Interviewed in Paris, 24 April 2012
The architect Dominique Perrault belongs to the architects of the European tectonic tradition. His work is continual and well-paced. Powerful concepts, carefully devised contexts and infinitely balanced although seemingly simple details characterize all Perrault’s projects.
He was almost 36 when he won the competition for the French National Library in Paris. In a way, this colossal work determined Perrault’s position on the global architectural scene. Similar to film directors who make their best film at the beginning of their career, such a project is often a heavy burden to a young architect.
His buildings create an impressive urban landscape and a particular relationship with nature and the environment. Louis Kahn says it best with his statement about architects as nature’s advocates. They do not imitate nature. Villa One, Aplix Factory and the Ewha Womans University in Seoul corroborate that.
ORIS: There is a very interesting problem, and it’s about the relationship between nature and the artificial, architecture as artificial and nature as something which has almost stopped existing. Cities and urban sprawls are everywhere and how we deal with nature is quite an important question, and also whether we can look at architecture as some kind of extended nature. In your projects, you always have a very nice relation between nature and the artificial.
Dominique Perrault: I think the relationship between the artificial and the natural is very important. The classical approach definitely separates the natural and the artificial, but it is now impossible to define exactly and clearly the natural and the artificial path. For the architect and architecture, this is a great change and also a chance to investigate a different concept between a building itself and its environment. I think it is very emotional finally to merge some artificial part with some natural part. If you use some print image on glass, or you use some mirrors, or an underground situation. It’s very exciting because this kind of approach or experience is a test, not exactly new, but more or less another territory, another relationship with the world, with geography, with the countryside, with the context. The question about the context is how it is possible to change and manipulate the context, to change the context into another context. I think it is very interesting to touch the context and to work with it like a material. When you are working with the material to build a building, you respect the material. And if you are working with the context like a material, you build a new context. It’s also important in regard to the ethics and the responsibility of the architect. My statement is my responsibility, it’s my risk and commitment.
ORIS: Your relationship with nature and the environment is fascinating. I’d like to comment on your dialogue with nature and the environment through three, for me diverse objects, namely Villa One, where you allow the lawn to become a façade on an underground house, the Aplix Factory in Nantes, where you communicate with the surroundings with a simple act of reflection, Ewha Womans University in Seoul, where you sublimate all the principles of artificial environment. For me, as Louis Kahn says, the architect has become nature’s advocate and does everything with the utmost respect for nature. He does this without imitating nature.
Dominique Perrault: I find the relationship between Louis Kahn and nature a little mystical, because of this statement about the silence, about nothing moving, it’s very quiet. He has a special relationship with nature. My feeling and relationship with nature is more physical. When you develop a project with this physical contact or feeling with nature, you immediately introduce nature into the building or onto the building, I don’t know exactly where, but there’s a good link between nature and architecture if you imagine changing the landscape or maybe using the landscape, like a real part of the project. You have a building and the landscape is around it, you have a splendid or magnificent frame, and you see the lake or the mountain, it’s very nice, very emotional, but it’s very static. If you consider the landscape as part of the project, the relationship is totally different.
ORIS: Yes, but in your factory in Nantes, it’s a very simple gesture, your dialogue with the environment. I actually very much like this idea you mention, about using nature as a material. Actually, your National Library of France depends on a very conscious use of the atrium and the nature inside the atrium. How did you get to this idea?
Dominique Perrault: The idea comes from the historical library of Henri Labrouste. He was a very famous and important French architect, and he had two sides. One side of this guy is romantic. For example, the whole Richelieu Library has a very romantic design, with the presence of nature. The other side of this architect is very radical. For example, the Sainte-Geneviève Library is very strong building. It’s fantastic, it’s a very, very strong concept building, and very radical and rational. It was built in the 19th century. Let me come back to thelibrary garden. The idea is to introduce nature into the library, but exactly the opposite from the historical Richelieu Library. In the Richelieu Library, you have a huge painting on the wall, with nature, trees and the sky and so on. It’s an allegory. I thought I would introduce real nature into the new library. The people in the library would be reading around the garden and see real nature. This concept is a very contemporary statement because the garden appears as a sustainable part of the library.
ORIS: But at the same time you are using nature as a material, that’s brilliant.
Dominique Perrault: The process is also funny, because we built this garden like a building, with cranes, it took a lot of installations to build it.
ORIS: I visited the building during the building process in 1996, it was not completed at the time. It was very impressive to see it at that stage, not finished but as work-in-progress. Could you say something about the scale? What is it? We have three things: scale, light and material, the scale is the most important, and material and light are one part of idea of architecture.
Dominique Perrault: To me, scale is relative by definition, and scale doesn’t exist as an autonomous idea. The concept is without scale. When you are working on a concept, the size exists but the scale doesn’t exist. If you combine or merge the concept with the context, the scale immediately appears. Also, another word that fits better with light and material is void. I think we should switch the scale with the void. If you are working with the void, the light and the materials, after that the space and the scale appear, and some other terms. The library, but also some other projects, works with, manages and controls the void, the quality of the void, the presence of the void. I think the void finally creates not exactly an abstraction, maybe a feeling of the architecture, but I think the void also appears like a material. The density of the void in architecture is something, more or less a status about empty spaces in the architecture. In France, architects speak about space, like ‘I should control the space, I should control the scale’ and so on. But for me, it’s a consequence, it comes after. If you control the status of the void, you are creating a public space, some special space, some private, some intimate, some open space. The conceptual process of imagining a building is a little different. The scale is a tool. It’s more technical.
