Things must change so they can remain the same

by Julius Bokor | March 6, 2015
Things must change so they can remain the same



[adapted from The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa]


The importance of waterproofing in iconic buildings

Julius Bokor

This newsletter is prompted by a recent visit to 2 iconic new buildings, both in Paris, opened to the public in October 2014 and January 2015. These are respectively the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry and the Philharmonie by Jean Nouvel.


Paris has a long history of constructing iconic buildings, either to commemorate important events, or to position the city at the forefront of culture and design.

After the Second World War, desperate to regain the city’s status, President Pompidou initiated the construction of the Pompidou Centre, designed to make cultural institutions more accessible to the public. The building’s revolutionary design (in some ways gothic, where the structure is externalised and modular), and the appointment of its inaugural director, the great Pontus Hulten, ensured its success, despite its clash with the adjoining fine grain of historic Paris. Hulten came from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and held a very clear vision for the centre. While creating strong reactions, the building’s cultural significance was soon recognised, completely revitalising a previously run down part of central Paris. Opened in 1977, this much loved (now) institution was potentially the inspiration for President Mitterrand’s Grand Projects, which began in 1982 and reinforced France’s role in culture, arts and economics.

Mitterrand realised that cities, if they are to thrive, needed to reinvent and revitalise. He set out to reform institutions across Paris, and constructs iconic structures in the more outlying parts of the city, including the Grand Louvre, Quay D’Orsay, Parc de Vilette and the Grande Arche. It is in this context that the new Philharmonie and Louis Vuitton buildings should be seen.

The Bois de Boulogne, where the new Louis Vuitton Foundation is situated, was an ancient oak forest denuded to house British and Russian troops following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. Now the second largest park in Paris, it includes a zoo, a number of amusement park facilities, two horse racing tracks, two lakes, landscaped English and botanic gardens, and a tennis stadium (home of the French Open). Gehry’s building sits within this park setting, close to the amusement facilities, shrouded in glass sails; a spectacle in any light. The building within consists of a number of fairly regularised multi-storey boxes - set at angles from each other but interconnected - housing exhibitions, performance spaces and a restaurant.

Each box beneath the building’s canopy is self-sufficient and waterproof. The glass sails shelter only the space on top, a series of lookouts, gardens and areas for sculpture and art installation, while giving the building its unusual nautical feel. Gehry has fulfilled his ambition to separate building form from waterproofing, as first seen on his house in California in 1978. In Paris, the sails shed water to a shallow pond that surrounds the building’s footprint, and the underlying structures are individually waterproofed.

On exhibition, and highlighting the design process, are Gehry’s initial sketches, a selection of architectural drawings and a large number of sketch models, all culminating in a detailed 1:50 scale model showing the building in its final form. This model was used to generate construction drawings and resolve detailing. The completed building stands as a faithful, full scale representation of this model.

It is comforting to see the use of physical scale models in current architectural practice, despite a common reliance of 3D computer modelling and virtual imagery. It appears we as architects, have not all abandoned the use of the Great Model to develop and present our work. Construction of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which began in 1675 following the great fire, was aided by a number of large scale models, commissioned by Christopher Wren to ensure his design was understood. It was a common practice to use models in this way, as construction of such buildings often spanned beyond their architect’s lifetime. Michelangelo had a large scale model built of his dome for St Peter’s, to ensure his design was followed posthumously.

These two churches represent a shift from Gothic to Renaissance architecture. Here, a prominent central dome replaced Gothic bell tower(s) as a church’s main identifying feature. This dome needed to be very tall, to ensure its visibility from ground level, given its setback from the front of the church. However, an external need for height conflicted with the interior space, better suited to a shallower dome. With his final design for St Paul’s, Wren resolved this conflict with the construction of 3 domes. As seen in the cross section below, the inner dome was shallow to suit the internal space, a conical masonry dome was then built to support the latern, and finally a timber framed dome was constructed to form the exterior skin and provide the waterproofing layer.

 Both Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation and St Paul’s Cathedral express a disconnect between their interior spaces and external silhouettes. Each building utilised physical models of a large scale for presentation and during construction. St Paul’s represented London rising from the ashes; a belief in a planned regulated universe, the enlightenment and science, whereas Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation represents cultural chaos, and no central world view. In short, they are separated only by their era and how they are waterproofed.

The other building just opened in Paris, although externally incomplete, is Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie. The building’s facade is composed of thousands of tessellating aluminium birds in a number of shades of grey. However, with this jigsaw still unfinished, the underlying waterproofing is on display. One can imagine Nouvel visiting Parc de Vilette, where the trees planted in the 1980’s have now obscured some of Tscumi’s pavillions, and on seeing a flock of birds against the grey Parisian sky, preceding with the idea of dematerialising the building’s facade.

As you explore some of the building’s external spaces, one can ascend the facade’s embedded goat track for great views of the park and the city beyond. It is tempting to compare briefly the Sydney Opera House, which again displays a disconnect between the outside form and internal function. However, the resolution of Utzon’s external structure is not arbitrary, but rigorous, and intellectually satisfying. The spaces between the tiled shells and interior functions are raw, restrained and of great beauty, as well as offering framed, yet changing views of the harbour.

Reaction to Nouvel’s Philharmonie has been lukewarm at this stage, but there is a need to wait for the non-functional (in its absence) facade to be completed, before making further judgement.


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