Happiness is the only requirementby Ségolène Pérennes-Poncet
Conversation with Irina Cristea and Grégoire Zündel around the theme: Happiness as a program. Interview by Ségolène Pérennes-Poncet on the occasion of the preface of the book "Time for Play: Why Architecture Should Take Happiness Seriously".
This book, Time for Play, is the first in a collection that will be published in 2015 and 2016… What does the title refer to?
Irina Cristea: For the last 15 years our practice has worked on projects of all sizes, which demand very different time-frames. Time is an important factor in our work. The design that emerges from each study phase is determined by the time allocated to it, from the initial ideas to going on site, through all the various intermediary stages. Some projects are completed very quickly, in a burst of concentrated energy, whereas others are real marathons and require huge endurance.
Grégoire Zündel: We have worked on many building projects, each of which has gone its own way: the intensity of the design stage, unforeseeable hold-ups, accelerations, schedules for building and the different contractors and time to talk with the client. For example, with the metro stations we are designing for the extension of line 14 in Paris or for the line B in Rennes, we have encountered a whole new idea of temporality. These major projects are planned well in advance, their technical and urban constraints have a powerful impact on the design, and their decision-making processes are complex and so much slower. On the other hand, temporary architectural projects engender an extremely rapid and concentrated way of working. There is very little time between the idea and its realisation. The studies and building of the Peace Pavilion took only six weeks before it was installed in Bethnal Green in London.
IC: These different experiences gave us the idea of presenting our work in separate books, which refer to the different lengths of time the projects need. But time intervenes in many other ways. Projects for urban installations such as Bouncing Bridge, Peace Pavilion or Water Invaders, prompted us to think, for example, about the timescale of urban intervention. How can we make a mark on a city with a project that has a small budget and, specifically, a much shorter schedule, which responds to a need within a limited time, and gives meaning to, or opens up a site without undertaking a lengthy construction or development process? Architects can and must be able to work with this reactivity, because times are changing, the expectations, the budgets, are not always those of a traditional project.
GZ: Our work is also strongly defined by the risk of obsolescence. A notion that is often given inadequate consideration is that of ‘durability’. We aspire to design timeless architecture. We can suppose that our buildings will be faced with changes in users, in use, or in environmental and energy-related expectations, but we cannot predict the future. And so it is a question of putting in place not customised buildings, but mechanisms. The intelligence of the mechanism will dictate the durability of the building.
In this first book you present projects designed within limited timeframes, either because they were for temporary and fun use, or because they were sketch design entries for competitions. What is their particularity, and in what way do they represent your work?
IC: They are snapshots, like photographs or freeze-frames of our work. Whereas a building project has to take into account maintenance, changes of use and users, installations are concerned only with the present. These projects are all about how the public will appropriate them. Because the energy we put into them is very concentrated, we choose not to restrain our imagination, but rather to take the opportunity to explore new ideas. We like to say to ourselves at the start of each new project: “Let’s do something extraordinary!”. Take the Flower Pavilion, for example, which was a design for temporary exhibition pavilions for an international garden festival in Berlin. The objective that we set ourselves was to capture people’s attention. We wanted the pavilions to both set off the park in which the exhibition was sited, and to give a sense of peace. The image of the flower speaks so powerfully of carefree days and pleasure, that we couldn’t convince ourselves to do anything else. We wanted visitors to marvel, instantly, almost naively, using the simplest of means.
GZ: This kind of project brings out the purest expression of our thinking. Like small, simple ideas that appear all by themselves. And yet our way of working remains the same: we never stop questioning what we are doing. In our building projects we are always looking for the best solution. This is how we came to design the trampoline bridge, by calling everything into question. It was this exercise in detaching ourselves from what is expected of a bridge that enabled us to stumble across another function, a wholly unexpected way of using it. A certain strength is required to find new ways.
