While Rennes, the capital of France's Brittany region, does not make most travel guides' must-see lists, the university town of 200,000 still has its charms: crooked medieval streets lined with half-timbered buildings, stately 18th-century edifices, and cafés that spill out onto picturesque squares. But all this fades away by the time you reach Beauregard on the city's northern fringes. Here, open fields have yielded to a scattering of bland apartment buildings that began appearing in a wave of development in the 1990s. Built into a slight rise at the end of a long, grassy park, FRAC Bretagne's new center for contemporary art, designed by Paris-based Studio Odile Decq, punctuates this prosaic setting with a staunch—though subdued—assertion of French modernism.
Though largely unremarkable, the suburban site did have one eminent neighbor already in residence. In 2005 the state installed Alignment for the XXI Century, by French artist Aurelie Nemours. Composed of 72 marching granite columns, the sculpture is a minimalist interpretation of prehistoric stone—or menhir—alignments, like the one at Brittany's Carnac. Before her death in 2005 at age 94, Nemours expressed a desire that the impending FRAC be deferential to her work. “She asked that the building have a silent facade,” says Decq. “This meant we had to be calm—and I realized that the only thing I could play with would be light and reflection. To be very silent, for me, is to be black.”
Exploring the boundaries of the color, the architect glazed the lower portion of the front facade with glass that moves from gray to dark black to opaque. Above are three gradations of black-tinted stainless steel panels, and then dark glazing again at the setback on top. The colors and level of reflectivity and transparency shift with the light. In bright sunshine, the building becomes a mirror for the adjacent artwork and park and, from a distance, appears as a solid black form. “In a way, I built a new monolith,” admits Decq, again referring to the menhirs.
For the new building, the city stipulated a tight, rectangular footprint. Sensing that the resulting boxlike form would be ill suited to a cultural institution, Decq and her team cut a crevasse lengthwise through its middle, creating two volumes. The one at the back is rendered in concrete and supports the structure for the steel-and-glass volume at the front. Cantilevering the steel side so that the entry is free of columns, say the architects, was the main structural adventure here. The crevasse, or atrium, which is topped with a skylight, creates an open interior that belies the solidity of the exterior and exposes the various levels and functions inside while creating dramatic public spaces. Previously, FRAC Bretagne occupied an old school building in Ch'teaugiron, to the southeast. It served as a repository for collecting and conserving regional and international art, but did not facilitate exhibition—a central theme of the new center. “It's a second life for this FRAC, establishing it as a museum and creating public spaces,” says Decq, who grew up in Brittany and began her studies in Rennes.
Taking lessons from her MACRO museum in Rome (record, July 2011, page 54), the architect pushed the program—exhibition, education, a library, and administration (with art storage below grade)—to the sides, resulting in this concrete-and-steel crevasse at the center. Decq placed the main entrance on the building's short, street-facing side, so as not to interfere with Nemours's work. Through the soaring lobby, visitors move up a long, shallow stair that squeezes them between the red, bloblike auditorium and the sculpture just outside the floor-to-ceiling glass. A series of ramps and stairs of varying heights and widths slice through the void, creating a winding vertical promenade that connects the different programmatic elements and provides an immediate understanding of the building's organization. This journey brings visitors past a café, through a kind of dreamy industrial landscape, to three discrete, well-proportioned, bright-white gallery spaces, and then up to the library above. “You have to be a little bit out of the normal life to digest the art,” says Decq of the abstract and conceptual work on display. “It's not so easy, so you have to enter into another world.”
As Decq has done before (for the Shanghai Exhibition Information Center, MACRO, and her restaurant at Paris's Opera Garnier, for example), she has imbued the public areas here with a deep, shocking red, representing the lifeblood of the building. Her longstanding use of this hue illustrates her comfort with repetition. But she is also not afraid of the future. In her office the architect keeps a sample sheet of the red that she conceived so many years ago, and snips off a small piece when paint is mixed for a new project. “What will happen when the sample is gone?” a colleague asked Decq recently. “We will make a new color!” she replied.
Against Beauregard's unlikely setting, Decq has created this other world to which she alludes. Masked behind the reflective black box that—save for its jaunty thrusting crown with an overhanging roof—could be mistaken for an office building, Decq has made a home for the art inside, as well as an experience for discovering it. Like entering a science-fiction story, penetrating the building's opaque facade to its airy interiors beyond is a journey through a familiar time and place that is, at once, entirely new and foreign.
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A conversation with: Odile Decq
In 1979, fresh out of architecture school, Odile Decq founded her practice in Paris. In 1985 she formed a partnership with Benoît Cornette—creating Odile Decq Benoît Cornette—whom she met while studying and who had become her life partner. Tragically, in 1998, Cornette died in an automobile accident. Decq continued to practice and to win awards and, just this past March, renamed her firm Studio Odile Decq. The change—15 years after Cornette’s death—was prompted, says Decq, by her portrayal in the media. “They were still referring to my work from the time I was with Benoît, and I was fed up,” she says. “It was a sort of sexist attitude that didn’t recognize the work as solely mine, even as it has evolved since 1998.” From now on, the firm’s projects will bear only Decq’s name, “to be clear that I am the architect,” she says. “I try to explain to young women that practicing architecture is really complicated and it’s very hard, but it’s possible. I discovered early on that to be an architect you have to have a little bit of talent and a maximum of determination and not focus on the complications.”
Formal name of building:
Gross square footage:
Total construction cost:
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Other: MB & CO
53,800 square feet (gross)
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Complete saturation of architectonic reinforced concrete (Lafarge)
Metal/glass curtain wall: Glazing on the South block
Precast concrete: Reinforced concrete