calibrated by a regular orthogonal grid which is further enriched by an equally regular pattern of bolt holes. With respect to this last, this treatment is a direct echo of the concrete work of Louis Kahn.

Two venerable French traditions are subtly integrated into this work; on the one hand, the use of the circle as a classic proportional device, as we find this in the work of August Perret (c.f. Perret’s inscription of a circle into the plans and sections of his Maison Cassandre of 1926), and on the other, the direct evocation of an architecture parlante, in as much as the complex concrete and steel threshold affording access from the runway into the building is articulated in such a way as to provide separate routes from the airfield, according to the class of user. Thus, a raised passerelle and short stair provide access to the passenger waiting room on the elevated ground floor of the structure as opposed to the adjacent straight stair in welded steel accessing the first floor. A neoplastic concatenation, of horizontal and vertical planes in concrete, orchestrate this divided approach in such a way as to suggest the dynamism of the movement involved.

The so-called L-House, built in the Parisian suburb of Vanves in 1994, displays an undeniable affinity with the introspective reinforced concrete domestic manner of Tadao Ando whose work the architects were to study in depth when they were on a study tour in Japan. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find another house in France that corresponds so closely to the immaterial aestheticism of Ando’s 1982 essay “From Self-Enclosed Modern Architecture Towards Universality” wherein he writes:

“…it seems to me that, at present, concrete is the most suitable material for realizing spaces created by rays of sunlight. But the concrete I employ does not have plastic rigidity or weight. Instead, it must be homogenous and light and must create surfaces. When they agree with my aesthetic image, walls become abstract, are negated, and approach the ultimate limit of space. Their actuality is lost, and only the space they enclose gives a sense of really existing. Under these conditions, volume and projected light alone float into prominence as hints of the special composition… The architectural totality supports the daily-life order; the parts enrich the scenes of daily life and deepen its texture. Space attains a sense of transparency when the current moving from the level of abstraction to the level of concrete and the current moving from the level of the whole to the level of parts flow together and become replete from end to end with a single creative intention.”

This elegiac, evocative passage surely comes close to what these architects, at their best, have always endeavored to create. At Vanves, the house not only emulates the fair-faced, in-situ, white concrete of Ando’s initial vision, but it is also introspective in the Ando sense, in that it is divided into two relatively narrow volumes running side by side, with one slot of space serving as a double-eight living volume, overlooking an enclosed garden while the other slot comprises a bedroom floor, raised half-a-flight above the living level together with a top floor which serves partly as a studio and partly as a sleeping loft. Shafts of sunlight penetrate the living volume of this house via narrow clerestory lights in a manner that is reminiscent of Ando’s Koshino House of 1984. Here, as in the heliport terminal, the circle is again employed as a proportional device particularly with respect to the plan of the living volume; a device which was more graduated in its application to the proportions of Ando’s Rokko Chapel of 1986.

In the late nineties, Richard and Schoeller will begin to receive commissions for medium scaled public buildings such as an infant’s school at Kremlin Bicêtre (1998-2001), a community center at Thourotte (1998-2002) and a town hall for Franqueville Saint Pierre, completed in 2005. The first of these works is possibly the most integrated and densely articulated complex they have achieved to date. Where the community centre is an elemented composition in open country side, the town hall is a monumental orthogonal prism conceived as the focus of a new civic plaza. Within this set, the community center is indutiably the more Japanese of the three in as much as it is a particular juxtaposition of contrasting elements: an elliptical meeting hall, a flying bridge of offices, a square reception block and a bermed logistical unit. These make up a topographic set piece reminiscent of the work of Fumiko Maki. In this singular work we are quite removed from both Le Corbusier and Ando.

Nothing could be further from this than the town hall at Franqueville Sainte Pierre which takes the form of a sharply delineated orthogonal prism, relatively closed at its ends, and directly faced with floor to ceiling glass on its first floor elevation facing the town square. This elevated prism is articulated by a wide top-lit, civic balcony overlooking the square. The primary reception space, together with the main stair, are to be found immediately beneath this elevated terrace. This building is unquestionably the most minimalist and sublimely monumental work of their career to date, so much so that one is left at a loss to account for the otherwise occasional diversity of the work.

Despite this diversity, the syntactical capacity of the practice would seem to attain its apotheosis in the police headquarters that the architects realized at Bagneux in 2006. Here one has a work, extending for two stories in height, in which there is an exceptionally subtle play between the mass forms, the interstitial volumes and the various forms of steel-framed, fenestration with which the building is clad. Steel framed glass block walls play a prominent role in this building in as much as a, two-story, four square panel in this material effectively establishes the symbolic front of the building, where one enters into the center of its ‘H’ configuration in plan. This glass block façade continues over the configuration in plan so as to roof the atrium between the two wings. Straight flight staircases glide by the side of this covered central court to link the two floors of the institution. The ground floor is devoted to public interaction while the first floor is occupied by offices and meeting rooms. Various subtle rhythmic inflections abound in this work both inside and out, ranging from syncopated mass forms in concrete on the rear elevation of the structure to a constant interplay between full height, steel framed, glass screens and opaque reinforced concrete walls lining the opposing sides of a principal access stairs. These material contrasts and rhythmic juxtapositions extend to the push/pull extensions of the outriding perimeter walls in concrete. These last bound the temenos of the complex while affording sufficient space for parking and other services. A frontal fence in obscured green glass of approximately the same height as the bounding walls establishes an initial representational plane in the front of the building. Once again, Ando is a frame of reference as is evident in the treatment of the I-section steel framing of the large glass block panels.

The work of Richard and Schoeller is at its best when the tectonic dimension rises to the fore as it decisively does in the Bagneux police headquarters. Here the dynamic counterpoint between mass and volume is held in place by an articulate, orthogonal matrix which permeates the entire work. What is absolutely essential in this work are the secondary but crucially expressive conditions, which come into being via the disposition of the space and the light, and through the framing and articulation of small to medium scale components throughout. All of this, in the last analysis, has an architectonic character rather being an aesthetic of a painterly or a musical origin. Thus, despite all the comings and goings in the architect’s speculative consciousness between abstract art, music, and architecture, building art or Baukunst as the Germans once called it, is of the essence in this work. Thus although it may and must embody multiple attributes and rich effects that transcend the joint and the seam, it is these connections that are the ultimate guarantors of a unity which is in a continuous process of becoming.