Zaha Hadid Architects’ Pierresvives building for Montpellier is a weighty monolith that registers a change in the practice’s design approach
Pierres vives” translates from the French as “living stones”. It is a quote from Rabelais (“Je ne bâtis que pierres vives, ce sont hommes” — “I build only living stones, men”) and is the name of a new public building in Montpellier by Zaha Hadid Architects that was inaugurated this month. You’d look hard for a better metaphor for Hadid’s work here: her office has designed an inhabited, multi-functional monolith.
In this, and in projects such as its science centre in Wolfsburg, a forthcoming university library in Vienna, or, to a lesser degree, the crystalline port authority building going up in Antwerp, Hadid has moved on decisively from her earlier geologies to something more igneous — striated maybe but less stratified.
Pierresvives — the words are run fashionably together — is a building that comes with a hefty subtitle: “the city of knowledge and of sport for all”. This reflects the curious 2002 competition brief set by the client, the départ-ement de l’Hérault — of which Montpellier is capital. It has to contain the departmental archives, the Hérault sports administration offices and a multi-media library.
The tripartite functions of the massive rhomboid are separated out and contained within the pre-cast-concrete-clad zones. Greenish tinted glass flows around the concrete, indicating the communal and public zones that connect the functions. A shared auditorium cantilevers out from the south side above the main entrance, while smaller ground-level wings project north; the private side of the building containing services and staff entrances.
Hadid has moved on from her earlier geologies to something more igneous — striated maybe but less stratified
With a gross floor area of 40,000sq m, the €125 million (£100 million) structure weighs in at 80,000 tonnes. Enter below the hovering mass of theauditorium and the main foyer balloons out, rising up to 20m-high ceilings. A long escalator leads to the upper foyer and it is the escalator’s angle that has determined those of the entire building. To the left of the foyer, the full height of the structure is made up of the archive, with its entrance at first-floor level opposite the lobby area of the auditorium. The library is above and to the right of the foyer, with the sports offices above that again at roof level. Five cores are spaced down the spine of the building with a grid of columns providing the internal support.
Montpellier is no stranger to municipal projets grands et petits; France’s fastest growing city has been using architecture to redefine itself from sleepy to modernity-on-the-Med since the late 1970s. Antigone, Ricardo Bofill’s urban extension to the east of the city centre, was an influential 36ha exercise in post-modern axial planning, although these days its large-panel classicism looks ever more grubbily Stalinist.
Further expansions have since taken place east across the river Lez at Port Marianne (where Jean Nouvel has built a new city hall in the form of a digitised Arc de Triomphe) and at Odysseum, a business park where Boulevard Pénélope leads, at journey’s end, to a new catering college by Massimiliano Fuksas. Much the same thing has been happening over the years in Marseille, where Alsop & Störmer’s Grand Bleu — the Hôtel du Département des Bouches-du-Rhone — kicked off a rolling wave of projets that will culminate in its City of Culture designation for 2013. Hadid has contributed a building there too.
Pierresvives is an attempt to even things up by bringing a big gesture and some big bucks to Montpellier’s poverty stricken north-western suburbs, balancing out the last decades’ development east of the centre.
It is a big deal for the city, with roadside billboards announcing the opening and the regional Gazette Economique & Culturelle devoting six inside pages to the project and its cover to the well-used image of Hadid, face tucked into a voluminous black collar.
Despite its much-vaunted planning credentials, however, Montpellier unwinds from the lovely, tightly wound alleys around the old préfecture at the city’s historic core into an endless ugly tangle of suburban streets. These unwind like a broken clock spring, characterised by median-strip crash barriers, raggedy oleanders and offensive painted concrete housing, until they reach the ring road and Pierresvives.
The site isn’t an obvious one to bring a glint to an architect’s eye — some waste ground on the nearside of the ring road, with some scrubby woods to one side and more estates of sad-looking painted concrete tenements nearby. Hadid’s building and the paved apron in front are intended as the lodestone of a new quartier with more mixed-tenure housing to be built around and about.
This masterplanning is, I’m informed, something that’s happened post-hoc — with neither Joris Pauwels, senior architect on Pierresvives, nor others on hand aware of either the name of the new quartier or the adjacent suburbs, or the architects and purpose of two incomplete square blocks that are being built either side of Pierresvives’ and look as if they have rolled there by chance like a pair of titanic dice.
