Dominique Perrault discusses the challenge of designing new buildings for historic sites, such as the new Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, and looks ahead to the completion of the new Court of Justice, Luxembourg.
Dominique Perrault was just 36 when President Francois Mitterrand selected his design for the new Bibliotheque de France in 1989. Further competitions and commissions have taken him across his native France as well as to Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, where he is adding a major extension to the European Court of Justice; to St Petersburg for a dramatic addition to the Mariinsky Theatre; and to a new building for a women’s university in Seoul, South Korea. For the Royal Academy’s Annual Architecture Lecture he chose the title Would you like it wrapped?. He explained to Jeremy Melvin how he uses wrapping to complement architecture’s potential to create transformations of urban quarters, institutions and landscapes.
Perrault University Campus Ewha, Seoul, Korea, by Dominique Perrault University Campus Ewha, Seoul, Korea, by Dominique Perrault
‘I work abroad,’ says Dominique Perrault. ‘Seven countries in Europe. It’s tiring and expensive, but it’s very, very fascinating to develop and grasp other cultures.’ Commissions in Britain, though, have eluded him – so far. ‘I’ve done competitions in London and the UK, but unfortunately without success…. I don’t remember when a French architect last worked in London. Was it Westminster Abbey?’ That, he speculates, could be changing. ‘Jean Nouvel has a commission… and it could be possible [for me] too.’
Architecture, stresses Perrault, begins with the most minimal interventions in a landscape. ‘Take a piece of land, build a wall on it, and you are indisputably already making architecture. I tend to focus more on the landscape than the construction itself. The material for architecture is the land as it exists.’ This sentiment is brought to fruition in his scheme for a hotel in Tenerife, where the building hides behind artfully contrived planting in a dramatic volcanic, beachfront site.
Commenting on Richard Long’s installation in the Rotunda at the Summer Exhibition, he said, ‘I like how with a small effort you can change the relationship between people and the environment. It is not necessary to be noisy. You change the art and it is not the same site. Nature is a material like concrete, steel and glass, and I like to manipulate nature, to introduce it into buildings, onto buildings or to build underground.’
‘In Seoul the morphology of the site [for the university building] is charming.’ Founded by American missionaries, it has ‘a very British campus, with grey stone, gothic pavilions and a lot of trees. We would like to introduce a very important building which becomes the hub of the university, but we don’t want to disturb the landscape. So we are proposing not just a building, but more trees too. The building, though not exactly underground, is concealed in the thickness of the skin of this landscape.’ Ironically, ‘the main entrance also marks the disappearance of architecture.’
Dominique Perrault explains his proposals for a massive enlargement of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. ‘It’s a fantastic, historical city.’ This was the ‘first international competition in Russia since the Palace of the Soviets in 1931. It is a symbolic project…The challenge of how to build a contemporary building in a historic district is very current across Europe. My idea is to build a very functional, efficient building like a musical instrument. I like to wrap the building with a golden cocoon which fits with the city’s historic skyline, [as if] ‘morphing’ the cupola of the cathedral to change its shape but in the same spirit. This is not a project like Frank Gehry; the design is more like Buckminster Fuller, a moulded very geometric design where you can control each component in this shape.’
‘It has accommodation for one of the most important stages in the world, but it is not enough to say that. The new idea is to introduce a special space between the building and the cover, a gap between the envelope and the building. It proposes an open opera house, not a closed, solid or heavy building. We have maybe two, three or four entrances, from the south, north and east. You can go into the gallery day or night to have coffee or dinner, to go to an exhibition or for a broadcast. There is also a small museum.’
Both at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, from which he graduated in 1978, and in subsequent research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Dominique Perrault studied particular examples of how individual buildings could transform urban districts. ‘For my diploma [at the Beaux-Arts] I studied city halls in various arrondissements. Over 40 to 45 years 11 city halls were built and it was a very impressive strategy. They built a city hall, then built a school for girls, another for boys, perhaps a market and other facilities. Haussmann [who transformed Paris in the mid 19th century] imagined the core of each district, with an avenue, a square, a park… it was wonderful and clever and the strategy fascinated me.
The monastic communities which he studied at the Hautes Etudes followed a different approach. During the 18th century various ‘Christian communities wanted to erect buildings on the Left Bank. I was interested in how they managed to control urban space.’ Their buildings were ‘very introverted’.
‘The library [Bibliotheque de France] interacts with this period. It is ambivalent, [combining] these two approaches. One addresses urban space; [in this sense] it is a monument open to the city with no wall, [but] into the centre is a garden – a piece of forest, around which you have a very intimate building. In one way it is introverted but in another very extroverted. My research was about how to combine these two opposites. It is a contradiction, but a good one.’
During the construction of the Bibliotheque de France, Dominique Perrault developed a close relationship with President Francois Mitterrand. ‘He was very involved with each of the grands traveaux, but the library came at the end of his career. He was very friendly and quiet, posing no political problems. Around the library a very boring polemic developed. Mitterrand followed the project, not wanting control, but wanted information, asking ‘how does it work?’ and ‘what are you doing?’ He was concerned about the conditions for readers, spending a lot of time on the quality of environment for each reader. Twenty or twenty-one times he came into my office alone, or we visited the site together, with no press, no minister, nobody else. That was very special.’
British architects often look with envy to France, which they believe to be far more receptive to good design. But Perrault qualifies this received wisdom. ‘The library was a landmark that could only be achieved by a president with vision, like Georges Pompidou at Beaubourg. In France there are some very heavy rules which are sometimes good and sometimes very boring. There has to be a strategy to change the character of a district with rules to control costs and speculation. Public action with an urban design workshop sets height density and rules for the urban fabric. After that, the city can organise a special company with public and private money – it is a good instrument to control the mix in a district, but it gives the administration a lot of power. If it is lacking in imagination it develops into a bureaucratic process and can be very boring.’
He envies some aspects of the UK’s planning system. ‘Foster’s cucumber’, as he charmingly calls the gherkin, ‘or the tower of Renzo Piano would be impossible in Paris.’
Having created the Bibliotheque de France, ‘a huge building, three times the size of Beaubourg’ where the four book-storing towers describing a volume which is the ‘library, but virtual, a void’, Dominique Perrault won a competition to extend the increasingly powerful European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
‘It’s not a new building but a huge extension of the existing structure, in a totally different idiom. It is difficult to feel the substance of the client, as judges stay for three or five years, and the project will take twelve. But what is important is the relationship between European building and European political structures; we are starting to introduce another relationship in architecture between an institution and European citizens.
‘Many judges asked “what is the symbolic character of the building?” Before it was just administrative offices; now it is necessary to have a landmark. If you don’t have an architectural image this institution would have a different existence. My idea is to clarify the main functions. There are three important ones. The courtrooms, the historical origin of the institution, which we have assembled in the old palace; around this we have developed a ring around the whole palace, which has the chambers for the judges. Then we increase the structure with a spinal core, a long gallery which connects the old and new buildings, with a café, library and offices for the 2000 staff.
‘These three devices make a close relationship between the people working in the building and its purpose, while the relationship between the public becomes apparent in the urban design, which creates a new public space for justice.’