Rodin and the armadillo
Magazine Contact #19
The Avenue des Gobelins is a magnificent boulevard in the 13th Arrondissement, only a few steps away from the Place d‘Italie with all the cafés, patisseries and seafood restaurants that really set your appetite ablaze. The pleasures of high culture have tradition in this corner of Paris. The number 73 building once housed the Théâtre des Gobelins. The drama of days gone by has been chiselled in two representational stone figures. To the left over the door stands tragedy as a male figure, to the right is comedy, a woman leaning comfortably over the entrance arch. The sculptor of the two figures who have gazed down on ice cooled platters of oysters and delicately frail macaroons ever since 1869, was no one less that Auguste Rodin.
An entirely new drama has been playing recently behind this protected historic monument facade. Roll the film: This building stood empty for many years following a number of thoroughly destructive attempts at renovation and as it fell into a state of general dilapidation, the old walls were replaced by a new structure from Renzo Piano. The 77 year old enfant terrible, architect of the Centre Pompidou, has lost none of his futuristic posturing. At least not until today. A silvery shimmering hump suddenly rises out of the inner courtyard in the street quad and gives Rodin’s two protagonists something fresh to chat about.
And not only this. “The building has already been given some very graphic and animal nicknames, not only by us, but also by the people of Paris,” Thorsten Sahlmann, Project Manager and Associate Architect in Renzo Piano Building Workshop Paris reported. Some people talk of a humpback whale, others of an elephant, but there is certainly no animal on earth that would fit the bill better than an outsized 25 metre high armadillo made from aluminium. It must also be said that these comparisons were by no means intentional. They are all more a matter of making a virtue out of a necessity, Sahlmann said. “The interior courtyard between the existing buildings was so very narrow, winding, pokey and irregular that we eventually settled for this soft and amorphous shape as the proper conclusion to an endless series of experiments. It was the only possibility we had to get along at all in this very heterogeneous atmosphere.”
It is not in any way a breach with the overall context. Decidedly not in formal terms, and when it comes to colours and materiality the historic Paris of Baron Hausmann’s times is not only treated with full honours, but it is stroked and handled only with velvet gloves and touched if at all with delicate tweezers. The client for this remarkable and altogether carefully applied urban inlay work is the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, better known as the organisation behind the French film company, which has the unmistakable cockerel silhouette striding onto the screen at the start of each one of its films.
The Foundation was established in 2006 and has manifested itself in physical form at this address for the past year where it is busy with the work of research and archiving, and where two exhibition rooms which are open to the public are maintained displaying own make gramophones, cameras and film projectors of
”You are in the centre of Paris here, and not only that, you also have a very strong impression of sitting up among the rooftops of the city,” Sophie Seydoux, President of the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation said. “The feeling of melting into the city is a gigantic sensation. And it is my own personal love story.” This not least in the match between the modern, contemporary architectural language and an organisation committed so strongly to history. The reason is: “Films have existed for over 120 years. And one of the most important qualities of film is it has always been ahead of its times. To this extent,” Seydoux said, “the building fits perfectly to the tradition we maintain and celebrate.”
The feeling here is like that of a penthouse. Because while this amorphous building is constructed in the lower floors from solid shotcrete (!), up here you are under a glass cupola consisting of 150 glass panes each curved on a double axis. Each one a unique piece geometrically. While this room is hard to see from the outside, the characteristic aluminium armadillo scales of which there are over 7000, seem to have vanished into thin air. The reason for this is the perforation of them by 30 or even up to 50 percent. The precise boring scheme for this perforation is dependent on the angle of the sun and the shade requirement.
The surfaces are in slightly bleached oak, which is also found in the installed furniture growing organically out of the architecture, in the curved glued beams and adding a note of warmth and security to the building under the Paris sky. White surfaces and glass are otherwise dominant. The furnishings have been selected to allow changing and shifting of the ten workplaces depending on the tasks that arise. On the bottom floor reached by a winding staircase there is a round conference table to seat up to twelve people. An open-space office has rarely been so friendly, embracing, inspiring. The Italian architect Renzo Piano appears to have quite a talent – and not only for the loud and dramatic.
The Pathé Foundation has geothermal heating and cooling. In addition the rooms are provided with a crossventilation based night ventilating system. Air conditioning is only used on the three hottest days of the year. It is more or less a back-up. But you are not aware of any of this. In total contrast with the Centre Pompidou or the recently completed The Shard in London the technical systems are not up front and on show, but share the armadillo existence quasi as a matter of course all without pomp and any suggestion of trala fanfares. It stands there in quiet contentment with the world, crushed lightly into the Parisian construction gap and behaves almost as though it wasn’t there at all. Unsuccessfully. Rodin’s stone heirs have already passed on the news in whispers.