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‘Europe isn't about Brussels and bureaucrats - it's about ideas, institution and architecture’

On reading a context: how institutions and their buildings shape Europe

Some years back I was invited to a fancy dinner at the Mexican Embassy in Brasilia (a superb building from the early 1970s by Teodoro González de León) and found myself sitting next to the French ambassador. On learning that I live in his country he asked me whether the French would vote ‘oui’ or ‘non’ in the impending referendum on the European Constitution.

Without hesitation I replied that they would vote ‘non’. ‘Quel désastre’ continued Son Excellence. ‘Not really’, I replied, ‘the so-called Constitution is the invention of high functionaries who are really out of touch. Europe is coming about anyway. It is being created every day by millions of people who speak several languages, work and trade across previous frontiers, study abroad and refuse narrow-minded nationalism.’

I might have added that Europe is also being constructed through institutions and their architecture. This conversation came back to me when listening to Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell (Grafton Architects) presenting their winning scheme for the new headquarters for the faculty of economics of the University of Toulouse 1 Capitole last February.

Here are Irish architects designing a building for a French institution with a European and international reputation, in a city with a distinctive identity. The university president, Bruno Sire, who introduced the architects, has stated that the TSE (Toulouse School of Economics) will outdo the LSE in a matter of years through the international quality of its faculty and research.

The Grafton project embodies the client’s progressive ambitions while responding to the layers of history in the place. On the outside the building suggests a gateway allowing public space to penetrate the core of the institution, while from the inside the interlocking levels flooded with daylight allow panoramas and long views across the river and the surrounding skyline.

Dense and responsive to the brick context on the exterior, the building melts away on the inside, suggesting the interchange of ideas, and the opening up of the horizons of knowledge. In their presentation the architects showed how they fragmented the plan to break down the programme into office wings and a public core, while also responding to an angled site between the Garonne river, the remains of a medieval city wall and a mess of colliding streets.

Grafton Architects’ home for the Toulouse School of Economics forms a huge gateway, on a scale that respects the medieval surroundings

Grafton Architects’ home for the Toulouse School of Economics forms a huge gateway, on a scale that respects the medieval surroundings

Grafton Architects’ home for the Toulouse School of Economics forms a huge gateway, on a scale that respects the medieval surroundings

Known as La Ville Rose on account of its prevalent red brick, Toulouse combines a dense urban fabric with timeless medieval monuments such as the Église des Jacobins (one of Louis Kahn’s inspirations in the region).

When conceiving their project Grafton walked the length of the city gauging the character of the brick facades, the polygonal towers, the transitions from streets to courts and the underlying spatial patterns. Their reading of the context went from the geological base through the strata of time up to the levels of light and air and touched upon the spirit of the place.

It also involved a trans-European parallel: ‘We came to an understanding of your beautiful city through our knowledge of our own city of Dublin.’

Toulouse is not just a historical city. It is also the hub of the European aerospace industry and the second university centre in France.

It has one of world’s best orchestras, and architecture is supported by institutions including the profession’s Maison de l’Architecture and the more public Centre Méridional de l’Architecture et de la Ville under the leadership of Stéphane Gruet, which maintains a healthy distance from Parisian fashions and turns south towards Spain and north Africa. The CMAV produces a unique journal called Poiësis, which combines critical and historical reflection on long-term themes with an engagement with current urban affairs.

Much of the best recent architecture in France is emerging in the south and south-west. Three years ago the prestigious Équerre D’Argent went to the small Bordeaux firm of Yves Ballot and Nathalie Franck for a fine school extension; two years ago it went to Marc Barani for a transport interchange in Nice. Last year, the small commune of Nègrepelisse (50km north of Toulouse) selected the Catalan firm RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes who come from Olot - just the other side of the Pyrenees - to design a centre for culture and cuisine.

The recent selection of Grafton architects in Toulouse fits into a larger picture: an avoidance of the flashy star system and a search for architectural substance. Of course, you do not get a building just by waving a magic wand over an urban context.

Grafton architects resist the notion that they have a ‘style’, but they do return again and again to the theme of a firm urban edge and a luminous interior. They compare their Bocconi University building in Milan (for the leading economics faculty in Italy) to an oyster shell, rough on the outside, smooth on the inside (AR March 2009).

In that case their architectural inspirations included the roof of Milan Cathedral, and the idea of rooms suspended from trusses of Alejandro de la Sota’s Maravillas Gymnasium in Madrid of 1961.

The Toulouse project reiterates the theme of an urban enclave with a luminous interior volume traversed by intersecting levels and screens.

It echoes the brick frontispieces and turrets of Toulouse’s churches while also recalling the spatial dynamism of Le Corbusier’s Curutchet House in La Plata (1949) with its urban screen, implosion of contextual geometries, and ascending promenade architecturale.

Grafton keeps a large scale model of the Curutchet in its Dublin studio as a permanent point of reference. At a time when debates are again regressing into pointless confrontations between the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’, it is refreshing to come across an architecture that is very much about contemporary reality yet nourished by both the distant past and the modern movement.

In their Toulouse project, Grafton have demonstrated that it is possible to construct a new vision for an institution while also responding to the collective memory of the city.

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