NeM Architects: “Today, we no longer demolish old buildings, we reuse them!”

NeM Architectes
Close Photo Maxime Tétard
January 11, 2021

NeM Architects: “Today, we no longer demolish old buildings, we reuse them!”

Lucie Niney and Thibault Marca, from the agency NeM Architectes, talk about their work on the renovation of the Bourse de Commerce and its transformation from former stock exchange to a museum of contemporary art.

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By Bourse de Commerce

How does it feel to have collaborated with Tadao Ando on the Bourse de Commerce project?

Lucie Niney: Not only did we have the incredible good fortune of working with an architectural icon but Tadao Ando was open to dialogue from the beginning of the project. The experience was even more enriching in that we really managed to work with him, to come up with ideas, within the framework of a project by Tadao Ando certainly, but proposals to transform the Bourse de Commerce nevertheless. We also worked with lots of other partners, the Bouroullec for the furniture, Michel Bras for the restaurant, Les Graphiquants for the signage, and obviously the Pierre-Antoine Gatier agency for historic monuments. It really was a collaborative effort, with all these different actors and the teams of the Pinault Collection.

Thibault Marca: First of all, it was quite unexpected. We quickly realized how lucky we were to be able to work with such a legendary figure of international architecture who has inspired so many generations of architects before us, as one of the last living disciples of Brutalism. I am thinking in particular of RCA Architects with whom we had the opportunity to work and with whom we share this passion for radicalism, minimalism, and a quasi-obsessive use of a single material. It was a privilege to work with Tadao Ando, we are passionate about Japan, and this was an opportunity to begin a dialogue across generations but also across cultures.

“When we add a contemporary element to listed or remarkable buildings, we are looking for a form of reversibility.” Lucie Niney

How can you create or design architecture within an existing architecture, particularly when the latter is a listed building?

LN: At the agency, we are used to working with what already exists, creating architecture from architecture. This is something that we enjoy doing: taking advantage of a place and having this historical hook to design from. It also ties in with very current themes of ecological transition since it is much more relevant today to rehabilitate old buildings rather than to demolish and rebuild, or to transform buildings rather than erect new ones. Tadao Ando, who is from Japan, has another connection to this historic building. It very quickly inspired him to design a cylinder, a concrete circle that would find its place within the Rotunda of the Bourse de Commerce. We would never have come up with this approach so quickly, particularly with our European gaze, given that our modus operandi was to analyse and dissect the building before coming up with a proposal. Therefore, it was the speed of his proposal and his vision that generated the project’s impetus, providing a dynamic on which, afterwards, it was possible to work, by adjusting the diameter, height, openings, etc. His proposal created a foundation for the work, which I believe, would not have come so quickly from a more Western perspective.

TM: At the agency, we enjoy working in this way. In any case, it’s pertinent to today: we no longer demolish buildings; we reuse them. With a building that has no specific appeal, you may justifiably feel free to appropriate and transform it, by keeping certain things, removing others, etc. In a partially listed building however, the approach is totally different. Our role is to reveal both what is already present, and to conserve it. This involves a lot of restoration work. These are also things that you don’t necessarily see. Here, it was exciting working with the architects who built this structure since we have the Camus de Mézières wheat market, the remains of which can be seen today with the 18th-century facade or the double spiral staircase, as well as the Bélanger dome. Therefore, we had to work with the architects who left the traces that are still visible today, but also to work with the intuition that Tadao Ando had had upon first seeing the building, this idea of adding a layer. This led us to thinking about additions, the construction of that vision, and how to integrate these layers in a discreet fashion. To do this, we needed a precise understanding of the building before implementing any kind of major intervention.

Does reversible concrete exist? Is there a magic recipe for Ando’s concrete?

LN: It’s not so much the concrete that is reversible as the overall composition of the concrete cylinder. It is not a solid wall but a wall made up of two concrete veils built around a hollow core. Therefore, the wall in its centre is empty: it actually consists of a metal frame into which the concrete walls have been poured in situ. This approach was guided by the dynamic and desire we had to preserve the structure of the building, and to retain the floor of the ground floor level and thus to create a cylinder that would fit into it. It also goes very well with today’s conservation philosophy: when we add a contemporary element to listed or remarkable buildings, we are looking for a form of reversibility. And so theoretically, if we wanted to, in fifty years’ time, we could dismantle this concrete cylinder. Obviously, we hope that this won’t be the case but nevertheless this action is possible. When we came up with this new composition for the wall, we realized that in fact, it reflected the Haussmannian architecture of the building, which itself is made from metal and masonry. We were waiting for Ando’s special concrete formula, but in fact it doesn’t exist. Ando’s idea is to be able to build everywhere with this material, which exists in different forms all around the world. Everybody got down to work, including the Bouygues teams, to create the best concrete possible, but ultimately the fact that we didn’t have to find this magic formula, freed us. It allowed us to work both on the composition of the concrete, and on its final aspect, which is much more matt here than in Ando’s other projects. This also allowed us to resolve other technical issues, relating to the acoustics and lighting.

