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Warp Factor: Les Turbulences at Orleans FRAC Centre by Jakob + MacFarlane

A regional French collection of experimental architecture has inspired this formally audacious addition to its home in Orleans

Just over 30 years ago, Jack Lang, François Mitterrand’s flamboyant culture minister, created France’s FRACs − fonds régionaux d’art contemporain (regional contemporary-art reserves) − as part of a national policy of decentralisation. Each of the country’s 23 regions would constitute its own collection of contemporary art independent of central government (while still enjoying funding from the culture ministry). The scope of each collection was left up to the individual FRAC director.

For the FRAC of the région Centre (whose capital is Orléans), there was a radical change of direction in 1991 when its then head, Frédéric Migayrou (today chief architecture curator at the Centre Pompidou and Bartlett Professor of Architecture), chose to orient the collection towards post-war architecture and architecture-related art, focusing on architecture as experiment, utopia and research − in other words the radicals, the visionaries and the avant-garde.

Artist duo Electronic Shadow provided the 1% artistique required by frence law in the form id LED's incorporated in the aluminium composite panel

Artist duo Electronic Shadow provided the 1% artistique required by french law in the form of LED’s incorporated in the aluminium composite panel (click to enlarge)

Today the FRAC Centre possesses work by over 160 architects and 100 artists, with everyone from Archizoom to Tschumi, Eisenman to Archigram and Bloc to Koolhaas represented in 800 models, 15,000 drawings and entire architects’ archives. This is a world-class collection, on a par with those at MoMA or the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

Initially the FRACs were not intended as museums, the idea being that the art collected would be exhibited in schools, galleries, public buildings and cultural institutions in each region. But, 30 years on, many have opted either to acquire or to build their own gallery space to exhibit their collections. Indeed a whole ‘new generation’ of FRACs is currently emerging with seven new buildings by the likes of Kengo Kuma (FRACs Franche-Comté and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur, both 2013), Odile Decq (FRAC Bretagne, 2012), Lacaton & Vassal (Nord-Pas-de-Calais, opening in November 2013) and Bjarke Ingels (Aquitaine, due 2015).

The FRAC Centre is one of these, its new home was unveiled in September, seven years after the Franco-New-Zealand duo Jakob + MacFarlane won the design competition against the three other finalists (all French practices) who were asked to develop detailed plans.

ground floor plan

Ground floor plan. Les Turbulances sit within the U-shaped courtyard of the former Subsistances Militaires (click to enlarge)

The FRAC Centre is not a new building but a conversion, with an extension added. The site is the former Subsistances Militaires, a plain and severe quadrangle of 19th-century buildings that had been a warehouse for army stores. At the edge of Orléans’ historic centre and opening onto the ring road that has taken the place of the city’s fortifications, the Subsistances had already been used by the FRAC Centre for ArchiLab, in a series of exhibitions and events exploring cutting-edge experimental architecture.

The competition brief called not only for the usual gallery and backstage space, but also for ‘the creation of an architectural statement looking onto the ring road, conveying what the FRAC Centre is and playing the role of an urban landmark’.

There was also the implicit requirement that, since the FRAC Centre’s collection is globally about experimentation in architecture, its own building should be a demonstration of the experimental. Moreover, French law stipulates that 1 per cent of the budget of public buildings must be spent on new art work, which usually results in pieces being tacked on afterwards, but at the FRAC Centre each competition entrant was asked to associate with an artist from the outset.

‘Since the collection is about experimentation in architecture, the brief called for its own building to be a demonstration of the experimental’

Jakob + MacFarlane have been in the FRAC Centre’s collection since 2001 with a design for a house in Corsica. The project that brought them fame was the restaurant Georges at the Centre Pompidou (AR July 2000), where they took the orthogonal grid of Piano and Rogers’ building and deformed it digitally to create ‘excrescences’ where some of the restaurant’s functions could be housed.

