In the Shadow of Versailles
France's most celebrated château has a new neighbor, the renovated Ecole des Beaux-Arts by Platane Architecte
Seth Sherwood -- Interior Design, 8/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Talk about a French paradox. For decades, half of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Versailles—a prestigious school of fine arts, founded in the late 18th century near the famous château—languished in a charmless 1950's concrete annex at complete odds with the lovely things created inside it. Worse, small windows sealed off the building from the outer world, undercutting the school's philosophy of total openness to students of every background, to the local community, and to arts of every variety. "It was very, very ugly," architect Platane Beres says with a chuckle. "It had utterly no character."
A complete redo of the two-story, 5,000-square-foot structure proved to entail a series of delicate balancing acts for Platane Architecte. The city of Versailles, which runs the school, envisioned transforming the boring front of the building—south-facing and sun-baked—into something monumental that would engage the public and admit more light. The new facade would also have to make sense in the context of Versailles's grand baroque architecture. At the same time, however, Beres needed to keep students' and teachers' needs in mind. That meant screening harsh direct sunlight and shielding ground-floor studios from distracting pedestrians. One potentially attractive solution, a glass curtain wall, was therefore out.
Then Beres had his eureka moment: "We have to use stone!" In this case, what he calls the "noblest of all building materials" is a sand-colored limestone that allowed him to pay homage to the many stone edifices of Versailles. His design, however, resolutely avoids mimicking them or quoting styles from the 18th and 19th centuries. No dandified flourishes. No throwback frills. Instead, his rhythmic facade is composed of six tall stone panels that alternate with six tall windows. It's both monumental enough to valorize a venerable institution and restrained enough not to overpower the quaint, villagelike surroundings.
Beres didn't stop there. Knowing that the scheme would admit too much light, he installed a floating stone panel just a couple of feet in front of each of the six windows. Because the panels' dimensions match those of the windows almost exactly, the powerful southern sun is prevented from assaulting the interiors head-on, but its rays seep around the edges of the stone, creating indirect light. The configuration also keeps the school cool in summer while reducing noise from the cobblestone street.
While the stone slabs between the windows are the regular, flat variety, Beres used a CNC milling machine to carve seemingly random protrusions from the slabs that compose the floating panels. These smooth bumps, he says, make the surface "strange, weird, like a planet or a human body. They have a very sensual aspect. People want to touch them." The sculptural forms, he continues, allude to the sculpting and other arts going on inside. Pedestrians are seduced into further contact with the structure by the brief diagonal glimpses of the school's interior caught between the panels and the windows. "You can't quite see the things going on inside, and you wonder what they are. Your curiosity is aroused. But you don't bother the students," he explains.
The school's north-facing rear facade, which looks out on a private courtyard, is the polar opposite of the front one: no direct sunlight, no street life. Beres played up the contrast, knocking down the concrete wall and replacing it with virtually unbroken glass. There's no stone in sight. Yet not content with a common curtain wall, he added angles to his: The surface looks as if it were constructed from a gigantic sheet of clear origami paper. Whereas the front of the school is opaque, tactile, and muscular, the back is transparent, hands-off, and delicate.
Classrooms and studios, meanwhile, evoke blank canvases. Beres ripped up the old industrial floor tiles to reveal smooth concrete, which he painted a pure white. Walls and ceilings got the same paint job. The only major concession to color and furniture is a pair of vast red rectangular shelving units that slide along tracks in the floor of the hangarlike multipurpose studio on the ground level. The movable units double as walls, allowing teachers and students to manipulate the atelier's size and layout.
Especially striking is the diffuse, balanced, cool white light that fills the interior. For Beres, this effect—achieved by the contrasting north and south facades—creates the ideal environment for making and displaying art. "It's as if you're floating in light, enveloped by light. Any object that you put in the room, even yourself, your body, becomes a figure highlighted against a white canvas," he says. The artist becomes the artwork, a beautiful French paradox par excellence.
Photography by Eric Laignel.
PROJECT TEAM HÉLÈNE-SOPHIE MARTIN; LAURENCE KIMMEL: PLATANE ARCHITECTE. EVP: STRUCTURAL ENGINEER. SOCIÉTÉ MÉTALLURGIQUE DU FOREZ: GLASSWORK. HIMFLOOR: FLOORING CONTRACTOR.
PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT FERALP: CUSTOM SHELVING (STUDIO).
THROUGHOUT HENRAD DESIGN: RADIATORS. KONINKLIJKE PHILIPS ELECTRONICS: LINEAR FIXTURES.