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Dominique Perrault : From the
Dominique Perrault
From the "spirit of geometry" to "the spirit of subtlety"
Frederic Migayrou + Luis Fernandez-Galiano, June 16, 2008
E.D.: For artists, exhibitions are essential steps in their careers. Is it the same for architects?

Dominique Perrault: It’s very different. For architects, exhibitions are not the sine qua non of professional activity, they’re not any kind of necessary seal of approval. Let’s say that for an architect an exhibition forces one to define the past, to organise the future. What’s interesting for me it is that the Centre Pompidou, who decided to program this exhibition, didn’t want it to be a first show or a retrospective. It’s more of a freeze-frame on an ongoing development.

E.D.: How do you think of it? A chronological presentation, a tour - from one building to another, one country to another - a manifesto, a narrative?


D.P.: None of those things, really. Frédéric Migayrou, curator of the exhibition, would like to present more of a survey than a chronology, a tour or a manifesto. In fact, the intention here is much more dialectical than narrative. And this dialectical ambition in fact finds expression right at the beginning of the exhibition, in the juxtaposition of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the New Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. For more than ten years now the BNF has overshadowed and obscured all the other work we’ve done, whether in France or abroad. In the design of the exhibition, the BNF takes it place like an epigraph on the first page of a book. While the chosen phrase expresses or illuminates the author’s approach, it doesn’t and can’t replace the whole of the text. In addition, this juxtaposition of the Library and the Theatre also testifies to our intention not to content ourselves with mere style, to restrict ourselves to a single vocabulary. And in terms of chronology, the exhibition isn’t limited to 1997 either, but evokes a wealth of other significant dates.


Dominique Perrault
Dominique Perrault
 
E.D.: An exhibition does nonetheless imply a path through it, from one thing to another. However fragmented or even illogical this might be, how have you tried to organise it?

D.P.: First of all there’s the place of the exhibition within the building as a whole. The space gives onto the street on three sides. So I wanted it to be possible to take the measure of things even from outside. Then, inside, there isn’t a logic of progression but a logic of place. And just as if this were a specific space, that has to be entered, I wanted to create a sort of vestibule, a kind of filter. The visitor navigates through screens of the metal mesh that is central to my architecture. These aren’t authoritative, impenetrable, separating walls. What they do is create permeability, interrelationship. So from the beginning there’s an abolition of enclosure in favour of transition, motion. And you rediscover this same metal mesh, this same technology, being deployed to break the far wall into nine sections, used to screen the 13 films that Richard Copans has made about different individual projects. A way of discovering real architecture, as it lived in construction and as it is experienced by users. In addition, this 32-metre-long wall with its nine 3 x 2 metre screens is clearly visible from the outside, because the whole exhibition is designed as a low-level display.

E.D.: What are the fundamental principles of the design?

D.P.: It’s based on four key elements. There are the metal mesh and the screens that I’ve just talked about. In addition to these there’s a series of large, low tables in a staggered arrangement across the whole gallery space. On these tables, drawings, models and materials are displayed alongside each other, and there are also screens showing other films, this time on different themes. Each table may present a single project, or a number grouped together by strategy or concept or technique, or indeed by contrast. Once again, these groupings are determined not by chronology or form, but by what I call a relational logic. And then, on each of the 20 tables there’s a big, one-metre-square, double-sided light-box showing the sites in question, so that visitors can grasp the urban context, the natural environment, the geographical reality. And I want to insist again, that although everything is properly dated, to mark the temporal relationships, there is nothing chronological in the organization.


Dominique Perrault/BERLIN_Vélodrome
Dominique Perrault/BERLIN_Vélodrome
 
E.D.: What would you say are the high points, the key points of the exhibition?

D.P.: Obviously the confrontation at the very beginning between the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the New Mariinsky Theatre is one of them. Some will see in this an opposition between an uncompromising rigour and a kind of Baroque. And all the way through one encounters other confrontations, other oppositions. But things are never as simple or as clear as one thinks. What is at issue is a dialectical relationship to architecture and its meaning, to its symbolism and its reality, to its essential nature as the agent of a continuous territorial transformation, remaking the urban fabric and unsettling our perceptions. That’s one way of saying that the geographical aspect of architecture has overtaken the historical. Additionally, this series of confrontations is a way of showing that architectural expression is not necessarily a matter of a single style, that the role of an architect is not to put his stamp on a project, to impose his own style, but to take account of the complexity and specificity of each situation. Hence the attempt to bring out a conceptual rather than an aesthetic logic.

E.D.: So rather than a mere survey, for you this exhibition is an opportunity to express a style of thinking, a way of working?

D.P.: Absolutely. All the more so in that the exhibition was commissioned, designed and realized in a very short time. And there’s a fundamental correspondence, at some level, between this extreme condensation of space-time and our normal way of working. Within the firm, there is no hierarchy of registers, disciplines, materials... Everything happens simultaneously, synchronically. We know that in architecture lead-times are long and that the life of a building is projected far into the future, but speed is what drives the design process. We are always in movement, engaged in research and experiment on topics that may be clearly articulated or still in some sense unconscious. Our activity, our ongoing work has no discrete beginning or end. At bottom, what we are trying to get across in this exhibition is that architecture is not an object, or a collection of objects, but a substance. And this substance we define and form with the tools that are the very heart and body of this exhibition. In fact, rather than beautiful images or objects, striking photographs or models, we wanted to show, to make visible and understandable, the tools and the methods of our everyday work, to capture the essence of urban and architectural design - as practiced by us, at any rate.


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