IC: The scale and temporary nature of projects like those presented in this book give us the freedom to question the way a design might be used. Indeed when we worked on the bridge competition, we questioned the very nature of the bridge. This exercise allows us to remain open minded and fresh. Like children, we want to hold on to the feeling that anything is possible, that everything can be done differently, even radically differently, and that there are times when we can dare to do anything. There are so many subjects that we think of as closed, but in fact there is enormous potential for exploration. Changing the rules is one way of revealing the areas where things can be changed. It is a matter of finding fresh answers that open up the range of possibilities.
So is it fair to say that you use these projects for experimenting?
IC: Yes, but it is not like experimenting with a particular material in a small project and then using it in a large project. It is more a question of experimenting with thought, widening the spectrum: being able to think freely.
GZ: We want to get better at what we do, to progress. Why bother otherwise to continue practising this profession? Small projects present huge opportunities! Mainly because of their time-scale and their size: they are small, only a few materials are used, they have a limited number of functional requirements, whereas a more traditional building project superimposes a large number of different ideas.
IC: And constraints!
GZ: Let’s say a superimposition of ideas! For each subject, an idea responds to a question. Even the functional or regulatory aspects require some imagination. In a building project, 10, 20 or 30 ideas are superimposed and so are not all immediately obvious. They are revealed through the resulting experience of occupying the building. In the projects presented in this book, these layers of ideas are much more obvious, much more conspicuous. These periods of exploration enable us to find new ideas for each one of the multiple domaines to be treated in complex projects. They are training exercises for the production of ideas; like a sportsman who, in preparation for an event, takes more intense exercise. With scale, comes the multiplication of the number of questions, each needing a response, an idea. For example, for the metro projects there are layers and layers of very different subjects, for each of which we need to provide an idea, sometimes simple, sometimes functional, sometimes very pragmatic, but in the end there must be a consistent idea. A project is a logical sequencing of ideas.
IC: Questions is the right word. The projects put forward questions that we have to resolve, all the while keeping in mind the bigger picture. There is more to a project than just piling up answers; you have to ensure its overall coherence.
Questioning the use, changing the rules, is this also a reaction to the increasing levels of regulations and consequent constraints with which you need to work on architectural programmes?
GZ: Everything is accelerating exponentially: technology, what is possible, and consequently people’s expectations. In parallel, things very quickly become obsolete. In the face of this, new regulations attempt to resolve certain problems, but they are often a bit rough and ready. They can provide clumsy responses to valid questions, or respond too quickly to questions that have not been properly formulated. Being able to digest all the information, having the necessary resilience, is difficult – there is a lot to be absorbed in one career. In the future, this information will have become second nature but for the moment the results are sometimes a bit peculiar. But if more ambitious goals are set in terms of quality of life, preservation of our natural resources, and environment, it is vital that the whole industry follows – architects, but also manufacturers, engineers, the whole way in which we think about the city or politics.
IC: Building has become highly regulated, which adds to the lengthening list of specialists and consultants. Architects, with their capacity to listen and to summarise are the real conductors of these orchestras of participants. We need to think about our role in the construction of cities.
GZ: We don’t want to become the victims of regulations. Rather than complaining, we need to be able to have a precise and sophisticated understanding of these constraints so that we can design within them, reinterpret them and, when it’s for the good of the project, even ultimately circumvent them. When we say that we question a brief, or the rules, it’s not simply to please ourselves, but to avoid being subject to them.
The detachment that you talk about is not only in relation to architectural standards; it seems to have a broader sense. For example you cite few architectural or artistic references, you don’t make any link between your projects and the utopias of the 20th century.
GZ: Which is precisely what allows us to do these projects, by approaching them without preconceptions. Of course we have our experience and our cultural references, but we want to remain spontaneous.
IC: That the whole world is now accessible via networks of communication makes for the greatest laboratory for experimentation, where one can find freedom from fixed ideas. Every day people invent things that overthrow the status quo and cross the borders between disciplines. The amateur enthusiasts’ revolution is underway, and some of their DIY creations are great!
GZ: No longer write things off as impossible! We give equal attention to each solution as an opportunity to discover new potential. Because they are born of competitions for ideas or because they are temporary, these projects are a good way of pushing the exercise to its limits.
