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2005 June: Communications Centre by Jakob + MacFarlane (Boulogne-Billancourt, France)

Renault’s new communications centre is an inventive remodelling and recolonisation of a former car factory

In the relentlessly evolving world of car design, where the emphasis is on the new and the novel, Jakob + MacFarlane’s communications centre for Renault is a rare example of reuse. The project upgrades and transforms an existing industrial building designed by Claude Vasconi in the early 1980s to house new exhibition, conference and office spaces for Renault’s communications department.

Barely 25 years old, Vasconi’s building is the last remaining fragment of the huge Renault manufacturing plant at Boulogne-Billancourt, on the south-west edge of the Paris conurbation, before it was gradually decentralised. Jakob + Macfarlane won a competition in 2000 and the new centre opened earlier this year.

Working with existing buildings has become a consistent theme of Jakob + MacFarlane’s work, from the Fanal Theatre in Saint Nazaire (AR April 2005), which reuses the shell of the city’s defunct train station, to perhaps their best known project, the remodelling of the restaurant at the Pompidou Centre (AR July 2000).

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Though the metropolitan chic of Pompidou is worlds away from the grittier realities of Boulogne-Billancourt, Jakob + MacFarlane respond sympathetically to Vasconi’s hulking industrial monument. Restructured and recolonised for Renault’s white collar creatives, it forms an armature for a series of discernibly new insertions that engage in a lively dialogue with the original architecture.

Vasconi’s building consisted of three conjoined shed-like volumes rising in height from 6m to 9m to 12m, together with an adjacent but physically discrete secondary structure. A stepped roof supported by a grid of concrete columns brought light into the classically deep industrial plan.

In section, either by accident or design, the angular geometry of the rooflights coupled with the stepped profile of the roof recreated Renault’s distinctive diamond-shaped logo. For Jakob + Macfarlane, the roof formed a point of departure for the new insertions which are conceived as a series of planes extruded downwards and then cranked and kinked to define new spaces.

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White wall planes demarcate spaces on an east-west axis, while secondary timber clad walls complete volumes along the opposing north-south spine. The white walls are made from honeycomb aluminium panels (more usually employed in aeronautics) selected for their lightness, flatness and large fabrication size.

In places the walls do not meet the floor, but simply hang from the roof structure, like gigantic pieces of scenery, sculpting the internal landscape. Without the cars, you could almost be in an art museum. At the heart of the complex is a cavernous exhibition hall full of Renault’s gleaming wares, which runs the length of the building.

Arranged around the edge are a trio of auditoria, with capacities for 100, 300 and 500 people. Seminar rooms and offices are located at first floor level, accessed by a walkway that winds around and overlooks the central exhibition hall. Punctuated by spaces for informal interaction and casual encounter, the walkway is like an internal street, contracting and expanding as it circulates around the glittering shrine to the automobile below.

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Anchored and focused by this big, fixed nucleus, the rest of the internal arrangement can be more flexible and fluid, capable of accommodating different sorts of events, from press launches to public promotions. Hence the notion of the walls as fixed scenery, providing a neutral backdrop for changing choreographies of cars and people. To articulate and emphasise the relationship between old and new, the original finishes of the steel roof structure and ceilings were carefully restored.

A glass roof links the hitherto separate building with the main volumes to form a luminous entrance galleria. On the east side, a new steel and glass facade will connect with a proposed urban square, part of a wider ongoing redevelopment of the former industrial quarter by the Hauts-de-Seine regional authorities.

Such recasting could be regarded as predictably emblematic of the triumph of the services sector over the messiness of making and manufacture. But at least Vasconi’s inventively remodelled building has some link with Renault’s past, while providing a forum and forcing house for the hard sell upon which its corporate future depends.

Architect Jakob + MacFarlane, Paris
Photographs 3,4,5,6,7, Jean-Marie Monthiers; 2,8,9, Nicolas Borel

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