PRINT March 1996


François Roche

OF LATE PARISIANS have been forced to stand by as their most cherished collective memories turn to rubble. In 1993, the Piscine de Ligny, the height of chic in the ’20s, was allowed to sink into the Seine. The city’s most recent affront is its plan to tear down Paris’ only American-style diner/after-hours minimall, Le Drugstore, which has been a fixture on the Boulevard St. Germain for decades. It is against this civic amnesia that the young architect François Roche battles. The point man for a new urbanism, he rejects the French predilection for spectacular buildings—for the sort of high-style exercises that dominate the neighborhoods in which they are situated—advocating, instead, an architectural practice that takes into account the complex character and history of a given quarter. Over the last seven years, Roche has won a number of state-sponsored competitions, but in each instance funds have dried up and he has been unable to realize any of his projects—until now, that is.

Roche’s first commission to reach fruition—the offices of the A.F.A.A. (the French Association for Artistic Action)—came with a number of unusual constraints. Because the agency was relocating to the third floor of the immense Beaux Arts hôtel on the Boulevard St. Germain that houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the project called not only for the creation of common spaces (a sitting area, a conference room, and a cafeteria), but also demanded that Roche confer an identity on a labyrinthine arrangement or anonymous corridors linking office after office. As Roche was forced not only to work with the existing structure but to do so on a very small budget, he limited himself to two simple materials. Gray felt and PVC were chosen not only because of their relatively low cost but also for their ability to evoke the transitory nature of the A.F.A.A.’s activities: establishing artists’ residences abroad, sponsoring traveling exhibitions, theater, and performance, as well as programs of cultural exchange.

To alter the character of the space, Roche created a new set of walls—a kind of second skin. Movable felt walls placed inside the perimeter of the waiting room recall the partitions used to transform spaces into exhibition sites. In other sections, Roche exploits felt’s more sensual qualities. Protective and cushioning, this soft, primitive material muffles workaday noise, and further narrows the corridors it lines, eroticizing the encounters between office workers as they squeeze past each other in the hall. These qualities contrast markedly with the aseptic nature of the PVC, a material often used to wrap artwork. The portions of the A.F.A.A. lined in this clear, thermo-welded plastic not only seem to be constantly under construction but are at once reflective and transparent, inducing a vertiginous sense of dislocation. The furniture, designed In conjunction with Marie-Christine Dorner, is generic, offering no distraction from the materials’ singular properties. It too is often covered in felt or plastic (even a Dubuisson table did not escape), merging with the walls and echoing the cadences of reflection and absorption, stasis and mutability set up by the contrast between the tactility of the felt and the high-tech sheen of the PVC.

Because funds were short, the project stops smack in the middle of a corridor. But its unfinished state takes nothing away from the power of Roche’s intervention. The tension produced by the contrasting properties of these two materials mirrors the paradox of housing an agency devoted to displacement and dissemination in the heart of the venerable Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Olivier Zahm contributes frequently to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.