Crystal Talk
Text: Norman KietzmannPhotos: Torsten Seidel


Manuelle Gautrand
Manuelle Gautrand

Things rumble and hiss, sometimes they clatter and you hear the sound of voices or even the roar of the sea. Anyone who enters Manuelle Gautrand’s website will first rub their eyes in surprise. Rather than presenting her work in a serious, almost dry manner like many other architects visitors are welcomed by an entertaining, interactive cartoon. Framed by a dainty, black-and-white graphic element the projects are woven into a continuous strip while inserted snatches of sounds automatically make you smile. Who is this woman, who presents herself with such casual assurance, and who has in the last ten years catapulted her office into the top ranks of French architecture?

A charming and motley sign in the drive to the Boulevard de la Bastille reveals which firms now occupy the onetime factory building dating from the turn of the century. There are many architects, graphic artists, press offices, two model agencies and at the very rear of the courtyard the workshop of Hector Saxe. The highly traditional manufactory still produces precious backgammon games by hand, and numbers amongst the last three of its kind. “Many of our neighbors also work in the evening. That is good. It means you are never alone and you always see a light on somewhere else,” comments Manuelle Gautrand when leading us around her office.

Seventeen architects work here on two, bright floors streaming with light that cover some 280 square meters. A further detail immediately strikes you, which is a clear departure from the furnishing of other architect’s offices: Rather than the almost obligatory Tolomeo desk luminaries dozens of Japanese paper luminaires hang from the ceiling and lend the room a pleasantly warm air. “We are always easy to track down at night: Everyone in the courtyard calls us the studio of the Chinese lanterns,” says Manuelle Gautrand and cannot help laughing. There is something cheeky and girl-like when she says things like this, and her infectious grin spreads from one ear to the other.

On the lower level right next to the entrance and conference room there is a large workshop. “We work very intensively with models to play through as many different scenarios as possible,” says Manuelle Gautrand explaining the importance of this room. As we walk on employees keep disappearing into the glazed box and return holding colorful foam objects. So her comments are accurate, and corroborated by a glance over the tables crammed full of models.

Manuelle Gautrand can look back on an impressive career, but the woman born 1961in Paris, has remained remarkably free of professional callousness or even arrogance. Yet there are several reasons that would merit her having a proud ego: Her Citroën showroom “C42” which opened 2007 is the first new building on the Champs-Elysées in 32 years and the only one designed by a woman. With the “Gaîté Lyrique” that opened in 2010 she transformed a run-down 19th-century operetta theater into a vibrant center for contemporary music, which can claim nothing less than being the most important cultural building on the Seine for ten years. And while many high-rise projects in the banking district of La Défence are currently in the balance or like the “Tour Signal” designed by Jean Nouvel were scrapped her design for the 140 meter tall “Tour AVA” will be built next year. Hardly surprising that this extremely busy Frenchwoman was made a member of the legion of honor in 2010.

Manuelle Gautrand knows what she wants. But she also knows what she does not want. She refuses point blank to reveal the names of the office where she worked before setting up her own studio in January 1991. And we were only told the name of the university from which she graduated in 1985 – die Ecole Nationale Supérieure d‘Architecture de Montpellier – after asking several times. That sounds almost strange; she talks very openly about her projects and is not afraid to express her doubts. “I found studying a little frustrating,” says Manuelle Gautrand, who in those memorable years found her inspiration more in sculpting studios than on the architecture floors. This affinity to sculptural design has remained with her until today even though she now realizes it unerringly within architecture.

Yet the buildings by Manuelle Gautrand are by no means exaggerated sculptures, but rather buildings with sculptural qualities as expressed in the Citroën showroom (2007) with its ingeniously folded facade, the extension building to the Museum of Modern Art in Lille (2010) with its leaf-like windows or the “Cité des Affaires” office complex with bright yellow accents in Saint-Etienne (2010): The façade is assigned much more than being the climatic divide between the inside and outside. Using folds, curves and a strong feeling for relief the facade becomes a specific communication tool. Manuelle Gautrand’s conviction “Every building in a city is an orientation point and should play a role.” She makes the comparison with figures on a chess board.

Just what narrative qualities a building can unfold is demonstrated by her proposal for the new Munch Museum building in Oslo. “Munch is one of Norway’s national monuments. I liked the idea of creating a connection between the land and his painting. This is why the building draws heavily on nature and recalls the fiords, the mountains and the dark colors of the sea,” says Manuelle Gautrand by way of describing her design. She is still annoyed by the fact that her dark, meandering landscape that would have formed a confident contrast to the opera house of Snøhetta finally lost out to a neutral, almost run-of-the-mill design by Herreros Arquitectos from Madrid. A likeable reaction, as it reveals her passion for design. Her architecture does not evolve from working down charts or narrow planning grids, but from a precise observation of the location. That makes it difficult to give up the solution you think is right.

“Competitions are difficult because we lose a great many of them. On the other hand you do know when you win a competition that the design was right,” admits Manuelle Gautrand. She still saw it as a challenge when in summer 2011 she received a direct commission for the new building of the Conservatory for Contemporary Music and Dance in Ashkelon, Israel: “Naturally, the planning is easier when you can realize a project precisely the way you want to and there are no rivals. But at the same time you are unsure whether will like the proposal and whether it is right,” says Manuelle Gautrand to explain her ambivalence. Five days before the presentation little would indicate a frantic mood. Numerous models and renderings spill over two large desks at the center of the room and give a sense of the project. Incidentally, the doubts she articulated prove to be unfounded: The design with its interlocking volumes and the façade perforated by round windows met with approval – and construction will start next year.

Where else is the journey taking her? The projects that Manuelle Gautrand is currently working on with her team include the expansion of a department store in Paris from the 1960s, the modernization and rejuvenation of two cinemas in Paris, a residential-and-hotel building in Montpellier, a luxurious residential complex in the Caribbean, a boutique of Louis Vuitton in Seoul and the extension of a theater in Béthune, North France. There is a special reason why above all the final project is close to her heart: “The theater was one of the first competitions I won in 1994. I am very, very happy to be able to design the new rehearsal rooms ten years after the opening,” confesses Manuelle Gautrand and smiles broadly again. The light in the studio of the Chinese lanterns is sure to burn bright for some time to come.