IC: With no preconceived position, we want to give serious consideration to ideas linked to happiness. For some of them we have been guided by our children. The West Kowloon Arts Pavilion or the roller coaster at Battersea are first-hand transcriptions of our own family visits to museums. Our private life is a huge source of inspiration for us.
How do you transpose this way of working onto your building projects?
IC: At the end of the day, it’s all a question of creativity. Without being exercised, passion and creativity can slow down. We have talked about detachment as a state of mind propitious to creativity, but there is also the importance of maintaining an interest in others and in the world around us. Creativity is also expressed in our interpretation of the priorities in a project. Optimism and confidence are visible in our projects.
GZ: Take as an example the highly regulated brief for a clinic. How can we begin to express our creativity here? The various regulations amount to an unmovable equation. It might sound pretentious to say it, but here, creativity means thinking intelligently. You can be creative in the way you deal with constraints. It is combinatorial creativity. We could decide that it was all too complicated and content ourselves with simply choosing the colour of the tiling. But for us this level of detail is secondary, what interests us is the whole project, the complicated production full of opposing factions…. Our work is about giving order to these contradictions, and then taking a step beyond. That is where imagination lies!
IC: An architect’s work is very specific: it is as much about intuition as it is about very precise technical knowledge. Creativity runs right through the chain of organisation in our studio.
GZ: You need to be imaginative to free yourself. When we find ourselves confronted by the brief for a building, faced with the complexity of all the various subjects to be considered, large numbers of different team members and tight schedules, it is often impossible to be creative for each of the solutions. So the danger is to fall into always applying the same formulas, re-using solutions without re-thinking them. This is why it is so important that we have moments of independent exploration that enable us to think up new kinds of solutions. For us it is a vital exercise, and if then some of them get built, it is just a collateral consequence.
You mean to say that there is a temptation to specialise, and that it represents a risk?
GZ: We are organisms genetically made to reproduce ourselves. How does evolution work? It is a repetitive process in which the occasional bug may prove itself to be more efficient, and that will in turn be repeated. This is what evolution produces: a great mass of repetition, and suddenly something goes off on a tangent. This is also true in architecture, in the evolution of ideas. We want to contribute to the production of incidents, so that progressively new opportunities emerge.
IC: It is true that these projects show our ability to have 360° vision, to manage all the questions, all the programmes. Detachment is an exercise in giving creativity a boost of fresh energy. Taking a new route might well lead nowhere, but it is the only means of giving oneself the chance of inventing new things. It is down to us to reinvent the profession of architect, to demonstrate its raisons d’être and its possibilities.
How did the trampoline bridge come about, what were the ‘questions’ here?
IC: The competition wording was quite open, there was not really a brief, nor a site. But a bridge is a serious thing. It is a major intervention, its installation requires in-depth studies, works to the banks, modified traffic. We wanted to come up with a different scale of project, to change the timeframe, overthrow the questions of schedule, budget, material and urban impact.
GZ: We went in a completely different direction from the anticipated responses, by rethinking use. We couldn’t see the need for another crossing in Paris to connect the two banks. So our first question was: what do we need a bridge for?
IC: This provided us with the occasion to give greater thought to the notion of urban happiness. We were interested in ideas about the city, the major urban events such as the Nuit Blanche or Paris Plage, the need to occupy a site quickly, with a small budget. It was the first time that we had thought of temporary architecture, and it opened our eyes to all sorts of possibilities.
GZ: Temporary and fun architecture! We wanted to come up with a project that was dedicated purely to pleasure. We were thinking about how one gets pleasure from the city.
IC: The questions that we asked ourselves were just human: What do people like doing in town? Can you do anything other than shop? Can you behave like a child in town? In French there is a saying “le bonheur est dans le pré”, happiness is in the meadow; we wanted to make the argument that happiness could also be in the city. Contemporary architecture can be entertaining and can bring people together.