TM: Reversible concrete doesn’t really exist. What has perhaps led us to a certain reversibility was precisely the fact of working with the existing building. We didn’t build a solid concrete wall as is traditionally done in Tadao Ando’s work. We kept the existing floors and created a primary metal structure into which we poured in-situ two thin 12-cm concrete veils. The context led us to use less concrete and to adjust the composition of the wall in order to solve problems of climate and light within the Rotunda, and we worked a little on the texture of the concrete for the sake of the acoustics. There is no magic formula for “Ando concrete”. We thought that we would become the keepers of a secret, but when you think about it, and Ando himself puts this very well, he uses this material because it is both very poor and universal, you can find it everywhere and give it all the forms you want. Concrete is the very backbone of all buildings today, it’s the ghost behind all the buildings we build. It is this notion of timelessness that is worked on: there is no formula for concrete, but there is a formula for its all-over use, on the floor, the walls, the ceiling. We forget that it is a poor material that ultimately becomes almost intangible; we create a space from almost nothing.

How did you two meet and begin working together?

LN: Thibaut and I met at the École d’Architecture de Paris – La Villette halfway through the course and we did an internship together in an architectural firm called Cantin-Planchez, to whom we owe a lot. We continued working there while completing our studies. Therefore, once we graduated we already knew that we got along well. To be precise, we get along very well on a human level, we are very friendly, we have a similar sense of humour, but we also get along on a professional level, we are quite complementary. After various and varied experiences, each on their own, it was natural to partner up and begin an agency together.

TM: I met Lucie at architecture school. We did internships together, we both worked in the same small agency, and we quickly saw that we worked well together. Afterwards, we went our separate ways, gaining experience where we could. I founded the agency in 2008 and two years later we teamed up because it’s much better to work with another person, we get along very well and it makes the working day more pleasant. We like to share the stresses of the job, but also the joys, and we have a lot of fun in the process.

“When you engage with every new project and question your construction methods, then you also remain open to the problems of your time. You can remain a young architect all your life.” Thibault Marca

What does it mean to be a “young architect”?

LN: That’s a big question. Traditionally, you were considered to be a young architect up until the age of forty, but ultimately you are a young architect for a long time and quite late in your career. This is because projects are long and very diverse, and it takes a good deal of time to acquire the necessary experience to be able to call yourself an “experienced architect”. Discovering different projects, different problematics, different contexts, and different methods takes some time. Architectural studies are also quite long so you start your professional life at a relatively late age. However, I believe that beyond the issues of age and experience, it is also a position vis-à-vis the practice of your profession. When you engage with every new project, question your construction methods, think about inscribing a building in its territory while taking advantage of the local economy and resources, etc., then you also remain open to the problems of your time. When you don’t have a ready-made recipe that you apply to each project, you can in fact, remain a young architect all your life.

TM: I don’t know at what age you are supposed to be stop being a young architect. In my opinion, you are a young architect when you have acquired a certain experience, but the notion of time in architecture is quite lengthy. We learn to manage issues in the long term and as and with the different projects on which we work. I would say it’s when you have gained some form of experience, but when you retain your sense of curiosity and enthusiasm, and you continue to question yourself. When you manage to match these two things, you can start to be an architect, and therefore a young architect.

What extra things are needed to make a museum?

LN: To make a museum, two ideas must find their balance. Not only does the architecture need to leave enough room for the artworks, but it is also expected to be a strong signal, emblematic. These two views need to be balanced, which is unusual compared to other projects. We also have a relationship with contemporary art and art in general which evolves quickly, visiting practices and the public also change a lot, so this is a mission that is ultimately quite specific to each commission, but which can be re-envisioned according to its context, sponsor, location, etc. Obviously, the technical issues, the room temperature, the light, the complexity of the routes make the museum a particularly fascinating project for architects.

TM: Basically, a museum is a place where artworks are displayed. It is important to put the people who come to see these works in a certain context or mood. There is obviously a balance to be found between the museum design, with all its technical issues, but also this concept of conditioning. In other words, the museum is not the primary work, it is what conditions the visitor. The architecture must be able to flip a little switch in the visitor’s mind so that they can receive, contemplate and admire what they have come to see. The aim is to achieve a balance between these technical aspects and this conditioning. A museum must also be a place that has a strong enough personality or identity. The Bourse de Commerce is a place with its own history, with traces of several buildings, and which today is a building in flux or evolution. Our intervention—the addition of an extra layer—allows us to be part of an era that speaks of past eras and also of future eras, but which also speaks of the place, and of Paris. The museum should be an instrument open to all kinds of interventions and installations. The key is finding a balance between all these.

What was your first memorable encounter with a work of art?

LN: My first encounter with a work of art was with the fountain by Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle on the forecourt of the Centre Pompidou. This is a place where lots of people pass by, or rest after a visit to the museum, and at same time, it is very striking. There is also this notion of being in space, in movement, beyond the sculptural aspect, which appealed to me.

TM: I come from Brittany, so I really liked what we call the Nabis, a group of Breton painters around Gauguin, Sérusier, whom I discovered in Quimper and at the Musée de Brest. When I encountered their quest for abstraction or “going beyond” representation, I began to question how art could interpret and speak of the evolution of modernity.