They build, but modestly

By on March 1, 2021

first_imgAround 1980, two young architects finished their training in Bordeaux, France, and moved to Nigeria. In that African nation’s remote regions, they were inspired by the simple structures they saw amid the stark, stunning desert landscapes. The houses were open to the air, had utilitarian thatched roofs, and were made with bits of local wood. Modesty prevailed in structures that also invited beauty.The lessons of building in Africa stayed with Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal in their Paris-based practice, Lacaton & Vassal: use what is there, stay simple, embrace open air, and honor light, freedom, and grace. They practice social architecture based on economy, modesty, and the found beauty of environments.“Africa was probably our second school” after Bordeaux, said Vassal. While in Nigeria, they worked on town planning and traveled to marvel at indigenous building practices. “It [was] a fantastic liberty to live there.”Their belief in social architecture, shaded by a sense of African resourcefulness and economy, now embraces the overlooked utility and unseen loveliness of abandoned buildings, neglected public housing, rundown outdoor plazas, and overgrown urban forests that are at risk from a lack of imagination and coarse development.The architects brought their message to the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in a picture-filled, poemlike evening lecture on March 24 in Gund Hall’s Piper Auditorium.Lacaton is a visiting design critic in architecture at the GSD. She is co-teaching a studio course this spring called “Re-Defining Urban Living.” (Her classroom partner is GSD instructor in architecture Marcos Rojo, a Spanish architect with an interest in the built environment of West Africa.)The course applies the Lacaton & Vassal architectural ethic even to battered urban settings growing denser and older. That ethic holds that design (and redesign) must emphasize the humanizing values of comfort, pleasure, well-being, economy, and modesty.Lacaton & Vassal’s designs champion “accuracy, sensitivity, kindness, and attention,” said Lacaton in opening remarks. Housing requires of an architect “the continuous attention to its inhabitant.”In a project called 23 Semi-Collective Housing Units in Trignac, France, Lacaton & Vassal constructed a series of light-filled loft duplexes topped by horticultural greenhouses. The same idea — a solid, simple grid of concrete and steel versatile and large enough to contain playful interiors — is at work in the firm’s Nantes School of Architecture. Its three-deck, lightweight, steel structure emphasizes flexible, generously sized interiors, transparent enough to show off views of the cityscape.Vassal called for buildings, like the one in Nantes, that have “porosity,” a striving to blend “what is inside and what is outside.”French architects Anne Lacaton (left), a visiting Graduate School of Design professor, and Jean-Philippe Vassal run the Paris-based design firm Lacaton & Vassal. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff PhotographerAt play in these projects is another of the firm’s principles: build generous spaces at the lowest cost possible, with a sense of economy that does not surrender comfort and beauty. Spend the minimum, said Vassal, “to get the maximum.”Economy can also mean refurbishing what is already there. One of the more famous examples of this Lacaton & Vassal sustainability ethic is the firm’s 2002 reimagining of the Palais de Tokyo, a 1937 structure abandoned for decades, with 20,000 square meters of underused urban space, in Paris.The design called for doing “nearly nothing,” said Vassal. “Just the minimum for heating, for lighting.” (It’s a contemporary art space now, attracts 800,000 visitors a year, and was expanded in 2012.) The result illustrates the beauty of doing little, but cleverly, “to make sustainable,” he said, “what already exists.”In another project, FRAC Dunkerque, Lacaton & Vassal combined building the new with saving the old. Instead of tearing down an old boat warehouse in the port city of Dunkirk, France, they elected to build another just like it — of the same dimensions at least — right next to it.“Here inside was the energy,” said Vassal of the original structure’s grand old interior space, nostalgic yet useful. “Here inside was the work of the people.” (The double structure is now a gallery for contemporary art.)The same idea applies to another Lacaton & Vassal project. A cluster of urban social housing, 10-story buildings of 40 flats each was revived by adding balconies. They can be enclosed as heat-saving “winter gardens.” They are full of light, and are sensitive to local views. All this came, said Vassal, with a “budget much lower than demolition and reconstruction.”Similarly, in Bordeaux, Lacaton & Vassal is transforming a housing complex of 530 flats by adding prefabricated balconies, enlarging windows, and creating enclosed winter gardens. These are modest steps with dramatic results, and a renewed pleasure in personal space. Meanwhile, said Vassal, the eccentric character of each apartment is left alone. “All this is extremely charming,” he said of the interiors. “Why should we take this away?”Not taking things away includes preserving natural settings. “Innovate,” said Vassal, “but keep the site as it is.” The lecture’s many screened images included a house built on a dune within a seaside grove of trees. The construction — a light, high steel framework and windows for walls — did not disturb a single tree. There were “50 at the beginning of construction, 50 at the end,” he said. The idea was to be “extraordinarily precise” by inserting a house into a setting that already had “80 percent of what was needed,” said Vassal, including sand, trees, and a view.In the same way, Lacaton & Vassal designed an “ecological cluster neighborhood” on a tract of urban forest. To save each and every tree — and to allow more to grow — they proposed building housing units above the vegetation, on two levels. Interconnecting it all would be trail-like walkways, some of them elevated.Adding nature where there is none is sometimes the answer. In Bordeaux, the firm dramatically altered the look and feel of a pedestrian office building with one light clever touch: a vertical garden of 650 rose trees planted all around the façade.At other times, said Vassal, the solution to a design challenge is even more minimal, as with a small, tree-shaded urban plaza the firm had studied for months. The decision was “to do nothing,” he said. “Nothing.”Their simple ethic of building, said Vassal, “always starts from this little hut in Africa.”last_img read more

