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Jean-François Schmit likes to engage in all scales of building and the most diverse projects, for both public and private sector clients: from workplaces, such as an aircraft maintenance hangar on an airport site, to artists’ workshop-apartments on a small Parisian plot or a school complex on the urban periphery and an entirely rehabilitated school. These buildings cross-fertilise each other until they form a continuum. The brightness of the volumes, their spaciousness and attractiveness, the concern for integration into the urban framework with deep-rooted respect for the host environment are among the constants of this architecture, contemporary without being elitist or affectedly aesthetic, an architecture that primarily relates to the user.
“In architecture, there is the same enjoyment as in cooking”
Interview with Jean-François Schmit
Firstly, why did you choose to pursue a career in architecture?
Originally, I wanted to enroll in the painting department of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. But this choice was difficult to defend in discussions with my parents, who had benefited from social mobility underpinned by the state and retained the attitudes of people from modest families. It so happens that at the time my father was head of the postal administration in Burgundy, which led him to have dealings with many architects for the construction of sorting offices, post offices, etc. And in Auxerre, where I was then living, Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat had built the Crédit Agricole building, a box of concrete and smoked glass that impressed me as much as the region’s medieval architecture that I found very pleasing. So I ended up compromising and opting for architecture. Unconsciously perhaps, I realized that the discipline that always straddles dream and execution could suit me.
What is your first memory of architecture?
I remember the birthplace of Gustave Eiffel, next to my school. Eiffel is a personality that I still admire, combining the engineer and the dreamer. I'm attracted to iron and steel architecture in general. I also noticed by chance that the dimensions of the Galerie des machines built by Eiffel for the Universal Exposition of 1889, match the height and width of Cargolux!
So you went to the school of architecture with a taste for engineering after having wanted to be a painter. How did your studies go?
At the time, the word architect was virtually banned, there was a real taboo regarding creativity. We turned more readily to the role models of innovative engineers! I enrolled at UP2 (the Nanterre academic unit), with Paul La Mache, somewhat by chance, because I knew a student there who, like me, came from Auxerre. After a rather fun couple of years, during which you discovered architecture, you learned to love it and to understand it, the studio became very boring. Placement in a practice seemed like an escape. I found myself with Chauveau, who was rebuilding all the hospitals in the north-eastern quadrant of France, with Philippe and Martine Deslandes, and at the Gamma practice, which I liked because it was located in the Croulebarbe tower, a steel skyscraper designed by Edouard Albert. For a year, I also attended the "project methodology" module as an unregistered student on Henri Ciriani’s Uno course.
The return to the city and post-modernism were emerging and were soon to become the dominant doctrine. You were operating in a very different environment: can you tell us a little about what motivated you and your colleagues?
Among my fellow students, there was a kind of cult of excessive lightness, a marked leaning towards outspread fabrics, inflatable architecture. Jean-Robert Mazaud, the founder of the S'pace practice and an ardent supporter of solar energy, was studying a few years above me. Our student projects centered on measures such as the use of photovoltaic panels, green facades or lightweight structures inspired by Frei Otto. It's amusing to see that thirty years later these alternative themes have become mainstream!
It’s a small step from lightness to aviation. You’ve rubbed shoulders with the world of aviation since that period, well before building hangars for this sector.
Jean-Paul Saint-James, a member of the La Mache studio, worked nearly full-time with Hans-Walter Müller [the high priest of inflatable architecture – Ed.] and was always on the look-out for apprentices. So I went to cut and weld inflatables near the airport at La Ferté-Allais, where Müller has his home-studio. The sound insulation of an inflatable being virtually non-existent, we could hear the old aircraft doing aerobatic training. I went there with Luc Geiser, my best friend at the school, whose architect father was one of the inventors of the delta wing and built microlights. Luc himself had embarked on a one-man hot-air balloon project - the Zépi - and wanted to attempt a transatlantic flight. So yes, we were surrounded by aeronautical objects, a world of outspread fabrics, lightweight structures… all in a very convivial atmosphere at Müller’s, it must be said!
After the inflatables, we find you with Renzo Piano. How did you move from one to the other?
After graduating, I decided to become a contractor, in conjunction with my friend Blanc-Garin from the Decorative Arts school. The idea was to renovate premises quickly, doing painting, carpentry and a little electrical work. It lasted a while, until one of our clients turned out to be the Director of the CCI (Industrial Design Centre). Her husband worked for Piano and offered to help me get into the Paris practice, which had become somewhat dormant since Beaubourg; Renzo was looking to reactivate it.
What was the practice like at the time and what did you do there?