Here at the FRAC Centre the approach is the same. Their first decision was to demolish the building that partly closed the quadrangle on the ring-road side to create an irregular U that opens itself up to the city. They then digitally projected the grids of the three wings forming the U, which, since not orthogonally aligned, ‘interfere’ with each other; from this interference they digitally contrived a zone of ‘turbulence’, creating a ‘landscape’ with three excrescences − the tallest of which rises to 15m − in the courtyard, whose underside would give new space connected to the southern wing of the U. Programmatically it was straightforward: the existing buildings would house gallery and backstage space, while the Turbulences − the excrescences − provide entrance hall, bookshop, café and projection space.

Aluminium composite panels form the roof; at ground level the segue into more hardwearing concrete

Aluminium composite panels form the roof; at ground level these segue into more hardwearing concrete (click to enlarge)

Sixteen years after the Guggenheim Bilbao (AR December 1997) and all that followed in its wake, the formal convolutions of the Turbulences hardly seem revolutionary. But building this kind of structure is still beyond the capacities of most construction firms, which is why it took so long to realise, three years being necessary to put a construction team in place, and four more to complete the modest-sized project. Digitisation of course played a predominant role, but true file-to-factory was impossible. Computer modelling allowed perfect accuracy, but assembly on site was still a question of traditional, skilled manual craftsmanship.

A tubular-steel frame underpins the whole, and since none of the tubes meets another at the same angle, computer modelling allowed the cutting of the joints to be undertaken individually, but most of the frame was hand welded. On its exterior it is covered with Reynobond aluminium-composite panels, each unique in its shape and dimensions and which required handmade frames to support it, with the computer model allowing high accuracy in the positioning.

The structure’s covering merges seamlessly into the floor of the courtyard, the only indication of the change being material, Reynobond giving way to more hardwearing concrete. And it is in the covering that the 1% artistiquecomes in: the artist duo Electronic Shadow incorporated LEDs into some of the Reynobond panels so that large parts of the Turbulences become a luminous field on which images, patterns and messages can be made to dance and scroll.

Section through Les Turbulences

Section through Les Turbulences (click to enlarge)

The transformed landscape of the Subsistances courtyard provides a strong urban statement and landmark, even if it may seem a case of form for form’s sake. For Jakob + MacFarlane, the Turbulences were intended to incarnate the tumult that the FRAC Centre’s collection represents in the history of architecture (even if Le Corbusier is not in the collection, you can’t help seeing variants on his light cannons here). Certainly this is a beautifully realised landscape, each panel, concrete or Reynobond, perfectly laid so that all the facets reflect the light just so and the shadow gaps are perfectly calibrated − a faithful real-world translation of a virtual rendering.

At night it lights up like a Christmas tree, even if Electronic Shadow’s LEDs seem a timid gesture compared with Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. But inside the Turbulences disappoint, for the reverse of this seamless exterior landscape turns out to be an ungainly tent, a big top on acid with none of the lightness and airiness of a fabric-covered structure: the tubular framework is chunkily clumsy, the spaces seem gratuitously and gracelessly amorphous, and the non-tactile perfection of the exterior is mirrored by an all-too obviously imperfect underside with none of the sensuous material charm you expect of the handmade or the thoughtful in architecture. But this is just the prominent part of the iceberg, for the interiors of the Subsistances buildings have been carefully converted into 1,500sqm of plain, sober gallery space that provides a perfect no-frills exhibition environment.

A tubular steel frame supports the new extension, but the finesse of the exterior is not replicated in this ungainly big top structure

A tubular steel frame supports the new extension, but the finesse of the exterior is not replicated in this ungainly big top structure

For its inauguration, the new FRAC Centre is presenting the ninth edition of ArchiLab, with the theme ‘organic’ computer-generated design. It is a splendid array of science-fiction natural-history horrors. The permanent collection is restricted to two rooms, but the works on show are mouth-watering: the original of Madelon Vriesondorp’s Flagrant délit (1975), Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Villa Rosa (1967) or Raimund Abraham’s Hinge Chair (1970-71), to name just three.

In just two rooms it is possible to give only the most superficial overview, but, once ArchiLab is over, the temporary galleries will be used for thematic shows fully exploiting the riches of this spectacular collection.

Les Turbulances, FRAC Centre

Architect: Jakob + MacFarlane
Photography: Roland Halbe

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