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A cold endeavor: Matt Weber completes daring Frenchman Bay swim

By on September 20, 2020

first_img Ellsworth runners compete in virtual Boston Marathon – September 16, 2020 MPA approves golf, XC, field hockey, soccer; football, volleyball moved to spring – September 10, 2020 Latest posts by Mike Mandell (see all) Mike MandellMike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected] Biocenter_img Latest Posts Hospice volunteers help families navigate grief and find hope – September 12, 2020 HANCOCK — Matt Weber crouches down as he clings to the rails of a narrow, rain-soaked bridge leading to the Hancock Point wharf on Frenchman Bay. It’s an early Thursday morning, and Weber’s sights are set on the only boat tied to the dock.The bridge is slanted at an angle that makes walking difficult without hunching over, but Weber traverses it easily. After making his way down to the end of the dock, he approaches the boat and takes his sweatshirt and breakaway pants off to reveal a wetsuit underneath. It’s time for a swim.“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Steve Weber, Matt’s father, says as he looks around. There’s not a patch of blue to be found in the sky overlooking the bay, and the rain is still coming down.Even on nicer days, there aren’t many other swimmers who take to the waters in Frenchman Bay. Even in the peak of summer, the water temperature here rarely, if ever, rises above 60 degrees. On this day, that temperature is a bone-chilling 55.6.This is placeholder textThis is placeholder textNone of that is enough to stop Matt. For almost six months now, the Hancock native has been planning this 3-mile swim around Frenchman Bay’s Bean Island to raise awareness for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. He knew the cold weather would be a problem right from the start, and that prospect isn’t going to faze him now.“This place has truly meant a lot to me throughout my life,” he says. “There’s so much here that’s worth preserving, and I want to show that I’ll do whatever it takes to do that — even if it means swimming in this water.”Weber was a swimmer in high school in Upstate New York and also swam at the Division I level for the University of Buffalo. On vacation from his job as an economic developer in Afghanistan, he figured the summer months would be the only time of year such a swim would be remotely bearable.Those conditions are the reason no one has made the swim around Bean Island before. Even without taking the frigid temperature into consideration, a swim of 3 nautical miles isn’t an easy one. That’s especially true in Frenchman Bay, where changing tides and marine life — Matt later called himself fortunate to have avoided seals, porpoises and jellyfish — can hinder waterway travel.“To do it right, we’ve had to do some planning and hope to have the right amount of luck,” he says. “At the same time, I’m a strong swimmer, and my family is by my side. Plus, it’s for a good cause. Just because no one’s done it before doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.”To visualize what he plans to accomplish, Matt divides his swim into three parts: to the island, around the island and back from the island. Depending on the tide strength, he predicts the swim will take him anywhere between an hour and a half and two hours.At about 8:30 a.m., he gets in the water to warm up — or cool down, perhaps, given the water temperature. The wetsuit gives him a little bit of protection, but his visceral reaction to his body hitting the water for the first time is still telling as to how difficult this is going to be.He begins his swim at 8:46 with the 20-foot boat Steve rented from the harbor in Sorrento for safety reasons by his side. From the shoreline to the middle of the bay, there are lobster pots everywhere. To stay on course, he and the boat must navigate through each one of them.Looking out at Frenchman Bay from the stern of the beat, one can see why Matt wants to complete this swim. Even with gray skies, the images of Mount Desert Island, Sorrento Harbor and the bridge linking Hancock and Sullivan bring the bay’s trees, water and miles of shoreline into full view.Throughout his swim, Steve knows Matt is ahead of his pace. He reaches the halfway point at the 28-minute mark, well ahead of the two-hour time for which he’d been aiming before he began his journey.Matt Weber takes a drink of water after completing a 3-mile swim around Bean Island on July 27 in Hancock. Weber, an economic developer who now lives in Afghanistan, made the swim to raise awareness for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELLDespite the temperatures and the exhaustion that come with his nonstop swimming, Matt stops only twice for no more than 10 seconds. Both times, his girlfriend, Kathleen Keiser, offers him protein bars and water. Without hesitating, he declines.At 9:49, Matt reaches the dock to applause from his friends on the boat. At one hour, three minutes, his time is almost a full hour less than what he expected.After pulling back the cap on his wetsuit, he pulls himself onto the dock. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he looks around him at what seems like an endless body of water. It’s an emotional moment, one that reconciles nature’s awe-inspiring magnificence with the humankind’s strength and perseverance.“This bay is part of all of us,” he says. “I’ve realized I need to do more to appreciate it and encourage younger generations to explore and attempt new challenges.”One family member, he says, told him the swim couldn’t be done because of the current. As he shivers in the cold as Keiser hands him a blanket, Matt says that talk has finally been put to rest.“I think I proved a lot to myself and to everybody,” he says. “If one person can look at this and say, ‘Wow,’ I think it will all have been worth it.”last_img read more

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