Discovering Nantes

Les  Chateu

Les Chateu

Ok it’s been a while since I last shared my musings with you. A long while. Cue tearful streams of apology and remorse etc. Actually, no, none of that. It’s true I wish I’d managed to write sooner, I have missed it. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear my reason; for I am with sprog. Yes indeed, I can almost no longer see my feet and am starting to have major panics about pathetically inane things such as storage boxes. So when the opportunity came up to go on one final travelling adventure before it all kicks right off, it took me about hmm, a sip of decaf coffee to decide.

Our annual architect’s office outing is usually an atypical field trip combination of concentrated architectural appreciation and Christmas party debauchery. This year turned out a bit more restrained than usual (nothing to do with me being sober, I’m sure). The destination was Nantes, West France, about 2 hours outside of Paris and as it turned out, a very pleasant city with a good vibe. We arrived into Nantes station a tad frazzled around the edges, after relying pretty much solely on a hand fan for air on the Paris – Nantes connection. At least it wasn’t raining. No, it was actually around 26c, the fact that we’d travelled slightly southwards into France as well as West suddenly making itself blindingly apparent. After a brief wash and brush up, we headed across the beautiful Loire river toward our first appointment; the Ecole d’architecture (school of architecture) by Lacaton & Vassal. An impressive building built on a laudable concept, it has but few flaws, although these flaws do surround some fundamentals such as sufficient winter heating. But hey, the upsides outweigh all that, especially if you’re a visitor and not a student shivering in a parka in mid-Jan. The original design opportunity was put out to competition, an approach which has many negative aspects for designers (not least the generally outrageous amount of work required for free) but also has the potential to shoot a practice into the limelight and often results in a standout design for the client as competitors wring every last creative drop from their architects in order to stand out from the crowd. Lacaton & Vassal clearly did just that, submitting a response to the brief which fulfilled the criteria in 600m2 less area than allowed, leaving significant spaces free for them to propose the solution which makes this clever building what it is; an ambiguous play between public/private, inside/outside. The frame consists of a concrete shell held up by 10m spaced columns. Inserted into this is the steel inner, a simple construction technique allowing the building to be inherently adaptable to meet its requirements which may well change throughout its life; for example, new floors can be slotted in to create extra teaching space or more studios. In the meantime, the ‘spare’ floor area serves an important function, crafting external, public space which can be open to the street or closed off, using polycarbonate moveable walls on every level which unwrap the building and when open provide (on a summer’s day) what feels like exceptional outdoor workspaces, many with fabulous views across the river. The staff are clearly delighted with the results, judging by the impassioned tour given by the school’s comms manager. On the walk back, general agreement was shared about an innovative design with its heart in entirely the right place (despite a few technical hiccups); good design doesn’t always need the ‘frilly bits’, and giving a building the ‘wow’ factor often diverts essential budget from the basic premise of creating enlivening spaces.

Ecole d'architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

Ecole d’architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

As the sun set, we topped our day off with a lift to the top of the Tour Bretagne, a 37 storey office skyscraper with a bar and observation deck at the top. The tower has been unpopular with locals due to it’s seeming blight on the traditional city landscape, kept generally low by the French building control system which is set by province and almost impossible to get around. It does, however, allow stunning views across the city, of which we managed to get a glimpse on Friday evening.

View from Tour Bretagne

View from Tour Bretagne

Day 2 began with my first ever blissfully hangover-free second morning on an office trip. Last time involved a necessary 10am vodka red bull to coax me back from the land of the dead (don’t ask), but this time I was up bright and early and ready to make the most of the hotel breakfasts I usually drunkenly snore through.

Ever heard of Les Machine? Or remember a huge mechanical elephant roaming the streets of London a few years ago? If not, get your Google on and check them out. Les machines are a collective of mechanics, engineers and artists who create fantastical creatures and structures from disused pieces of wood and metal. But far from tickling the aesthetic spot alone (although they are stunning), their creations move, make noise, carry passengers and in the case of the elephant, soak people like me with water, mid-selfie. Their technical ability and creative genius combines in a glorious perfect storm to produce pieces swathed in 19th century circus ambience; a productive and proactive use of the modern Steampunk style which amazes children and adults alike; genuine cross-generational entertainment through design. In one word, fabulous.

Les Machines - The Mechanical Elephant

Les Machines – The Mechanical Elephant

Aside from a quick lunch and the return wander to the station, thus ended our visit to the city of Nantes, a  simulating, vibrant, and beautiful city which I wholly recommend you visit. We did stop at Paris on the way back, which although gorgeous and gay as expected, has somehow lost its mystery and so that glorious sense of secret discovery which comes from an unexpected find. There’s undoubtedly so much I didn’t see in two short days, and things at which I only managed to snatch glances as we passed whilst on our way to somewhere else. Another visit to Nantes calls I think, next time with baby in tow!

Loire River

Loire River

Local church interior

Local church interior

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Local church interior

Local church interior

Detail of the Law Courts

Detail of the Law Courts

Les Machines Headquarters

Les Machines Headquarters

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DSC_5263

Workshop in Ecole d'architecture

Workshop in Ecole d’architecture

Front of Law Courts

Front of Law Courts

View from the roof at Ecole d'architecture

View from the roof at Ecole d’architecture

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2 comments
  1. Polly Moseley said:

    You have some beautiful picture of this city which has become my second home over recent years. It would be great to be in touch about some work we’re doing in London on Nantes and Art in French Cities. Please drop me a line so we can connect further on this and come along to http://en.nantes-tourisme.com/jam if you can!

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