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Nantes School of Architecture by Lacaton & Vassal, Nantes, France

Lacaton & Vassal demonstrate the potential of architecture with a muscular and intensely flexible armature for learning. Photography by Paul Raftery

Jean-Philippe Vassal once memorably remarked that ‘air and flowers’ were the two most important things in Lacaton & Vassal’s work. This makes the Paris-based partnership sound a bit hippy-dippy, but don’t be duped. Such blissed-outness is tempered by a roll-call of tough, thrifty buildings that draw on rigorously considered ideas about materials, space, ecology, technology and an evangelical impetus to do more with less. The practice’s latest project is an architecture school in Nantes, and it aims to lead by example in making its students aware of the extraordinary potential of their chosen vocation.

In partnership since 1987, Lacaton & Vassal have now emerged from the margins of colourful idiosyncrasy into an increasingly receptive mainstream. But despite being embraced by the establishment, the duo’s signature grungily expressive construction is still provocatively at odds with the more ‘polished’ (and often more anodyne) work of their French compatriots.

Nantes represented a testing jump in scale that could well have resulted in these qualities being dumbed down or edited out. Happily, this is not the case. The architecture school is a muscular and intensely flexible armature for teaching, learning, socialising and building.

Hunkered down on a scenic site on the edge of the river Loire, it is a heroic, raw-boned bruiser of a structure.

The concrete and steel frame is clearly articulated, like a giant jungle gym, and infilled with an acreage of translucent polycarbonate sheeting filched from industrial greenhouses. Designed for a bit of rough and tumble, it’s a veritable education factory, intended to cope with and process exploding student numbers. When the city’s old architecture school was first built in the mid 1970s, it had 400 students. Now there are around 1,000.

The factory analogy is apt, but by nailing down the costs of construction and materials the architects were able to increase the size of the building and provide nearly twice the stipulated floor space. The original brief called for 15,150m², to which Lacaton & Vassal added 4,430m² of extra internal space and 8,000m² of terraces, all on a budget of 17.75 million euros.

This offers unexpected educational, operational and social possibilities. And factories can also make for mesmerising architecture, as Nantes proves by riffing admiringly on modernist temples of industry, such as Lingotto, the former Fiat factory in Turin. Like Lingotto, Nantes has a big, butch ramp, leading up to a functional roof, though it’s not a test track (as famously immortalised in The Italian Job); rather a potential construction site where students can build and evaluate their creations. However, Lacaton & Vassal’s original presentation drawings showed a rooftop circus, so anything’s possible.

Somewhat less sinuous than Lingotto, the ramp cranks around the perimeter of three double-height, concrete-framed floors. At intervals, these main floors are subdivided into mezzanine levels by the insertion of a lightweight steel structure, so generating a kind of spatial nougat. Large, double-height volumes form workshops and lecture halls; more intimate, single-storey spaces are used for seminar rooms and the library.

But crucially, the aim is not to be too prescriptive. Many areas are labelled espace libre appropriable, to be used as staff and students see fit, acknowledging that functions and relationships change over time.

‘Like a pedagogical tool, the project questions the programme and practices of the school as much as the norms, technologies and its own process of elaboration,’ says Vassal.

This notion of things being in a state of flux cultivates an engaging topsy-turviness - for instance, parking is on the first floor (an underground car park would have involved complex and costly excavation work) and the ground floor is covered with tarmac to suggest that it’s a literal extension of the street. The ramp, which is also publicly accessible, ‘progressively puts the ground surface of the city in touch with the sky,’ says partner Anne Lacaton. On the upper levels, students can savour their city as the building becomes a giant belvedere.

For Lacaton & Vassal, Nantes is a good place from which to take stock. Ten years ago, the practice described an ideal of architecture that would be ‘straightforward, useful, precise, cheap, free, jovial, poetic and cosmopolitan’. That vision has now emphatically arrived.

Architect Lacaton & Vassal, Paris
Project team Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal, Florian De Pous, Julien Callot, Lisa Schmidt-Colinet, Isidora Meier, Frédéric Hérard
Structural engineers Setec Bâtiment, CESMA
Cost consultant E21

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