GZ: When we entered the competition, the feasibility of the project was only an intuition. We wanted to rethink received ideas about use and structure. We began talking to engineers and inflatables manufacturers, but without success. Then TP Arquitectura, a specialist in tensile and inflatable structures, got in touch with us offering to build the bridge. They work with Ramon Sastre, an architect who has spent the last 20 years working on specialised software for the production of textile structures. TP and Ramon Sastre were the dream team that enabled us to demonstrate the feasibility of the project!
In what way did working with inflatables change your approach?
IC: We had never thought of working with inflatables, it came about as a solution because we wanted to span 90 metres over the Seine without altering the banks, without concrete foundations, for a project that was quick and inexpensive. We never begin our projects with a preconceived idea.
GZ: The issues surrounding the bridge related specifically to the bridge, but they introduced us to new ways of working and, above all, a new partner. TP and Ramon know their field so thoroughly that they provide a direct link between idea and production. For the Peace Pavilion the competition requested an engineering consultant on the team, so it was the perfect opportunity to explore inflatable structures. Particularly as it gave us experience not only of the material, but also of the engineering and manufacturing prowess that goes with it. It is a valuable opportunity for architects to have such a close link between design and manufacture.
IC: When we are looking for partners to work with, it is important that we sense the same enthusiasm and passion for the profession before we commit to anything. Anton and Adria Miserachs of TP are happy to go out on a limb and push back the limits of the impossible.
In this book you propose, not without humour, installing your temporary projects in different spots around the world. What are your thoughts behind this?Conversation with Irina Cristea and Grégoire Zündel around the theme: Happiness as a program. Interview by Ségolène Pérennes-Poncet on the occasion of the preface of the book "Time for Play: Why Architecture Should Take Happiness Seriously".
GZ: Although we came third in the competition, the Bouncing Bridge met with enormous success, particularly via the internet and social networks. We received multiple requests, some more serious than others, from local authorities, from private companies or from theme parks wanting to install the bridge all over the world. They asked very specific questions about weight, dimensions, cost of hire, etc.
IC: The bridge, the pavilions and the Space Invaders projects are temporary installations, lightweight and inexpensive. They can easily be transported around the world, taken to other communities. In terms of impact, there are no small projects or big projects. Architecture in general has the ability to capture people’s attention, it can embellish our lives, make our surroundings more attractive, buildings more desirable, spaces more efficient, without necessarily being expensive or permanent.
GZ: By coming into public spaces, temporary architecture creates a new cartography. Sites are revealed and take on new meaning, enabling new uses.
The projects proposed for three competitions, Battersea, Kowloon and Adidas are slightly different. They add an unexpected way of use on to the anticipated programme, for sport or for fun, based on solid architectural decisions.
IC: Our concern is people’s happiness – those who live in the cities and apartment buildings, who use public spaces and public transport, and who work in the office buildings that we design. For each and every project we think about how a building is used. The energy put into bringing a project to fruition must ensure that the building is readily flexible and transformable for changing requirements over time.
For the Bouncing Bridge project we detached ourselves from the question of the site itself, but for the Battersea project the site was primordial. The redevelopment of this vast industrial site poses questions of scale and time and the effort required to get around this gigantic building in order to ensure a pleasurable experience for everyone.
GZ: By proposing a motorised tour that revolutionises the viewpoints and the length of a visit in comparison with a walking tour, our proposal is a rewriting of the architectural promenade.
IC: It is also a means of questioning the attraction of museums. Should culture and entertainment necessarily be treated as two separate worlds? Isn’t it possible to marry the two? If the project for Battersea’s disused power station is eccentric, the project for the exhibition pavilion in Hong Kong’s new West Kowloon Cultural District is perfectly realistic. We proposed encircling the pavilion with a merry-go-round of wooden horses. The position of the site is fantastic, right on the sea-front overlooking the bay – our project allowed 360° views.
You have explained where your architecture comes from, the similarity in your approach to the design of a project like the Bouncing Bridge and a building project. However, the stylistic differences between these different types of projects are sometimes surprising. Why is that?
