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French Art Museum Extension Marries Old and New

Fitted into a historic courtyard in the French city of Orléans, the dramatic new home for the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, or FRAC, will showcase art and experimental architecture
Fitted into a historic courtyard in the French city of Orléans, the dramatic new home for the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, or FRAC, will showcase art and experimental architecture. Jakob+MacFarlane, architects/N. Borel Photographies

An addition to the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, in Orléans, France, takes a futuristic approach to design but required old-fashioned handiwork in its construction.

January 7, 2014—Last fall the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, or FRAC, opened a futuristic prefabricated structure in the heart of the French city of Orléans. Christened the Turbulences, it represents a collision of startling new architecture incorporated into a historic courtyard.

The FRAC, which opened in 1983, exhibits contemporary art along with models and drawings of experimental architecture dating from the 1950s to the present. Now the center’s collection includes around 600 works, 800 architectural models, and more than 15,000 drawings, as well as a large collection of historic documents.

The latest addition to the FRAC, designed by the Parisian firm Jakob + MacFarlane, includes the Turbulances building along with the renovation of an existing building that once housed a prison, a hospice, and a convent. Brendan MacFarlane, a partner in the firm, says the project began with two geometric restrictions on the site: an L-shaped building created one boundary; a building on the other side completed the U-shaped site.

When MacFarlane and his colleagues extended these geometries out into the courtyard, he says, “We found that they confronted one another. That became the beginnings of our ideas that the buildings, these histories, could confront, and in this confrontation we created this zone that we called a zone of turbulence.” 

 Exterior rendering of the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, in Orléans, France, which displays complex shapes of the building

 Due to the complex shapes of the building, a trial assembly was
conducted to make sure the exterior pieces and the metal
framework all fit together. Jakob+MacFarlane, architects/
N. Borel Photographies

MacFarlane refers to this zone of turbulence as a deformation, and it results in a structure that somehow appears both highly futuristic yet equally organic. The shape of the Turbulences is almost like a metallic tree trunk with three thick branches protruding in the air. Those branches, each capped with skylights, are called “chimneys” and extrude from the main structure at different heights and angles. The highest of the three is 17 m tall and will house large works of art; the second chimney houses the lobby, and the third and shortest houses an audiovisual gallery. While the three chimneys function as independent spaces, they are structurally linked, helping to activate the whole as a place of meeting, conversation, and exchange. “We wanted something that was a sign or symbol of what the collection was about,” MacFarlane says.

Architect Aurélien Lemonier, a curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, curated two exhibits about the project and contributed to a monograph on its design. He says the construction of the project was based on a metallic armature that forms a rigid frame connected at the base. The link, he writes in the monograph, “between the framework and the infrastructure of the foundation is achieved by the means of ball and socket joints. The foundations are mixed: to the right of each pole of the framework, a stake; between the feet, superficial concrete beams.”

Lemonier notes that the metallic framework of the Turbulences comprises steel tubes, circular in section, all of the same diameter—16.8 cm. All of the steel tubes were welded on-site except for the main crossbars.

The armature of the structure rests on the existing building, creating a “rigid and self-stabilized skeleton,” Lemonier writes. Wind tunnel tests helped to “define the coefficient of pressure on each of the surfaces of the Turbulences. From these tests, the weight-bearing forces and the loads on each of the facets were deduced.”

 Exterior rendering where the Turbulences project was conceived as a place where the geometries of the old buildings that shape the courtyard could confront one another

 The Turbulences project was conceived as a place where the
geometries of the old buildings that shape the courtyard could
confront one another; the new building is a visual symbol of that
confrontation. Jakob+MacFarlane, architects/
N. Borel Photographies

This enabled engineers to optimize the thickness of the steel tubes—approximately 40 mm at their base—which in turn made it possible to reduce their thickness at each horizontal break and thus shrink them to approximately 8 mm in the top section. This optimization of stresses and loads, Lemonier notes, made it possible to reduce the weight of the structure—important given the challenges of fabricating and assembling the structure.

“I very much wanted the deformed history of these two grids coming together,” says MacFarlane. “I wanted very much for that to ‘read.’ So when you go into the hall, when you look up, you see the structure [that] holds up the building; it’s visible.”

The facade combines glass and metal. The aluminum-clad facade is perforated in places to admit light; in other places the perforations conceal light-emitting diodes, which can be used to “animate” the skin of the building. According to MacFarlane the “light surface of the building is simultaneously an architectural and artistic intervention, an urban signal, and signage of the buildings’ activities.”

Further, the FRAC is painted with a special metallic paint derived from the automobile industry and is meant to play with what MacFarlane calls the “extraordinary light conditions” of the Loire Valley. The gray paint captures the shifting colors of the seasons—the building looks golden on a warm sunny afternoon or blue on a gold day. “What we liked a lot about the choice of color on the facade was the chameleon-like quality,” he says, which reflects the thematic goals of the project. “Turbulences for us is a changing thing. It’s about process and experimentation; it’s about a proposition. We like very much that the paint could somehow reflect that reading.”

 Exterior rendering of the Turbulences building which features three protruding sections and dubbed chimneys

 The Turbulences building features three protruding sections,
dubbed chimneys, which house works of art, an audiovisual
gallery, and the lobby. Jakob+MacFarlane, architects/
N. Borel Photographies

To help conceptualize the complicated geometries, the designers used a software process called autoforming, which took the general sense of what they wanted to do physically with the building envelope and passed it through a series of calculations that told them more precisely how much structure they needed, where exactly to put the structure, and what the final form of the building would be.

Lemonier writes that the form the exterior of the structure intersect at nodes, and each node required different, and very precise, cuts so that the tubes could be joined. The geometry of the cut of the exterior skin of the tube is not the same as that of the building’s internal skin. The more the angle of intersection tended toward 180 degrees, the greater was the thickness of the material to be cut, and therefore the more difficult to execute. The joints were cut with a five-axis digital machining head, he writes.

Prior to the final assembly of the structure, workers carried out an initial trial assembly to make sure the pieces all fit together. The work, Lemonier notes, required a great deal of dexterity, especially on the part of the crane operator, to accurately position each piece.  

“During this phase, the order of assembly was a key factor of the construction company’s expertise and took into account the gradual locking in place of the framework, as the welding work on the posts and struts advanced,” Lemonier writes. “A dual system was welded to each of the facets of the tubular structure, onto which a covering and exterior cladding were then affixed. A metallic armature with unequal steel angles was welded to the bare exterior of the tubular structure.”

 Exterior rendering of the French art museum which has an aluminum-clad facade that is perforated in places to conceal light-emitting diodes

 The aluminum-clad facade is perforated in places to conceal
light-emitting diodes, which can be used to animate the skin of the
building. Jakob+MacFarlane, architects/N. Borel Photographies

Lemonier notes that four security poles were welded to the extremities of the metal framework. The coordinates of the poles were used to check the conformity of the structure to the plans; if a security pole’s coordinates in space exceeded the tolerance threshold, it was dismantled, readjusted in the shop, and repositioned.

Despite the extensive use of computer software, each frame was made, cut, installed, and welded by hand. In some respects, then, the notion of “turbulences” speaks also to the intersection of old and new methods of design and construction. In an interview, Lemonier notes that on the one hand, there’s the “computational process, which is very important for the design and for the construction, but on the other side, workers are still on-site. You still need the hand to build this kind of structure.”



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