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Retirement plan: Titan, France

Titan’s visitor centre in the Vendée heightens the sense of anticipation when entering the intimate world of a former French prime minister

Titan has been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2018

Following in the footsteps of Raum, finalists in last year’s AR Emerging Architecture awards for the extension to the city’s conservatory (AR November 2017), Titan is also a Nantes-based collective founded by a group of young men, Mathieu Barré, François Guinaudeau and Romain Pradeau, all in their early thirties. It was after winning a design competition for a project of passive housing units – subsequently earning them a regional award that year – that the trio established the partnership.

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Visitors centre for Maison Georges Clemenceau, Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard

Seven years later, 2018 seems to mark a turning point in the trajectory of the young practice, as the completion of more accomplished work is rewarded by prizes and publications at home and abroad. It is the legacy of one of France’s most notorious politicians, himself a man of the region and a resident of Nantes in his youth, that is interlaced with this acceleration. 

The family home where Georges Clémenceau was born, in Mouilleron-en-Pareds, was to be converted into a musée national (the country’s 46th) to pay tribute to his political career and shed light on his personal life, while his last residence in the Vendée – already open to the public – required a new visitor centre. Titan won both competitions.

When Clémenceau withdrew from the public eye, he returned to his native Vendée and spent the last few years of his life writing books in an old fisherman’s house in Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard, looking out onto the gently sloping dunes of the Atlantic coast and the vastness of the ocean. Acquired by the state after his death, this retreat was preserved as national monument, with all its safeguarded objects and personal souvenirs.

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Visitors centre for Maison Georges Clemenceau, Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard

Following the destruction of the original pavilion by Hurricane Xynthia in early 2010, the Centre of National Monuments decided to commission a new visitor centre to reopen in 2017, commemorating the centenary of Clémenceau’s appointment as prime minister. The project’s massing was contrived by the blueprint of the pre-existing structure: two abutting, slightly offset, pitch-roofed volumes. 

Understood by the architects as a ‘gateway to the gardens’ and a ‘transition building’, the pavilion guides visitors from the open public piazza to a more intimate and colourful world of pine trees and a medley of wild flowers planted on the dune: Clémenceau had composed these Impressionist gardens with his long-term friend Claude Monet. In the face of so much history, Titan’s considerate monolith acknowledges that the site’s main event lies further ahead, beyond its softly coloured concrete walls. 

The sandy hue and rough texture of the shell, imagined to ‘emerge from the ground’, contributes to the project’s self-effacing nature, as does the placement of its entrance in the second, recessed volume, initially hidden from view. But this first impression belies the building’s delicate subtleties. On closer inspection, the southern gable wall conceals the outline of a smaller gable, inscribed within it and corresponding to the interior’s ‘central nave’. Subverting the exterior conformation, the project’s main space takes advantage of the full interior length, unfurling a linear sequence of programmes (gift shop and a meeting room/educational space currently housing a small exhibition) and inviting visitors on a serpentine journey. 

Titan drawings

Titan drawings

Click to download

It is the composition and treatment of the elevations that enable the reading of the plan from the outside, with two different concrete textures bringing to light this correlation between exterior appearance and interior use: the central nave has a smooth, even finish, while the ancillary programmes (staff offices and technical facilities) are striated, bearing the rough and ready feel of board-formed concrete. Relying heavily on models to develop their ideas, the architects realised a series of mock-ups both in the workshop and directly on site, at a range of scales including 1:1, to experiment with casting methods and surface finishes. 

Titan – who see the role of the architect as ‘eliciting people’s curiosity, creating something that resonates with others, and contributing to a shared knowledge’ – have created a visitor centre that does all this while being precise, sophisticated and exquisitely detailed. Their journey with the one who used to be known as the Tiger has continued, with the opening last June of the Musée National Clémenceau in Mouilleron-en-Pareds (where the museography was designed with scenographers Le Bureau Baroque) and the practice is now expanding its scope while staying in close proximity to the Atlantic coastline: an intriguing signalling station for Nantes’ railway station and an ambitious 5,000m2 start-up campus for Saint-Nazaire are both currently on the drawing board.

Architect: Titan

Photographs: Julien Lanoo

This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today

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