Piano was completing the competition for the redevelopment of the Schlumberger factories in Montrouge. At the time there were three Beaubourg veterans - Nori Okabe, Bernard Plattner and Mike Dowd - and three young people - an American, Tom Hartman, a Swiss, Christian Süsstrunck, and me. I was the only Frenchman: At the time, Piano greatly mistrusted the French, who seemed to him to act too much like prima donnas! At the time, there was no question of saying that we were creating art, or even architecture: we were building! Very soon, I was working on the Schlumberger project, a huge 180,000 m2 contract, designed "in real time". Piano had just won the assignment but work had already begun! We had to try to influence the work in progress and at the same time develop the project.
It was at the same time that you were developing your first projects?
I stayed with Piano for six years as an employee, but I had taken the decision to leave the practice in the fifth year, even if there was a very good understanding between him, the veterans and me. I didn’t see myself working at the practice for ever. Piano asked me to stay for another year and in return he gave me my first independent project, the reconstruction of maintenance premises for the City of Paris. It was an expression of confidence on his part. Another reason behind my departure is that I had been selected in the second phase of the competition for the Museum of Telecommunications at Pleumeur-Bodou, a project that I was developing in parallel with my work for Piano. I was the winner of the competition but, for political reasons, the contract was finally awarded to a local colleague…
A setback that is almost par for the course for architects. However, shortly afterwards, you bounced back: and you find yourself among the "architects under the age of 40"…
I quickly realized that the status of "former Piano employee" was not necessarily an asset in the eyes of clients who readily imagine that you are expensive or who feel that you won't be capable of managing projects of less than 10,000 m2! By availing myself of my contacts and also to repair the unfortunate experience of Pleumeur-Bodou, I was able to build three post offices at Gravigny, Saint-Germain-les-Corbeil, and Châteaudun, and the Villejuif radiocommunications building. An article about the Gravigny post office was published and enabled me to appear in the exhibition of "Architects under the age of 40" at the French Institute of Architecture, which got me noticed and invited to compete for the Renault Technocentre, when the exhibition was barely over! I was very lucky because, with all my time taken up by my work at the Piano practice, I hadn’t attended any of the PAN (new architecture programme) sessions and nor had I been able to submit an entry for the Albums de la Jeune Architecture (competition for young architects’ portfolios): the two gateways at that time to contracts and competitions.
What did you learn from your stint with Piano?
The Piano experience had a big influence on me, to the point that I was only able to shake it off some five or ten years later. The man impressed me not only through his architecture but also through his personality: with his enthusiasm, the fact that he didn’t agonise over things, his kindness, his angry side, and also his very paternalistic side which, deep down, suited me very well! What I learnt working for him was a notion of economy, acquired mainly through contact with the industrialists who were our clients. Of course, 90% of the Montrouge development consisted of offices, but there was an industrial part, with laboratories, where research was conducted into electronics, oil, etc.
Your working methods were developed during that period. Could you describe them?
With Piano, I discovered the world of industrialists, learnt to simplify a project, to prioritize ideas, to choose where the money goes. From the beginning of the studies, I work with the section and develop a first set of details. To me, these documents are as important as the layout and the flow diagram. Compared to the 1980s, we’ve settled down and our details are no longer as complicated and sophisticated as then, but they remain essential. I’m one of those who believe that the quality of a building lies in the detail. A great idea built with poorly designed details will make a botched building.
How is the practice organized?
It’s organised on informal lines! After operating as an independent architect, ten years ago I brought into the business the three longest-standing members of the practice, but the roles are still a little fuzzy. I develop the sketches at the start of each project, then the buildings are developed collectively, but I remain very involved; either I don’t give my colleagues sufficiently free rein, or they fail to take it! But the atmosphere is excellent, very friendly, a "renzopianoan" legacy… We handle three types of project: industrial, educational and housing. With regard to housing, I think fundamentally that a practice cannot dispense with it. I’m always very happy to be called upon by this sector, even if the constraints inherent in this type of project are very demanding: the sheer volume of standards, the restricted budgets, the mediocre sites and surroundings…
You work for both the public and the private sector, what observations can you make regarding these two types of contract?
The private sector doesn’t choose a project, but a relationship of trust that it’s developed with you. This sometimes happens in the public sector - a client with whom you had a good relationship will come back to you if the project was completed without a hitch - but the majority of contracts are awarded through competitions. This procedure has advantages for young architects, but it nevertheless has the flaw of locking you into a visual image from the outset of the project. But, to beat the others, you often have to sing your own praises, and then you're holding your high C until you’ve handed over the building! In industry, this is less true, they are not required by law to deliver a building that’s faithful to the image from a competition and quickly move the project forward.
