Crystal Talk
Text: Norman KietzmannPhotos: Torsten Seidel, R&Sie(n) Architects


François Roche - R&Sie(n) Architects
François Roche - R&Sie(n) Architects

„We have had enough of architects being treated like stars,“ is how François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux explain why they do not have any photos taken of themselves. Instead of their faces they show a strange being created from their own faces and those of their team. A hybrid, rather like the name R&Sie(n), that dissolves the identities of the individuals in the group, simultaneously creating a calculated element of confusion.

It all started in Paris in 1989, when, after graduating, François Roche (born in Paris in 1961) and Stéphanie Lavaux (born on the French Pacific island of La Réunion in 1966) set up a joint studio. Partners in both their private and professional lives, they attempted to blur the boundaries of architecture from an early date. Armed with a color photocopier, they alienated buildings, refused to adhere to scale and blended them with the landscape to such an extent that they eventually ended up becoming one with it. Pioneers of hybrid architecture, the computer became their tool of choice as long as 15 years ago – at a time when many of the avant-garde were still messing around with rapidographs instead of immersing themselves in digital worlds.

However, although R&Sie(n) were pioneers of the blob they refuse to devote themselves entirely to it. Indeed, their approach is anything but formalist or stereotyped. As bizarre as some of their designs appear, they are always context-related, without descending into superficial regionalism. Instead of taking their lead from postmodernism and integrating local shapes into their own formal repertory, François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux counter with a markedly contemporary interpretation. In this way, they provoke, as well as producing a great deal more than a merely arbitrary foreign body.

The design of their information center „Water Flux“ (as of 2009) intended to document the disappearance of the glaciers in the middle of the Swiss Alps, is reminiscent, with its countless tentacles, of a bacterium; it almost looks like a living being. And François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux have long since made these an integral part of their work.

For their project „Hybrid Muscle“ (2003) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, they devised a study and exhibition room intended to produce its energy itself. However, their solution envisaged nothing like the use of the usual solar cells, declaring a genuine buffalo to be the generator of electricity for the building. What happened was that this buffalo used its muscle power to raise a metal weight. Then, as this dropped down again, electricity could be produced around the clock – even at night, when the buffalo was sleeping. The building, which became increasingly soiled with the animal‘s excrement, also reacted to the living being inside it by being able to set its facade panels in motion using pneumatic pumps and, in this way, to transport a minimum of fresh air into the symbiosis of animal, building and machine.

François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux also succeeded in questioning the link between nature and civilization in their project „I‘amlostinparis“ (2008). Since this date they have been breeding a culture of aggressive bacteria in drop -shaped glass bulbs which they have fitted to the wall of a townhouse in Paris covered in greenery. These bacteria kill off the plants that surround them. Here too, the intervention, which, at first glance, appears almost decorative, has taken on a complex and dangerous momentum of its own. It is even threatening to spiral out of control at any moment.

„We have no intention of spending four whole years of our lives building a totem pole,“ is how François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux explain their predilection for projects beyond the architectural mainstream. For them, buildings represent a “narrative practice“ that can, certainly, appear confusing or threatening. Accordingly, in „ Asphalt Spot“ (2003) they designed a multi-storey car park in Tokamashi, Japan whose parking spaces were slightly wavy as if they had been shaped by an earthquake. Most of the vehicles only have three of their wheels firmly on the ground, thus threatening to set themselves into uncontrolled motion and almost becoming living beings.

Whereas architects such as Diller Scofidio & Renfro, UN Studio and Asymptote, who also use hybrid techniques in their work, have long since moved on to large scale projects François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux appear almost hesitant in this respect. Should their ideas really be set in stone for all eternity? What represents a declared objective for most architects almost appears to represent a threat for them. When François Roche talks about Gilles Deleuze he does not sound insincere. On the contrary. They are considered two of the few people in their generation who have retained the experimental and theoretical spirit of their early years right up until the present day. The slightly chaotic and, at the same time, highly self-critical quality visible not only in their work but also in their numerous essays, lectures and publications has allowed them to put together an unusual and wide-ranging portfolio. And it has also saved them from following the gold rush to Dubai and dissolving their ideas in pure formalism.

In speculation, François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux have found a strategy for avoiding the latter‘s constraints. Alongside numerous teaching posts, including ones at the Bartett School in London in 2000, the Technical University (TU) in Vienna in 2001, the ESA in Paris in 2005 and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna in 2008, François Roche has been heading the „Advanced Studio“ at Colombia University in New York since 2006. Here, they have been able to test their motto of thinking of „practice as fiction“ and „fiction as practice“ together with programmers, biochemists and nano experts in an interdisciplinary think tank. The result of these investigations are not only incorporated into their work but, at the same time, are also presented in their own exhibitions. Here too, their commitment goes far beyond normal expectations. For the exhibition shown in spring 2010 in Paris „Architecture des Humeurs“ (Architecture of moods) they stopped working on their architectural projects for three months and devoted themselves entirely to staging this exhibition, together with their 15 staff members. Something that contradicts all entrepreneurial principles. And yet, in this practice François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux are very true to themselves. They approach their work with a great fund of knowledge and an equal measure of great naivete, often not knowing exactly what is waiting for them at the end of a project. But this is exactly the source of their strength. They are curious enough not to reach a goal over hastily.