By Robert Such. Published in World Architecture.
Between Paris and Disneyland, on a growing university campus, stands Bernard Tschumi’s Ecole d’Architecture de Marne-la-Vallée. His trademark industrial aesthetic – which found such popularity at the Parc de la Villette in Paris – is here enhanced with ideas of fragmentation and his insistence that a building be built as a closed system.
The security guard trips the alarm, then shuts the door behind me. I’m in. Inside Bernard Tschumi’s £8m Ecole d’Architecture de Marne-la-Vallée. The Franco-Swiss architect’s building stands isolated on a stretch of road near Cité Descartes, a 1980s suburban new town between Paris and the satellite, Disneyland, east of the capital.
A 15-minute approach on foot from the station passes Dominique Perrault’s outstanding edifice for engineering, technology and management higher education (Group ESIEE): an arc chopped out of the shallow concrete facade slopes away from the road and a traffic roundabout, made of concentric waves of cracked basalt around a sculpture representing the earth’s axis.
Further down the road is Chaix and Morel’s less impressive Ecole National des Ponts et Chaussées (the National Civil Engineering School). At the time of visiting, only the giant restaurant complex opposite and the University of Marne-la-Vallée had been built, which constituted 30 per cent of a developing campus. It is a lonely place, but Tschumi points out, “it doesn’t have critical mass yet, but will when everything is built”.
On first sight his design appears more open than the neighbouring monoliths, with different elevations, and is surrounded by tracts of land, fringed by woodland. So what role did context play? After all, Tschumi had immense freedom of expression here, without straying outside the brief.
“The building is really done from the inside out, as with almost all of them I do. I start from the inside and then it starts through the making of that very large space [which] becomes the focus of all activities,” he explains. This very large space – or ‘forum’ – sits 3.5 metres above ground, to accommodate the car park beneath, and is topped by a glass and steel sawtooth roof, the glazed rake facing north to avoid a greenhouse effect.
Eventually, for this is only phase one, users will enter via an existing south side flight of steps, which presently take visitors up to a temporary glass wall. Remembering that work is only half complete is essential in order to make sense of some of the otherwise strange external and internal logic.
Readily discernible, however, is that the facilities for administration and research, and the media library, are distanced from the nuts and bolts of teaching by the enormous forum, which serves as exhibition space, cafeteria and reception. For Tschumi, this 25 x 90 metre area is ‘unprogrammed’, as it can be appropriated for whatever use the clients has in mind. (At the time of construction the clients were the ministry of culture, which was managing French architectural education – it tends to jump back and forth between the ministry of culture and the ministry of education – and the public authorities of Marne-la-Vallée.)
Dominating the void is a box-like envelope on eight pilotis, which houses two lecture theatres – one 90-seat and one 130-seat – divided by a moveable partition. The top terrace of beech parquet is again ‘unprogrammed’.
Seams dividing up the expanded stainless steel skin do not reflect internal distribution, but resulted from the fact that it was preferable to go with, instead of against, the wave-shaped pattern when cutting, thus putting technical considerations at the heart of its design. “I never work with aesthetic reasons [except
when choosing the type of wood],” Tschumi points out.
Galleries of galvanised steel grillwork surround the forum on three sides, the cool tones counterpointed by the warm glow of perforated beech wood panelling. Seminar and jury/pin-up rooms alternate with the workshops, which extend over two levels; the main deck, mezzanine and central column all in the same ubiquitous light-coloured concrete.
In terms of textures and materials, Tschumi included transparent and translucent glass – frosted and smooth, channelled or plain – and-smooth plaster renderings. Chairs, lighting and all-beech furniture were conceived by him. Metals are milled, polished, or lacquered. Diamond-patterned, lacquered, folded steel wraps completely around the four-storey volume on the south-west corner, going indoors and outdoors, playing with notions of autonomy and inclusion.
Long, inclined stairways link the different levels. That their orientation seems wrong with respect to the present access only adds to the feeling of a poorly assembled puzzle – but only if we forget that it is awaiting completion – which continues on the outside where the dialogue between elements is disjointed. “It’s never a closed system…You never contain it. You always leave gaps, interstices. It’s never about synthesis. It’s always about certain fractures. So that the fractures are generally all intentional. It’s not like Norman Foster who will always try to close the system. I always try to leave it open,” he says.
As the architect known for the bright red follies in Parc de la Villette (1985) in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, which as an industrial landscape of activity breaks from the parks of relaxation of the 18th and 19th century, Tschumi has once again returned to industry and dynamism. “I don’t mind industrial. I’ve always liked industrial,” he says. “Our project starts from the following thesis: there are building-generators of events. They are often condensers of the city; as much through their programmes as through their spatial potential they accelerate a cultural or social transformation that is already in progress.”
Tschumi’s plans for phase two of the building include a glassed in open-air chamber that will give access to sub-level one. People will be able to congregate here out of the wind, in relative silence, and beneath the sky. Also on the drawing board is a 400-seat auditorium and material experimentation laboratory.
And how does Bernard Tschumi feel about the building’s influence on the next generation of young architects? “Winston Churchill said that we form buildings and buildings form us… I studied in an amazing Neo-Classical [one], unbelievably beautiful, by Gottfried Semper [1803-79] and I don’t know if it had any effect on me, except that the spaces were astonishing – but it was Neo-Classical…which is the furthest away from what I do,” he concludes.