On a rainy day in spring 2014, I visited the Nantes School of Architecture designed by Lacaton & Vassal Architects. Opened in 2009, it was the result of a competition held in 2002 to replace the original school from the early 1970s, which had become too small to house the expanded study program and the growing number of students. The Nantes School of Architecture is one of about twenty Écoles Nationales Supérieures d’Architecture in France, and houses about one thousand students. I had heard a lot about this project and seen many images, but I had difficulty imagining its spaces and wanted to see it for myself. It is located on the Île de Nantes, the former harbor area of this busy and wealthy city in northwest France. It is close to the old city center. Its neighborhood features the mixture of offices, housing, cultural venues, and vacant lots typical of gentrified waterfront areas, with their aura of both factory ruin and construction site.
As I approached the building, I was struck by the way it relates to the ground. The asphalt from the street seemed to continue seamlessly into the entry hall. And in fact there is no underground construction—the reinforced concrete grid sits directly on the ground. Heading towards the entrance, I passed by a ramp which gently leads to the upper decks and which can be used by pedestrians and bicycles, but also cars and trucks. The motif of traffic animates the entire space of the school. Circulation literally seems to be running through the various floors. Instead of planning a separate parking lot at a distance, or hiding it underground, the architects intertwined parking, teaching, learning, and administration. By declining to build a cellar, an attic, and a subterranean parking lot, the architects put all the features of a school’s life on the table. The way of working is part of the work, so to speak.
As I went up the ramp I had the impression of entering the school through the back door. I immediately became sympathetic to the building. Instead of being dwarfed and intimidated by a monumental entrance structure, as with many institutions of higher education, I felt like an insider, like someone who knew the shortcuts, who was familiar with the place and was free to approach its entrance via the garage. Almost like entering a private flat where bicycles and kids' rubber boots clog the entrance, I was part of a non-ceremonial transitional area between outside and inside, public and private, a common zone where students and teachers, administrators, and passersby meet.
I found it easy to navigate the building and orient myself. Unlike most universities—for instance, my own in Zürich—where a Kafkaesque labyrinth of corridors absorbs one’s energy, I never felt lost. Connections were simple, and some spaces, such as the main lecture hall, could be perceived from various parts of the building because their volumes intersected with the other spaces in the school. Mostly, I experienced my visit as an aesthetic pleasure, as a promenade architectural—an itinerary full of surprising vistas and spatial events. The rather narrow entrance area, with its dark floor and slightly somber atmosphere, opened up in a spectacular fashion to a very generous two-story mezzanine, which serves as an exhibition space and links the class areas to the library and the administrative offices. The architects work with contrasts of dark and light-filled zones, narrow and wide spaces, low and high ceilings, ramps, and stairs. There are many spectacular views, for instance towards the very large workshops which connect directly to the street so that cars and trucks can enter.
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