Crystal Talk
Text: Norman KietzmannPhotos: Torsten Seidel


Manuelle Gautrand

It is warm this autumn day in Paris. In the Port de l‘Arsenal, an inner harbor south of the Bastille, the boats belonging to leisure-time captains jostle for space. A line of trees separates the embankment promenade from the Boulevard de la Bastille, where the house at number 36 already strikes you from a distance. In place of the gray-beige sandstone or black, cast-iron balustrades otherwise characteristic of downtown Paris, here a red-brick façade and finely structured concrete supports tell of an industrial past. People are constantly toing and froing at the entrance to the onetime factory: Taxis pull up and out get good-looking people sporting thick folders. The mystery is solved on their arriving on the third floor: A model agency is running a casting for the upcoming fashion week. There is a curve and then a long corridor leads ever deeper into the building. A door opens. In a bright, glazed room surrounded by books, renderings and models we finally begin our interview. Manuelle Gautrand talks about urban games of chess, glass origamis and built emotion.

Madame Gautrand, When did you realize that you wanted to become an architect?

Manuelle Gautrand:
When I was seventeen. I knew that I wanted to take up an artistic profession but for a long time I was not sure which one. After my school-leaving exams I decided it should be architecture. So I cannot claim that I was absolutely sure at the age of three (laughs).

What memories do you have of your studies?

Manuelle Gautrand:
It was a little frustrating because I did not believe that the school was all that good. In France the architecture schools are not that good anyhow. When I had finished my studies I was really dissatisfied with what I had learned. It was only when I started to work that I gained professional experience and learned how to deal with creativity. My studies did not give me much of this aspect.

But was there a professor who influenced you?

Manuelle Gautrand:
Yes, it was the professor of sculpture. We primarily analyzed contemporary art, and this meant I got to know it very well. However, as regards the practical side I can hardly remember the projects we worked on. What I enjoyed about sculpting was an open, fresh approach – something I found lacking in my architecture professors. Even today, I think I tend to seek my inspiration outside of architecture, be it from landscapes, cities or sometimes fashion.

The influence of sculptural design is especially evident in your facades, which are anything but strictly organized. You experienced your breakthrough with the opening of the Citroën C42 showroom on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Its façade is an undulating ribbon that merges seamlessly into the roof. How did you arrive at this design?

Manuelle Gautrand:
I must admit that I wasn’t much of a car fan to begin with. So I started by trying to immerse myself into the universe of automobiles and looking at how they are made and sold. Then I struck me that above all the DS, to date Citroën’s most beautiful model, resembles an endless curve. The showroom on the Champs-Élysées works the same way: It resembles the body of a car and has the façade and the roof merge seamlessly.

Yes, but that does not explain the folding...

Manuelle Gautrand:
The folding is very important because if tells of the building’s contents. The Citroën logo is a double inverted V that I find very attractive. By citing this shape the façade can embody the brand without having to write the word Citroën. There is a game in Japan that expresses a feeling or an object through a fold. I tried to do the same with my building: It is an origami of glass.

Large-sized glass facades can often appear cold or even banal. But the folding produces a differentiated play of light and shadow. What effect did you want to achieve with it?

Manuelle Gautrand:
A folded, glass facade recalls a kaleidoscope, which reflects the surrounding buildings or the sky. But the reproduction is not even as with a normal mirror but divided into many different facets. This aspect was very important to me: I did not want the building to appear solid and to lose something of its material quality. Each of the round platforms used to present the vehicles has a folded, reflecting underside. When you climb up the stairs the colors of the cars are reflected while their shape is almost completely alienated. That makes going through the building much more exciting because not everything is recognizable at first sight. And the mirrors not only interpret the cars but also function a little like the disco globes in a nightclub, casting the light diffusely through the room.

So you wanted to communicate with the public space?

Manuelle Gautrand:
Yes, because most of my buildings are located in cities. Which is why I would like to open them to the street, and not make them autistic in any way. Every building in a city is an orientation point and should play a role like a figure in a game of chess. Creating a connection between a building and its setting need not necessarily mean making the façade transparent. Experimenting with volumes or colors can also make the function understandable. It is important for the architecture to sweat out a little of what is happening inside.

How do you approach a project?

