French architect pushes sustainable buildings

HANK SCHOUTEN
Last updated 13:27 04/11/2012
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VISIONS FOR SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE: Edouard Francois' tower of biodiversity design, which was designed to convince Parisians that they don't hate tower blocks.

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Local values, the seasons and even human emotions must be taken into account by those looking to create sustainable architecture, says visiting French architect Edouard Francois.

Francois, a pioneer of sustainable architecture who was in Wellington this week for a seminar and display of his work at the Victoria University School of Architecture, said the concept was as radical a change as the Modernist movement was to the 20th century.

Energy conservation was a given but sustainable architecture went beyond that. It was about fitting a building into the landscape, making a boring space interesting, addressing human values and emotions, the ephemeral, seasonal change and economics.

Francois has won a reputation for green architecture for one of his earlier projects, notably the radical "Flower Tower" apartment building in Paris' 17th arrondissement which bristles with 380 giant concrete flowerpots sprouting bamboo. It drew inspiration from the Parisian habit of putting flower pots on balconies and windowsills.

But it was also inspired by the context - in this case it was an apartment block beside a park. The park was important to everybody, so the idea was to do what he could to enlarge the park and extend the horizon, said Francois.

The Flower Tower is a square concrete structure made remarkable by the bamboo plants which are watered automatically through the balustrades of each storey.

It softens the building and provides natural sunshades and screens for all the apartments.

Because his designs were seen as so radical when he started out Francois has spent much of his career lecturing and teaching rather than designing new buildings. But more recently he has been recognised with exhibitions in New York, London and Paris and some of the most prestigious commissions in France.

These include a project to build the ultimate in luxury hotels for the Louis Vuitton fashion brand.

The first Cheval Blanc - which will be a forerunner for the chain - is to be built in Paris, another is being designed for Turkey and others are certain to follow.

Francois said he won the commission on the basis of two radical hotels he had already designed in Paris and the Cote D'Azur.

Asked how his commitment to sustainable architecture meshed with a fashion house that represented the ultimate in indulgence, Francois said Louis Vuitton was his client and it was not his job to represent them.

But in the case of the Paris hotel development it was going to be built on the banks of the Seine River next to La Samaritaine, an important historical monument and the challenge was to design an extraordinary hotel that fitted the location.

Another recent commission by the mayor of Paris is to build the first new high rise tower to be built in the heart of the city in more than 40 years.

"The mayor said 'the Parisians hate towers and you will have to do a tower that Parisians will love'."

Francois said he was challenged by the paradox - and he had designed an irregular shaped building that would be cloaked with trees that grew naturally in that region. The plants will be grown from seed and watered from rainwater collected from the roof. They will be grown in 500 stainless tubes that will adorn the green oxidised titanium exterior of the 60m apartment block.

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His pitch to the public would be that this building would bring biodiversity and create a green corridor for insects and birds in a part of the city that had very little in the way of natural greenery. But will it win the Parisians over or will they hate it?

"I know if I don't do the job well, I will be killed," said Francois.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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