Rudy Ricciotti Architecture: a Major Art
After the effervescence set off by the opening of the MuCEM in Marseille, buildings designed by Rudy Ricciotti scheduled for completion in 2014 and 2015 include the Rivesaltes Musée-Mémorial and the FRAC Basse-Normandie. Combining technical mastery and a
In opposition to the globalized economy and its destruction of skills, the collective value of work and the conceptual exigencies of architecture, Rudy Ricciotti offers a return to sensibility and beauty. He tirelessly fustigates the “minimalist” excesses of the modernist dogma, and deplores the “anxiety and terror” produced by the aesthetic purism and academic forms of late modernism that have transformed the built environment into a world with no narrative. He is equally fierce in his criticism of the deconstructionist style as a vector of a morbid fascination with fracture and dispersal ( of forms and meaning). What’s needed, he argues, is the construction of another narrative, rejecting “the tyranny of the exceptional, the fantastic and the incredible” along with that of the ordinary and banal.(1) Ricciotti’s architecture brings together technical complexity and the expressive power of construction materials. As Marc Mimram perceptively notes, he has succeeded in reconciling structural lyricism
with cement. “We need to get back to the pleasure of raw concrete façades, the distinguished expression of unadorned massiveness and structural skeletons.”(2) His pedestrian bridge called the Pont du Diable (Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, 2008), for example, is a pioneering structure for Europe in its use of ultra high-performance fiber-reinforced concrete. It is 70 meters long with no supports, with a span more than 67 meters in length and 1.80 meters wide. The use of advanced technology (the structure was prefabricated and mounted on site by only six workers) made it possible to focus on the visual impact of the footbridge. With no cables, it is a pure line stretching across the landscape of the Hérault river gorges. Technology must not dominate or instrumentalize architecture. An architect must be able to keep playing with the flaws and tensions inherent in a design project. The use of fiber- reinforced concrete for the latticework on the J4 in Marseille (MuCEM, 2013) blurs our perception of the building and its envelope so that it oscillates between harshness and lightness, organicity and artificiality. To take another example, the rigor and simplicity of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) headquarters in Cadarache (2012) are perturbed by a façade equipped with black concrete sunshades whose irregularly undulating surface gives the impression of a curtain. From the critical modernism of the Villa Lyprendi (Toulon, 1998) to the large, asymmetrical inlaid concrete of the Stade Jean Bouin (Paris, 2013), Ricciotti’s architecture is “heterogeneous and paradoxical.”(3) Ricciotti identifies his style as the kind of mannerism that can be found in the work of artists (he cites his friend, the artist Gérard Traquandi: “Mannerism is a synthesis of different kinds of knowledge”) and writers (“like Barbey d’Aurevilly, I want to make my architectural sentences as long as possible”). The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre (designed with Mario Bellini, 2012) is an illustration of this. Situated in the Visconti courtyard, this new space houses nearly three thousand artworks from India, Iran, Turkey and Spain. Its roofing is a triangle made of a double layer of glass covered with a gilded metallic mesh. To highlight the richness of the collection (the diversity of religious and everyday objects, the refinement of the way the materials are worked, the abstract and decorative shapes and motifs) Ricciotti designed a floating roof supported by eight columns. This fluid veil, slightly set back from the museum’s façades, plays with our perception of the light and the materials, making the layer of aluminum look like cloth, adding complexity to its ornamental dimension and relations of scale with the architecture of the historic site, and setting off a dialectic between the undulation and the screen that both covers and connects it.
NOTHING IS WON ONCE AND FOR ALL
Waves, faults, webbing, truncated volumes… Ricciotti manipulates and bends the volumes, thicknesses and blocks, and disrupts the boundaries between inside and outside. Thus the images are never simple or obvious. The meshwork of the MuCEM may seem familiar with its Oriental and organic accents, bringing out the mineral beauty of Mediterranean landscapes, but its dimensions and blackness also freight it with a certain violence, as if any innocence were impossible. The Centre Culturel Aimé Césaire in Gennevilliers (2013) is an irregular, hollow prism of white concrete whose openings along the building’s sides and corners bring to mind the torn canvases of Lucio Fontana. This deliberate warping of volumes made its appearance early in Ricciotti’s work, such as the Vitrolles stadium (1990), a big rhombus sitting smack on the ground, and the slightly trapezoidal instead of rectangular Collège 750 in Sausset-lesPins (1992). Ricciotti clearly enjoys “betraying modernist values” by introducing an element of doubt. Something always upsets the principles of totality and homogeneity. The function of his buildings
is to neutralize architecture’s current consumer-ready narrative and image, making possible all kinds of stylistic and formal distortions.