IC: Architecture that is too expressive, too involved in relating to its time, takes aesthetics hostage and risks creating architectural and urban dead-ends. Our cities shouldn’t be turned into architectural catalogues. We push ourselves to design buildings that are beautifully built and that are efficient and pragmatic, that create a background for unforeseen events, whether temporary or more permanent. Architecture must leave room for a bit of freedom, a degree of incompletion. Architectural gestures don’t interest us, we are more interested in, for example, an inflatable pavilion in the courtyard of a very simple building. We want to make architecture that allows for collisions, unexpected combinations, rather than imposing our mark.
GZ: The competition for the new office building for the Adidas headquarters is a perfect example of this. In truth, office buildings tend to be intentionally banal. We took our inspiration from industrial buildings, which create spaces that are luminous and very flexible in the way they can be used. But the subject of the competition was also to attract the most talented and creative spirits from around the world to the Adidas campus in Herzogenaurauch, far from a capital city. And so we imagined this ramp at the heart of the project, with perhaps a skate park and trampolines, to create a surprising spatial sequence in the way the building was used.
You have talked about three unbuilt proposals; do you think you will use this kind of installation in your built projects?
IC: At the beginning of this year we completed a project for the new headquarters of Louis Dreyful Armateurs in Suresnes, on the banks of the Seine. The project was the renovation of a late 1980s building. In one of the two new atria that help to organise the building, we have designed a long ramp that, as well as encouraging strolling, creates a spectacular space at the heart of the building; it encourages using the lifts less often, interaction between colleagues, a new way of looking the building, taking your time. It is always a question of time!
Inflatable structures: the new playground for architects – Lily in the 20hby TF1
It is a monument able to rise in seconds, thanks to a simple fan. A refectory, an artist's studio or even a golf practice, the inflatable structures are rediscovering a new life. The details in picture in the video below. This topic was broadcast in the television news of 20H of 22/06/2019 presented by Anne-Claire Coudray on TF1.
Textile, stretched or inflatable structureby Ramon Sastre
Ramon Sastre, PhD in architecture, lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and consultant in textile structure, has been interested since the 70's in these architectures. He notably participated in the technical development of Bouncing Bridge with the software he created: Wintess.
I’ve been interested in textile structures, tensile or inflatable, ever since 1973, the year I graduated as an architect. That year, a friend from my graduating class, Francesc Albardané, translated a book about Frei Otto into Spanish. We were fascinated by the work of this German architect, and became immediately passionate about lightweight structures. In 1978 Albardané and I had the chance to work together on the design for an inflatable roof for a swimming pool in Sabadell, Spain. It was then that I understood the gaps in my technical knowledge, and I decided to pursue a doctorate in this kind of construction. While working on my thesis, which I submitted in 1981, I developed the first version of the Tess computation software, which, with the advent of Windows a few years later, became WinTess. Ever since, I have continued my research into the development of software for calculating tensile and inflatable architecture.
Bit by bit I have specialised in the design and calculation of these structures, which to start with were unusual but which have become more and more commonplace. At first I worked as an architect, designing and building my own projects. Over the years, other architects have sought me out as a consultant. WinTess, initially designed for private use, has become a piece of commercial software, so my work as a consultant has gradually taken over.
Concurrently, I teach at the architecture school at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. It is important for students to learn about these structures because they are the source of so many pieces of playful, contemporary architecture for sports or industry. We also dedicate one semester each year to lightweight structures. Few architecture schools offer this programme and I am regularly invited to teach or lead workshops at other architecture schools in Europe and the Americas.
The Bouncing Bridge
TP Arquitectura i Construcció Tèxtil, a Spanish construction company specialising in textile and inflatable structures that I have known for many years, came to see me one day to show me the Bouncing Bridge project. They had come across it on the Internet and had contacted AZC to propose making it. The architect in me was immediately seduced by the bridge’s design and I was sure it would spark a lot of interest. On the other hand, as an inflatables specialist I saw the incredible challenge such a project would pose if realised for everyday use. I had never built anything on water – it’s not an architect’s usual environment! Even less so when it’s moving water. So first of all I concentrated on static studies, saving the dynamic studies for a later stage.
