In 2010, the Paris-based firm Frankin Azzi Architecture won a competition to transform the Alstom Halles building on Ile de Nantes into a new college of fine arts, the Ecole supérieure des beaux-arts de Nantes Métropole. The winning proposal aims to provide generous pragmatic, productive and residual space for liberal appropriation at multiple scales. A transparent envelope framed in steel forms the unconditioned container for three levels of new program. Insertions, or what Franklin Azzi calls a ‘series of organs’, function in both scripted and undetermined ways, providing plenty of slack for overflow and adaptation. At street level, the building is envisioned as porous, unbound, its circulation following the logic of an urban network reconnecting the manufacturing district to the new developments and the old city beyond. A hybrid Fun-Palace-super-sized-greenhouse-umbrella, the project has propelled the young practice onto France’s national stage. I had the opportunity to talk with Franklin Azzi about his firm, flexibility, modularity and slack.

BG: Your office opened in 2006 as a one man shop. Fast forward to 2011. You’ve won a competition to build a 27,000 m2 art school in the heart of Nantes. You have grown practically overnight from a firm with two employees to a firm with twenty?   Has this been a difficult transition?

FA: I have worked on projects of this scale before; I am able to handle this type of work.  Having worked in large firm prior to starting my own practice [Jean Nouvel], I am familiar with projects of exceptional scale. To be honest, architecture is not simply a matter of scale.  A 200 square meters and a 20,000 square meters project takes the same amount of intelligence and energy.  It is just as complex to work out the idiosyncrasies and requirement of the program for a large scale project as BG: Now that your firm is gaining visibility and recognition, do you imagine growing even larger in the near future?

FA: A large firm of 200 persons is an American form of practice. I like the size we are now, not too big, but not too small. At most, I can imagine adding ten more people, but that’s it. Any more is way too many.  I would rather have a firm of ten strong people than 200 average employees. I feel very confident in the team I have now. I feel we are the right size. This size is the best way to do architecture. Firms of 200 persons are too large to do good architecture. I never want to be this way.  At least, this is what I am telling you now. In ten years, we’ll see.

BG: Your project in Nantes, ESBA, belongs to a typological logic – the box within the box, or the conditioned space within the larger unconditioned container. How does your proposal build on or deviate from its precedents?

FA: This project is a matter of economics. The building scale of the existing structure was too large for the art school. We needed to think about this project ecologically, environmentally, materially and, of course, economically.  We wanted to keep the entire structure intact and only demolish what was absolutely necessary.  We removed the external concrete façade to allow more light to penetrate the building. We also implemented the “umbrella logic” which disassociated the rain envelope from the thermal envelope. The rain envelope consists of transparent polycarbonate and the thermal envelope consisted of two white modern buildings. Of course, the problem with modern or flat-roofed buildings is that they leak. In this instance, we can have modern buildings, and we can inhabit their roofscapes and residual spaces because we don’t have to worry about the rain. The preexisting structure is not connected to the new programmatic insertions. Here the existing structure acts like an umbrella to protect the overarching logic of the whole.

BG: Your Art school project is in very close proximity to Lacaton & Vassal’s Nantes Architecture school, recently completed in 2009. How do the two projects compare?

FA: Very different. In the case of the architecture school, the architects built more program than was needed. They designed extra space. Working with industrial remnants, we had much more space than was programmatically necessary. An overabundance of meters squared. As a consequence, the space we have designed is divided into smaller space and becomes increasingly more private as one penetrates the building. We have brought the existing building down to a more interactive, human scale.

BG: The ESBA looks exciting. How does it announce itself to the city? Is there a marker?

FA: A marker? The building itself is a marker. The project’s transparency allows people to animate and traverse the building as an urban site. It is the potential for mobility and encounter that draws attention to the project.

– Brittany Gacsy