Renault Parts Distribution Centre 119


(Paris, France) 1981-84

(Left) The translucent fibreglass membrane coated with teflon, seen from above and below

(Opposite) The support points of the membrane, viewed from below

(Left) The translucent fibreglass membrane coated with teflon, seen from above and below

(Opposite) The support points of the membrane, viewed from below

This project followed soon after Piano's collaboration with Richard Rogers on the Centre Pompidou (pp. 84-89). Although it was located outside the city centre of Paris, the Schlumberger project had to submit to greater constaints, which defined its particular challenge.

It represented an early attempt, typical of the 1980s, to deal with the problem of an obsolescent industrial structure without demolishing it. Similar projects were the old Fiat plant in Turin, the Lingotto, and the old Pirelli plant in Milan, the La Biccocca factory com plex. In both these cases, the creative contribution of the architects was thought to be important; the definition of the programme was very much part of the problem posed to them. By contrast. Schlumberger had a very clear idea of what re-use meant: to turn the old factories into a new research centre, or. to use Lewis Mumford's terms, to transform a palaeo-technic' workplace into a 'neo-technic' one.

As Piano stated in an interview, 'in practical terms we [had to] oversee the firm's transition from assembly line to the computer: a very stimulating experience. The president of the company asked me, at the beginning, to modernize the old site without erasing tte industrial memory of the factory's original activities. What happened was this: while workingon the headquarters, we ended upalso working on the reorganization of the firm Having started from the container, we arrived at the contained.'

Piano tried to implement architecturally a programme that had already been well defined by the organization. His approach was to1 respect the roughness of the old structu

mmmmem and the memory of the hardness of the old work style, on the one hand; and, on the other, to emphasize through the greatest contrast the character of the new conditions of work. Two strategies were followed. First, the restoration of nature amid brutal industrial blight and, second, the installation of a new artifact expressing the qualities of the neo-technic age - intelligence, openness, friendliness.

The main factory, located in the middle of the site, was torn down and replaced by a garden designed by Piano in collaboration with Alexandre Chemetoff. This came to surround, smother and even break into the older buildings in the form of greenhouses, so reversing the previous process that had characterized the spread of industrialization. 'Often*, explained Piano, construction has suffocated, overloaded, killed nature. This is why when I have to deal with a re-use project, I tend, on the contrary, to favour nature over the city.'

Complementary to the garden was a tent whose structure did not serve any specific operation. It was simply a protected 'forum' where many activities could occur. It did, however, serve an important iconographic function; like the garden, it contrasted the new ways with the old ways of production and, implicitly, the old style of management with the new, enlightened one. It also reflected on the nature of the product itself - the old industrial one being hardware, the result of processed matter, the new electronic one being software, the result of processed information. Finally, the tent served to demonstrate the current state of knowledge of structural laws. As in the case of Norman Foster's Renault Parts Distribution Centre (1980-83, pp. 116-19), the Schlum-berger tent offered a chance to show how structural forces operate in space and the optimal allocation of matter whereby maximal spans are achieved with minimum resources. Certainly, the vocabulary of the tent and its highly expressive contrasting components -masts, strings, tissue - are excellent means towards this goal, probably the best, as yacht design has demonstrated in the past. The tissue used was fibreglass membrane spun in France and woven in Germany, a self-cleaning material of excellent luminosity which took two months to put together. Ove Arup & Partners contributed towards finalizing the form of the structure.

The tent is asymmetrical, the north side supported by 'palm trees', the south by rods abutted to the walls of the forum. The result isa weightless image of flying, although not like Coop Himmelblau's Rooftop Remodelling (pp. 220-23) or the expressionistic dynamism of Santiago Calatrava's railway stations (pp. 254-57, 284-85). This is an explicitly light surface whose form results from the play and balance of forces. On a different plane, one does not contemplate for too long the abstractly representational qualities of the structure without being struck as was the photographer Deidi Von Schaewen by the subliminal metaphor at play in its sinuous curves and inflections.

(Opposite, above) An existing industrial building, converted to a new use, is colonized by the garden

(Opposite, centre page) Site sections

(Right and above) Plan and aerial view of the site

Michael Hopkins & Partners

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