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Exhibition: Activism and Transgression at Paris, France'...

Exhibition: Activism and Transgression at Paris, France's Cité de l'Architecture

The exhibit “A Building, How Many Lives?” on view from Dec. 17, 2014 to Sept. 28, 2015 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France, is based on an exercise of compilation that gives its meaning to the name of the place – “Architecture and Heritage” – however exasperating it may be. Beyond that, it is

Lina Bo Bardi Sao Paulo, Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, San Paulo, Brazil

The exhibit "A Building, How Many Lives?" on view from Dec. 17, 2014 to Sept. 28, 2015 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France, is based on an exercise of compilation that gives its meaning to the name of the place - "Architecture and Heritage" - however exasperating it may be. Beyond that, it is a call for more activism.

Therefore, here is the opportunity to see what architecture can make of heritage, even if the latter is of poor quality. The exhibit designed by Francis Rambert, Director of the French Institute for Architecture, does not recede to the multiple uses of a single construction. That a church could have played the role of an arms depot during the revolution, or that a particular hotel was transformed into a school, was not the subject at hand. The viewing is limited to a more recent period, the "post-modern," when transformation became an act of architecture.

The commentary brought on by the exhibit is much more interesting because it highlights a French idiosyncrasy: building is more of a sacred act than a practical preoccupation.

Often enough, some lament the ravages of the Blitzkrieg in London. The City suffered more from modernity than the German bombs. Its financial position accords only a utilitarian value to its buildings before seeing them as a symbol or even as the testimony of a bygone era to necessarily conserve.

So, when London destroys, it's because the city sees a building as not adapted to its needs. When Paris razes to the ground, it's because the city sees a construction as embarrassing or, at best, outdated. Sure, vandalism was commonplace during the Glorious Thirties in France, and English Heritage often plays the killjoys on the other side of La Manche.

Kraanspoor Amsterdam OTH, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Nevertheless, Francis Rambert leaves it to the astonishment of the Americans to see warehouses, here and there, converted into places to live in the 1960s. In the United States, the "logic of destruction prevails once the building breaks," he says.

Moreover, "architects were often in a state of denial. Transformation was not considered a creative act. An entire modern generation was trained in the school of the tabula rasa," explains Francis Rambert to the Courrier de l'Architecte.

It was necessary to wait for the Beat Generation and alternative movements in order to turn a prioris upside down. Philippe Robert, Co-founder of the Reichen & Robert firm, became, after many journeys, the bard of a new practice during the 1970s, "notably through the intuition that the factories could become part of heritage."

In Spain, at the same time, Ricardo Bofill became a sensation in Barcelona by buying back at a cheap price a cement plant, which he partially transformed into an extraordinary palace and as a whole into a city neighborhood. In Brazil, Lina Bo Bardi transformed a factory into a vast socio-cultural complex. So many projects that are admirable, even today.

Francis Rambert then never stops paying homage to the "activism" of these architects who "were opposed to the demands of their clients" and to the destructive spirit of a consumption society.

Tour Bois le Pretre, Paris, France

Beyond conversion, the exhibit posits heritage as the primer for novelty. Exceptional projects, since forgotten - since they were completed over years that were very quickly labeled "post-modern" - are rapidly presented. A single vignette illustrates the formidable work of Dominique Perrault at Saint-Germain-en Laye where, in order to enlarge a bourgeois dwelling transformed into a convention center, the architect dug out the soil and drew a circular glass floor around the old house, giving the illusion that it was emerging from an artificial lake. Also, the Fondation Cognacq-Jay by Jean Nouvel at Rueil-Malmaison, made a double ghost out of an extension. So, the exhibit lists many noteworthy acts that all share an ideal of "transgression."

In addition, the choices undertaken by the commissioner do not only attach themselves to exceptional projects. They approach the "reconquering of the banal," Christian de Portzamparc’s affirmation that "what is sustainable is transformable." One of the works by the famous architect is presented in the exhibit prominently and illustrates the metamorphosis of a modern low-rise in the 18th arrondissement - in sum, the foreshadowing of the work of Lacaton Vassal and Frederic Druot in the framework of the rehabilitation of the Bois-le-Pretre Tower.

More recent examples are presented through models and boards: the use of a road tunnel as a museum by the Italian firm Studio Terragni Architetti or even the conversion of a port site, the Kraanspoor of Amsterdam by OTH architecten into a spectacular office building above the water.

This exhibit, which required two years of work, articulates the omnipresent memory - even omni-heavy - of "heritage" in contemporary creation. It rings of a delicious thumbing one's nose at the the traditional molding gallery, the symbol of a past that has frozen in the plaster.

What are some examples of activism and transgression that you can think of in Post Modernism? What buildings have been repurposed in your community? Is there any odd building repurposing occurring in your community? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments area below. 

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Data and images linked to source.

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Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud,, and, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D...

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