ORIS: It appears when you have two things to compare. If you don’t have them, the scale does not exist at all.
Dominique Perrault: This building, the library, could be absolutely very nice if it became a pavilion in a park. It could be nice, as this very small building. Or, it could be bigger, I don’t know. The concept has no limits, no dimensions, no size. There is no scale for a concept. And when the concept fits the place, the sense, reality and physical presence of architecture immediately appear.
ORIS: It was interesting to hear you speak about this possibility of a situation when architects take a concept from one scale and situation, and put it in a completely different situation, from a house to an urban square and so on.
Dominique Perrault: I don’t work like that. If you try to build a conceptual approach, you should develop a conceptual process and use all materials and components like some other projects. It’s a concept, you can change it and manage it for another project, it’s not a problem. It’s an experience. You can use this concept to develop another situation from it. I don’t have this kind of idea. I develop something, and when it’s finished, I move on to something else.
ORIS: That’s actually much better. It brings Peter Eisenman to mind.
Dominique Perrault: For the city hall building in Innsbruck, we developed a very complex building, connecting it with existing buildings, some new parts and so on. Some part of the new building is an exact copy of some existing building in the city. It was not necessary to make a new and special design, it was better to expand and increase the design of the historical building. We built a wing with the same design as the existing building, and you don’t know exactly which hall is the new hall and so on. It’s not necessary to have something new all the time. If you have not one, but maybe three good reasons to make a copy, you should do it.
ORIS: As an architect you build all over the world. How do you establish the relationship with the surroundings and what does location mean for you? You build all around, but you are still European, you have European culture?
Dominique Perrault: If you would like to promote the same building attitude in Asia as in Europe, it’s very stupid, for me. American corporations develop this kind of relationship with the local situation. If you would like to develop an exchange with the local situation, with people, with society, the economy, the social and technical situation, it is necessary to develop a process together. If you propose something, you could test your proposal on the site. With people on the site, it is possible to exchange and to critique, to organize some review and develop a normal process between your idea, your feeling, your first proposal, like a hypothesis, and the specific situation in another country.
ORIS: Your approach is very open, very direct, you try to solve problems. Speaking about this kind of situation, how was it to work in Seoul? Did you travel often to the site? This process is very interesting because it took a lot of time from idea to realization, how much did it change?
Dominique Perrault: It didn’t change much in Seoul. The client was the Womans University, and the quality of the client was very high. It’s an elite university, its staff is very good. I was protected by this staff during this process because usually in Asia you produce the concept design and after that the local team and the local construction company develop the project…
ORIS: …probably changing it during the process.
Dominique Perrault: Changing and possibly misunderstanding it. In Seoul, we followed the project from beginning to end with a local architect and engineer, with a very strong generic contractor in Korea, Samsung. It was a very dangerous period, with the new president and the election in the university. But in the end, we more or less controlled the project during construction. The exchange with local architects, firms and teams is very important. For me, it is also very interesting because you have a human relationship. It’s very important, it is very rich and positive.
ORIS: Your projects show perfectly clear construction, space ranking and minute details; those have now become your unique paradigm.
Dominique Perrault: My goal, perhaps even obsession, is that architecture should create a solution for a situation. And you should be clear. If I’m not clear, I’m not satisfied, because where is the solution? The architecture should transform and change a place into another place, change the site into another site, a quality into another quality. I should feel something when I develop a project. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I want to feel something. Can this new project change the city? Sometimes the change is small, sometimes big, it depends, but where is the result afterwards for the people? If you have no result, only the design, only the movement, the result is a nice curiosity, but after five years, it’s nothing.
ORIS: What is the architect’s role in society today?
Dominique Perrault: Today, the architect is a very important component in the transformation of the metropolis. I think the idea has disappeared that the architect is only involved in the field of construction. This position about architecture and building was correct in the 19th century, obviously, and during the 20th century, but now it’s absolutely different because the field is very large, it’s very open. It’s a little complex, but it’s possible to develop a lot of project ideas if you work in the scale of the metropolis. But the scale of the metropolis is not only big. In the metropolis you have a lot of small projects. OK, let’s say I design a small project for a street. It’s a nice project. Small. Perfect. But it’s nothing. If I develop a metropolitan analysis, this project in the metropolis is totally different. Only the architect has the capacity to develop this kind of approach. Only the architect can organize the connection between the political, sociological, geographical people and so on. Only the architect can create this kind of mass cartography strategy to organize a relationship between a small isolated project and another fitting into a global vision. I think it’s a fantastic time, it’s a fantastic period for the architect. If you continue to develop some nice projects without this depth, with the complexity of contemporary cities, you’re no architect. But if you connect the project and the metropolitan substance, everything changes. It’s neither simple nor easy, but it’s very positive.
ORIS: It’s frustrating when you are involved in education, and it’s a big problem because a lot of young people, but fortunately not all, don’t have the nerve to go much deeper into things. On the other hand, small groups are very socially aware and very prepared to do all kinds of things to go into this matter deeply, to try to connect very different relations with the people and so on. Actually, a lot of magazines are making a mess because they are just showing these young people beautiful pictures without any need to delve deeper. We try with our magazine to always have essays and articles that don’t just explain some building in a few sentences, but try to get into the social relationship of some political issues and other things, but a very small number of people read magazines, they just go through the pictures and that’s all. This interview will be making some little changes to this.
Dominique Perrault: I believe it is very important for architects, especially young ones, to believe in the future, because it is very hard to imagine a project if you don’t believe in the future. Believing in the future is not about happiness, you could be very violent and still believe in the future.