From post-modern to past-modern

chai viticoleChai Viticole (Vauvert, 1998)

What was it?

A lecture held late last year as part of the Australian Institute of Architect‘s International Speaker Series. French architect, Gilles Perraudin of Perraudin Architectes, discussed his works and search for a timeless architecture. The lecture was attended by a sparse audience at sponsor Austral Bricks‘ Brick Studio and hosted by Peter Mallatt of Six Degrees.

Perraudin travelled extensively after his graduation in the mid-1970s, spending time living in Ghardaia, a city in the Sahara without any form of industry or access to external resources. The vernacular urban fabric, made entirely from materials sourced locally, left a lasting impression, the processes and aesthetics of building in stone finding their way many years later into his work.

Perraudin established his practice in 1980 and at first explored lightweight construction techniques and materials. Maison Ceyzérieu (1980, unbuilt) was his first project, a competition entry that promoted an architecture of minimal energy consumption. Designed around the concept of a house within a house within a house, the environmental isolation of the central core permitted energy-independent temperature control. Perraudin noted wryly that the client didn’t understand his design, wanting a normal house with solar panels on the roof, while his design originated from a more fundamental idea of a house requiring no energy at all.

Perraudin’s own house, Maison Individuelle (Lyon Vaise, 1987), continued this early exploration into lightness and thin skins. Mobile, nomadic and deconstructible, it reminded us strongly of Richard Rogers’ work of the preceding decades. Unlike Rogers however, Perraudin abandoned this experiment, arguing that the lightness of its materials was a lie: steel, canvas and aluminium might have appeared economical but they consumed exorbitant energy in their production.

This realisation led Perraudin to the architectural language he continues to use today. Chai Viticole (Vauvert, 1998), a winery he built for himself, was his first project in stone. Looking towards the Roman aqueduct for inspiration, the project employed very large blocks of stone uncut beyond their extraction from the ground. The stone had little embodied energy and promised great efficiency in its use, performing holistically as structure, skin, waterproofing, thermal mass and linings. This economy of material is central to Perraudin’s design philosophy, as are the project’s rhythm, proportion and light, tenants he asserted are at the centre of architectural expression.

Perraudin built the winery himself, with little help but from a small mobile crane to lift the blocks into place. The careful nature of the project’s masonry construction earned him the local nickname, The Egyptian, a fitting title for an architect whose contemporary works so closely resemble those of our ancient past.

cave des aurellesCave des Aurelles (Nizas, 2001)

What did we think?

Perraudin’s work is elegant but rudimentary, the scale of his stone blocks rendering everything else inconsequential. Inhabiting Maison et Galerie d’Art (Lyon, 2010) would be like inhabiting a landscape: walls are cliffs and corridors are canyons. The human scale is lost or ignored, very little operating within reach of, or of a size that can be touched and manipulated by, a person’s hand. This manipulation of the rudimentary occurs in his planning also: the Musee du Vin (Patrimonio, 2011) has open pergolas running around enclosed museum spaces designed to support the growth of canopy vines and encourage an outdoor microclimate. Instead of artificially managing diverse internal heating and cooling needs, Perraudin elected to simply push the museum’s corridors outside, letting nature do the cooling for him.

Perraudin eschews the millennia of materials development that has permitted new forms, fine detailing and the spanning of large distances. He has also disengaged with modernity at a cultural level: the heaviness of his structures do not lend themselves to a long life / loose fit understanding of occupation, nor do they facilitate activated street edges or contemporary living that moves easily between inside and out. By employing mass material assembled like supersized LEGO blocks, his walls become very thick, his openings are necessarily small, and columns are required at regular intervals.

This might seem an unusual direction to take, though in quoting French philosopher Roland Barthes, Perraudin clarified his position, “Suddenly I realised it didn’t bother me not to be modern.” Arguing also that “the evolution of technology is not a good focus for an architect,” Perraudin has, as his nickname suggests, firmly anchored himself and his work into a methodology thousands of years old.

maison lyonMaison et Galerie d’Art (Lyon, 2010)

What did we learn?

Perraudin spoke at length about values-driven architecture. Rejecting the image-driven discipline of post-modernism and contemporary architecture, he criticised the world’s architectural schools for graduating their students without an understanding of material and making. He argued that “schools mask their conceptual ignorance by guiding their students into various forms of extreme formalism. Architecture should be about satisfying a social need, not about addressing a financial condition.” When the latter is pursued, “architects are transformed into the stooge of speculation. It is not a question of talent, but ethics. Using natural materials will escape the constraints of speculative industries, and return to a socially-alert, environmentally sustainable architecture.”

This admirable position reminded us of Moshe Safdie’s oration we attended in late 2012, where Safdie reflected on his dedication to place-making, contextualisation and the ethical practice of architecture. Unfortunately, it also revealed the disconnection between the way both architects spoke about their work and the work itself.

Central to this disconnection was Perraudin’s use of stone. While he praised its recyclability, economy and capacity for adaptation and future flexibility, we could see none of these claims in the work he presented.

  • Recyclability. Each block of stone is the size and weight of a small car. Who would move them, how would they do so and why? The Romans built in massive stone not so it could be recut and repurposed, but so it would last thousands of years.
  • Economy. Perraudin used stone for his Logements Sociaux Collectifs (Cornebarrieu, 2011), a social housing project, but this economy appears to be the exception not the rule in his work. Typically, his projects are expensive and exclusive. The client for his Chai Viticole in Lebanon (halted indefinitely due to the war in Syria) was so particular about the stone to be used, he bought the whole quarry.
  • Adaptation. The stone could be cut to accommodate new openings and services, but would it ever be? Each column and wall is load bearing: cutting new openings would require new concrete footings, steel columns and lintels.

Perraudin might like to think his projects are recyclable, economical and adaptable, but these are all qualities far more aligned with his earliest work in lightweight construction, or in the ongoing oeuvre of Rogers, who continues to explore this ideology with real success. It would be more apt for him to discuss the idea of sustainability through durability: an idea discussed recently by Gregg Pasquarelli, where sustainability is achieved by building architecture that people love, “the don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.”

Is Perraudin’s work interesting or is the very nature of his past-modernism merely a process of reprising the forms, spatial relationships and techniques of past eras? There appears to be no theoretical overlay to his work, just performance and craft, so it is hard to argue that the work acts as a commentary on wastefulness. The buildings are expensive and exclusive, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems he is working hard to contradict his own agenda. In using such heavy materials, in such ancient patterns, his work is in denial of the modern condition. Our lasting impression of Perraudin’s work is not that they are timeless but out of their time.

romania context

romania landscapeChai Viticole (Romania, due 2014)

Image sources:

  1. Chai Viticole, Vauvert, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  2. Cave des Aurelles, Nizas, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  3. Maison et Galerie d’Art, Lyon, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  4. Chai Viticole, Romania, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  5. Chai Viticole, Romania, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.

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