The project has two key elements: firstly the ring shape, which constitutes both structure and foundations, and secondly the stretched membrane, a secondary structural element but essential to the function of the bridge. It quickly became clear that a certain number of questions could only be resolved empirically. For financial reasons and to improve analysis of the results, we made a first prototype at a scale of 1:10, approximately three metres in diameter, which we wanted to test for structural behaviour, stability on the water and feasibility of construction.
The shape is not created by simply twisting a ring, but, similar to a sewing pattern, by joining lots of different pieces that together will generate a curved, three-dimensional form. Working on a small-scale prototype created a considerable amount of extra work for us when devising the pattern. The number of pieces had to be the same as for the full-scale bridge, so that we would be able to judge the smoothness of the curves. Geometric design was very slow because we had not yet developed the necessary software. We did, however, finally manage to build the first prototype and to test it. First of all in dry conditions, testing it with different loads and under different pressures. We had to take into account the proportional relationship between the 1:10 prototype and the full-scale object, so that we could analyse manufacturing details for the object (behaviour of the materials, dimensions, joints) and the reactions to the tests (how much it would move when in use). The model’s behaviour lived up to our hopes, as WinTess had predicted. Next we tested its stability on water in a domestic swimming pool. We were satisfied with the results, but the size of the prototype did not allow us to test the impact that bouncing on the trampoline membranes would have on the bridge.
This was why we built a second prototype, this time at 1:3, measuring 10m in diameter, which would allow us to test the project’s behaviour on water but also to observe how the trampoline would work under real conditions. A swimming pool would no longer suffice, so we took the model to Banyoles Lake. The tests on the water, with several people jumping on the trampolines at the same time, were a success.
After this we were very keen to build the project full scale, 30 metres in diameter. But we also needed to evaluate the tests we’d carried out in order to improve our method. Principally in pattern cutting – I wanted to be able to put together this kind of tubular structure more efficiently. And in fact, a new project came along that allowed us to do just that!
The Peace Pavilion
The Peace Pavilion is a smaller scale project, with limited civil liability but of a more complicated design. Its beauty stems from the different perspectives afforded by the twists of the ring, a fairly complicated 3D structure.
Thanks to our experience with the Bouncing Bridge, we did not need to build a prototype, because we already knew that the principal difficulty would be in making the tube, more specifically designing the pattern. The curves for this project were more complex than those of the rings for the bridge.
Designing the pattern manually with the help of WinTess, as we had done for the bridge, would have been very laborious considering the number of pieces required by the structure. Each change to the design would have meant redesigning all the pieces. So I created a new module for the software that was able to define the tubes in 3D and to automatically set out the pattern. This was a lengthy task but the result was spectacular: we were able to create various patterns for this type of tube in seconds! This allowed us to adapt the shape of the pieces in order to optimise the amount of material used and to precisely define the curves of the final object.
Unlike the bridge, the pavilion’s structure would not have to withstand significant dynamic loads, but just carry a simple, waterproof, transparent canopy. However, it is far from straightforward designing a canopy for such a complex three-dimensional structure, requiring parametric structural modelling software rather than geometric. We were therefore able to use WinTess.
The result entirely lived up to our expectations: the images speak for themselves.
For the Peace Pavilion, the next challenge would be to design a more permanent structure. For a temporary event we were able to ignore the effects of snow or wind, the characteristics of the ground or the durability of the project. But for a permanent structure, all these considerations would be primordial. We look forward to an opportunity to prove that this is possible.
In the case of the Bouncing Bridge, we have not yet realised AZC’s project for three 30m-diameter inflatable rings. Moreover, if the project needed to be permanent or semi-permanent, its structural complexity would be greater and we would have to study the implications of different locations, a calm or fast-flowing river, a lake or a canal. However, I am certain that we could successfully develop this trampoline bridge.