Just how contextless the site is can be judged by the fact that Hadid’s 195m-long building has been turned like a supertanker through 90 degrees from its original position without knocking anything over. This change does make sense in that it will shield further development to its south from the ring road, but as urban design it looks more than a little haphazard. If it doesn’t yet create a place, Pierresvives at least creates a presence and at a macro scale brings welcome drama to the badlands. Its jutting chin attempts to brook no argument about this but its success as urban anchor is as yet an unknown.
The monolith form would have been emphasised further if the banding across the glazing, which acts as a brise soleil, had been formed in concrete too (as was originally hoped) instead of in black and gold extruded aluminium with an occasional red square window frame, lines that are echoed by sinuous strip lights within. This may be fanciful, but the ensemble has something Frenchified about it; the way the blades meet the chamfered reveals of the concrete recalls a vintage Bakelite radio, the lacquer colours of Indochine, the go-faster fins of the moderne… There is delicacy here counter-posed with the massiveness of the concrete.
What isn’t obvious to the visitor is another conceptual conceit we’re only told about: the building as a tree of knowledge. It is far too weighty a structure for that, despite having to ascend the escalator from the foyer to the library, auditorium and the archive reading rooms at first-floor level.
The budget has clearly been blown on the exterior and this first foyer space, with its great concrete sculpted concrete hills and prows that are for the most part blemish free. Beyond here, though, finishes are more parsimonious, with rather too much skin-deep painted concrete. Go-faster stripes on the floors and doors of the archive corridors are left to provide interest. The archive rooms buried within the centre of the block and in the basement — including a wine archive — are themselves entirely utilitarian, although some of the associated offices have wonderfully high ceilings, necessary to unify the various floor levels of the building.
The way the blades meet the chamfered reveals recalls a vintage Bakelite radio
Fit-outs in the reading room (sympathetic) and the bright and meekly white library (less so) are by others. The architects have not been served well by some of the detailed finishes either. Away from the public gaze there is plenty of patched concrete, thinly applied paint and wobbly shadow gaps. The auditorium, lined in curvaceous but poorly finished black-stained timber, is in particular a compromise too far. The new inhabitants of this rock haven’t helped by populating spaces such as the auditorium’s lobby with a half-hearted office defined by movable partitions.
Not all these gripes can be blamed on execution, with some decidedly odd spaces resulting from the ruling geometries — for instance a funny peculiar small space between the back of the auditorium and the library. This is busy with angles and internal flying buttresses but is not very useful. Charitably, we will call it quirky.
Source: © Iwan Baan
More seriously, the ground-floor exhibition space behind the foyer’s core is reached through a hidden, single-leaf door that is not so much an understated sequence as entirely underwhelming. The same is true of the entrance to the archive reading rooms.
In Montpellier for the opening, the practice’s senior designer Patrik Schumacher says the building is perhaps the most “sectionally conceived so far” and “an incredibly robust machine”. But he adds that he and Hadid have now moved on from this type of shape-making, metamorphosing from “avant-garde formal experimentation to a more mature project about motivation”.
Pierresvives is damn hefty to be regarded as juvenilia, but Schumacher says that the process in future will be this: sketch an intuitive partis; 3D model it; proliferate options using algorithms and judiciously chosen constraints (eg fixed points where a building will be pinned down); feedback.
To be honest I thought this was what was being done already, but Schumacher says that this new approach will generate fresh forms that sound almost biomimetic or like a plastic architecture printed by a stereo-lithography, whose structural elements will be only what are absolutely essential — nothing necessary can be added or taken away. “Artificial laws of nature, or laws of the artefact,” says Schumacher of the chosen constraints.”Morphologies, for instance, will be about self-shading; brise soleils will be the direct modelling of sun exposure maps.” The facade of the practice’s forth-coming Central Bank of Iraq will be a case in point, he adds.
It could mean monoliths that are truly eroded, where concrete ribs are generated that trace the pattern of water flows. For now though, there is, at Pierresvives, the avant-garde grand gesture. “We are still keen on this notion of the awesome surprise and heart-wrenching beauty,” he concludes. “It looks great from a distance.”
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Local architect Blue Tango (design phase); Chabanne & Partenaires (execution phase)
Structure Ove Arup & Partners
Services Ove Arup & Partners (concept design) and GEC Ingenierie
Acoustics Rouch Acoustique; Nicolas Albaric