Manuelle Gautrand:
Naturally, first of all I think about the context and what is required. That is normal. But at the same time I also try to think about the materials, the colors and the atmosphere. How is the light relationship to the building? Should it let the light through or not, be transparent or opaque? These aspects are just as deeply rooted in architecture for me as the function of a building or its connection to the plot. It is important that a museum does not look like an office building.

Tell us about the work in your studio. How does the design process evolve?

Manuelle Gautrand:
We always work very intensively with models – from the very start. In each and every project I try to play through as many different scenarios as possible. After all, each of these solutions contributes something to the final outcome. I spend a lot of time analyzing the individual ideas and selecting the right one. However, there is still a very long way to go even after the first volume is standing (laughs). And I also try to be a little inventive with every project, be in relation to the function of the building, its context or the materials. My work is not a linear process. In the beginning things often proceed very quickly. But then there is always a point at which things falter and we start to struggle for one, two or three weeks. That is also normal. In such moments it is important to talk a lot with each other so as to find a logical explanation for a proposal. Language is an important design tool.

You have a broad spectrum of work: You design cultural buildings like theaters and museums, also plan office buildings, residential buildings or bridges. One topic you have applied yourself more in recent years is the high-rise. What pushes you up to such dizzy heights?

Manuelle Gautrand:
Naturally, for every architect a tower is a heroic act just waiting to be accomplished. And I am no exception (laughs). But my interest also arose from a certain criticism. After all, although there are ever more towers in the world, only a handful of them are really interesting. Most high-rises tower up into the sky really brashly and brutally without being connected to the ground. Yet the first thing that you see of a high-rise when you are near is its base. I think that at this point it needs a human, almost intimate scale. Conversely, from a distance it is the tip that is especially eye-catching and less the body of the tower. So it is important not to ignore these zones. A high-rise always forms three sequences.

Although you did not win out in the competitions for the “Tour Phare” (2006) or the “Tour Signal” (2008) in 2008 you were able to secure a large-scale project in Paris’ new high-rise district, La Défence: the construction of the 140-meter-high “Tour AVA”. Why were you able to beat all your rivals with your design?

Manuelle Gautrand:
The project was not easy at the beginning because the plot is dissected by a motorway. Initially, we only had the plot at the north-west side of the street. So I suggested making the building larger and pushing it below the viaduct. The developer was very taken with this proposal because it meant shifting the building’s entrance to the center of La Défence and the street loses its visual presence. Even though the tower will rise up 140 meters vertically with a 200-meter-long base the building is actually more horizontal in thrust.

You also employed the motif of folding for your design of the base section.

Manuelle Gautrand:
Yes, the entrance pushed itself underneath the autobahn like a large awning and creates a small entrance piazza. It not only provides protection from the rain but features a screen of LEDs on the underneath. This roof which will be lit day and night will be a projection screen for short films or digital art. I often work on cultural projects such as theaters or concert halls. My affinity with this cosmos also provided me with ideas for other projects, which do not initially have a direct link with culture. I am not trying to make architecture theatrical but I would like people to experience something in it.

In other words architecture becomes a medium?

Manuelle Gautrand:
Absolutely. I do not want my buildings to be neutral even if they are places where people work. Architecture should evoke emotions. Just because we live, work or watch a play in a building does not mean it may not offer us any experiences. It is important that the architecture is infused with a conscious scenography.

To date your most important project was the conversion of the “Gaîté Lyrique” in Paris. You transformed the operetta theater from the 1870s into a center for contemporary music that opened in December 2010. Despite your pleas for an emotional architecture there is an almost neutral feel to the rooms for concerts, film presentations and performances. Why?

Manuelle Gautrand:
It is important to create a strong, independent architecture without going too far. In some places the “Gaîté Lyrique” is highly expressive, say in the mobile elements, which double as lighting. The technology is very sophisticated so that you can do anything you like in these rooms. But at the same time thanks to its gray floor, white walls and the black event rooms the building remains in the background. With cultural projects it is decisive to hand on the baton to other artists. You must give them the opportunity to express themselves in the rooms and they should not be overly restricted by too expressive an architecture.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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Interview: Norman Kietzmann
Norman Kietzmann studied industrial design in Berlin and Paris, and writes as a freelance journalist about architecture and design for Baunetz, Designlines, Pure, Deutsch, amongst others. He lives and works in Milan.

project management: Ines Bahr