ART AND ARCHITECTURE
This architect has developed his thinking through close contact with artists such as Gilles Mahé, a precursor of relational aesthetics, Bernard Bazile and Julien Blaine. The Berlin sculptor Fred Rubin made interventions in the Nikolaïsaal concert hall in Potsdam (2000), the Pavillon Noir in Aix-en-Provence (2004) and the I TER headquarters building. I n the boardroom of that international energy research organization, this artist installed a light fixture taken from the atomic energy agency of former East Germany, an uprooted, recycled object whose ideological context has faded away. Its presence here is almost an aberration, bringing into collision two antagonistic scientific and political worlds. Ricciotti likes to undertake partnerships that challenge architecture’s symbolic authority, its arkhê (a Greek word meaning foundation, principle, commandment). In 1997, he worked with Christophe Berdaguer and Marie Péjus in designing eight
Maisons qui meurent (Houses that die), structures that self-destruct in rhythm with the lives of their inhabitants (through natural phenomena, the erosion of the building materials and other processes). In 2011, he collaborated with Claude Viallat to design the Maison de l’Emploi in Saint-Étienne. Ricciotti used variations on the motif created by Viallat (a “bean”) on each of the four façades by making openings lit up at night with red, green and blue lights. “The idea was cowardly: to strip the architect of his responsibility. In 1968, Viallat wanted to push back the limits of painting, and in 2000 I wanted to push back the limits of style in a building that’s about unemployment.” With Support/Surface, Viallat invented the di- sappearance of the frame and provoked a crisis in the apprehension of the material delimitations of painting. This stratagem transposed to the scale of a building “kills” the question of proportion by modifying architecture’s constructive and symbolic hierarchies. The façade is no longer an impersonal mask punctuated by openings. Plasticity takes over, giving the building a new identity.
NO CONCESSIONS OR COMPASSION
Another thing that makes Ricciotti’s designs exemplary is his attention to the complexity of the architectural brief. The FRAC Basse-Normandie and the MuséeMémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes represented challenges because the sites were highly charged historically. The first, an art center to be completed next year, will occupy a former nineteenth-century convent in a neighborhood near downtown Caen. The building was to be reconfigured and an addition constructed. He strengthened the spatial logic of the cloister by adding a fourth side, emphasizing it further with a long beam made of fiber-reinforced concrete. The design as a whole is characterized by the discretion of the contemporary intervention and a mirror game between the big reflecting pool on the roof, and the glass-enclosed sections of the new structure and the cloister. Ricciotti utilized the constraints of this historic site to create a poetry of movement, of disappearance and reflection. The Musée-Mémorial de Rivesaltes (completion set for late 2014) will be a venue for research and an exhibition space on a tragic historic site, a concentration camp first used to intern Spanish Republican refugees and then as a transit camp for Jews and Gypsies before they were sent to death camps. After the war in Algeria it housed Harkis (Algerians who had fought for the French). The half-buried building is a reddish earth-tone cement monolith no taller than the neighboring barracks. The building’s massive opacity conveys a rejection of a spectacular and/or compassionate design. Its simultaneously brutal and humble materiality symbolizes the tensions between the persistence and erasure of memory, and the good and bad conscience of the French nation. Ricciotti’s work is engaged in a constant dialogue with the basic elements of the architectural vocabulary, deconstructing the canons of functionalism and façadeism. When you read his writings and hear him talk about the people he admires (from Arthur Cravan to Pier Paolo Pasolini), you understand why he seeks to humanize a discipline that has lost its political and technical moorings. The introduction of a germ of doubt into architecture makes it possible to strip contemporary construction of those elements that make it “comfortable”—i.e., reassuring and standardized. This critical mission is what drives his work. That’s why his architectural thinking is based on a dialectical principle closely linking ethical and aesthetic orientations in a quest for a human equilibrium, a reality-based hypothesis renewed and further differentiated with each new project.
(1) L’Architecture est un sport de combat, conversation avec David d’Équainville, Paris: Textuel, 2013. The Rudy Ricciotti quotations are excerpted from an unpublished interview with him in Cassis on October 23, 2013.
(2) La rationalité lyrique, catalogue of the exhibition Ricciotti architecte, Paris, Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine/Le Gac Press, 2013, p. 35. (3) Catalogue for Archilab 2000, Orleans, HYX éditions, p. 194. A book about Rudy Ricciotti’s work by Flavio Mangione is to be published in a four-language edition (Latin, Italian, French and Provençal) by André Frère Éditions and Prospettive Edizioni.
Ci-dessus/ above: Le pont de la République, Montpellier, inauguré le 18 mars 2014. (© Lisa Ricciotti).
“République” bridge. Ci-dessous/ below: Centre culturel Aimé Césaire, Gennevilliers. 2013. (© O. Amsellem).
Siège d’ITER France, Cadarache. 2012. (© Lisa Ricciotti). Head office of ITER France