You say that industrial and public sector projects complement each other. How is this possible?
Hangar or school, all these projects are developed in parallel in the practice and cross-fertilise each other. The detail of a nursery facade will be inspired by a solution found for 30-meter high doors. Industry’s precision in terms of design, timescale and budget is applicable to public projects. Despite the difficulties posed by this diversity - it would be easier to obtain contracts by specializing in one type of building - I think that I was right to maintain a hybrid portfolio. It is more stimulating for me and for the members of the practice who don’t spend their lives on a single type of project, and it’s a sounder base for the company’s development.
What characterizes your architecture?
From one project to the next, one encounters the same considerations, such as the provision of natural light, flow management, or even the rejection of brutalist formalism. But additionally, on each project, I try to find an element not provided for in the programme, an element that the client had not imagined. For PIM2, it would be the internal street with its plants, separating the workshops from the offices. For Blagnac, the extra element is a passageway that facilitates communication between "white collar" and "blue collar" personnel. Another important point is the desire to build apparently simple projects that are easy to read and understand, which also enable the practice’s architects to take ownership of them to develop them. Cargolux can be compared to a large beetle - that's how I see it - while Rue de Cambrai would be described as a large horizontal timber volume with a few tweaks. Finally, you find a recurrent theme throughout the projects, a penchant for lightness, designing around the skeleton that you’re attiring. My buildings often have a similar pattern: a static base, anchored in the ground, and a graceful, flowing roof. More generally, I would say that the structure is a recurring theme in the studio and whether the building is 50 m² or 50,000 m² doesn’t change the issue. We confirmed this when constructing timber-framed residential buildings in Rue du Mont-Cenis in Paris.
But once the structure becomes too large, doesn’t the engineer supersede the architect?
The fundamental aesthetic choices must be made with an engineer from the earliest sketches. The structure is an integral part of the project, and the understanding of the structure and of the project must proceed in parallel. You must have a special relationship with the consulting engineers: that's why I like working with people like Florent Millot, an engineer specializing in metal structures, probably the best in France, with whom we developed the principles of the steel structure for Blagnac and for PIM2.
You recently entered the ITER competition for the construction of the poloidal field coil manufacturing building. Aren’t we once more, but for different reasons, at the borderline of the architect’s domain? The need and the opportunity to create architecture on this type of project seem infinitesimal - and I would cite as proof the rather unconvincing nuclear project led by Pierre Dufau, Claude Parent and company.
I don’t agree, I think that whatever the subject, it is never at the limits of architecture. In the studio, we’re always looking to add something extra to facilitate the execution of the construction operation and make life in the building pleasant. A kind of generosity, intrinsic to the craft of the architect, seeking of course to improve the working environment and conditions, not only that there be an adequate number of washbasins but that everyone has views to the outside, extra space, pleasant acoustics and opportunities to discover peaceful, harmonious, relaxing or surprising places when moving around the building. For ITER, we worked a lot on natural illumination. Obviously, you want the building to be nice to look at but the key point is to offer more to people who spend their time in this somewhat uninspiring world, taking advantage of the poetic potential of this industrial gigantism. We are seeing this again in our current work on a helicopter plant at Le Bourget and on the Bure nuclear waste burial site. In neither case do I feel that our involvement in these massive projects is a token.
What changes have you seen in the profession during your 30 years in practice?
The volume of studies performed today for a building is incredible. On the Schlumberger project, there was just a 1:100 scale drawing of each floor, a 1:20 detail drawing of the washrooms, two cross-sections at the same scale and a few detail drawings. There has been an increase in professionalism, today's students have incredible formal urban planning expertise, are better than practitioners of my age, even if I often find their proposals overly polished, ready for publication! We may be on the verge of an incredible leap in architecture, comparable to that which occurred in contemporary art, who knows?
Are there any projects that you regret not having been able to tackle? Ultimately, would you define yourself as an artist, an architect or a builder?
I look at the lost competitions and, with rare exceptions - ITER, the EDF nuclear parts storage facility at Velaines or the Pleumeur-Bodou museum - I have no regrets, as they say. Of course, when you lose a competition, it’s very tempting to accuse the jury of bias, but the truth is that often the proposal was not that good, in any case not sufficiently compelling.
In architecture, there is the same enjoyment as in cooking: conceptualizing while setting out the ingredients, contributing to the execution, adjusting slightly during the operation, as one tastes a sauce, and delivering to users the fruit of their desire and of our labours. Artist, architect, obviously, but it’s the architecture that takes precedence! After all these years in practice, the most important thing for me is to build the buildings that we design and love. So, builder!
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