When starting a new project, architect Manuelle Gautrand starts with a blank page and a sense of complete design freedom.
While the Parisian architect lives and works in a very historic city, where many people are afraid of the “new” damaging the “old”, she is a risk taker who understands that while retaining history and culture through traditional architecture is crucial, contemporary design must also be implemented in the same space for a city to evolve.
Gautrand’s curiosity and open-mindedness has allowed her firm to challenge conservative opinions and create some incredibly design-defying structures all over the world, even in more challenging areas across Europe where Art Deco and Renaissance architecture reigns.
In Paris, Gautrand is used to fighting authorities who are afraid of her innovative designs.
Many European architects also experience the same challenges when looking to design contemporary architecture beside heritage listed buildings.
“It’s important for Paris to have beautiful architecture,” explains Gautrand. “Implementing contemporary architecture into Paris shows that the city is living, it’s improving and very dynamic. Contemporary architecture can find a place quite close to older buildings while still being respectful to buildings – it’s just a question of proportion and materials.”
Europe, and especially cities like Paris, have strict regulations on building contemporary designs, particularly in the centre of the city.
“The building authorities in Paris are quite conservative and in their mind, they may not be used to contemporary or innovative architecture so it’s a question of education,” Gautrand says.
The architect strives to show how contemporary buildings can be more useful, more comfortable, sustainable and flexible, noting that while people may take time to come around to the idea of newer buildings, they usually do eventually.
One of Gautrand’s favourite cities is London, where there is a smaller number of heritage-listed buildings and architects still have the freedom to improve the city with contemporary architectural design.
“There is a freshness about London when you walk the streets,” she says. “You easily discover a new building connected to an older one every time you turn a corner. Paris is beginning to be like that.”
Gautrand cites Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which took a bold step toward changing the city's architecture in 1977, when noting she feels the city should take more architectural risks.
The centre's modern façade reflected the modern art exhibited inside.
“It’s a wonderful building, it is very modern and quite playful to see an exhibition in a space like that,” she says.
Gautrand also believes that cities with harbours or in close proximity to the sea - such as Barcelona, Sydney and Melbourne - offer more possibilities to be contemporary.
“The possibility of building close to a harbour helps to mix historical buildings with new architecture,” she says.
An extensive traveller, Gautrand recently spoke at the National Architecture Conference in Melbourne. She first visited Sydney 20 years ago during her architectural studies and refers to the Sydney Opera House as her “first impression of architecture,” with an unconventional design that took her breath away.
“It is close to the sea, it is pure architecture, so innovative and with a special character that you never find anywhere else in the world,” she says of the Australian icon.
If she had the opportunity, Gautrand would relish the chance to build in New York.
“I would love to design something in New York as there is a big respect for architecture and always something wonderful being created,” she says. “The couture, the museums and spaces feature many examples of deep modern architecture and the city houses some of the most beautiful towers. They have also succeeded in creating dynamic districts beyond Manhattan, including Brooklyn for example continue to improve the city and let it grow up."
Gautrand says one key role for modern architecture is to respond to urban density. Her home city of Paris is extremely dense, allowing her cycle through the city where infrastructure allows for seamless travel from point to point.
This is a solution she believes all growing cities need to adopt.
“Inside the town there are no towers, but there is huge density,” says Gautrand of Paris’ CBD. “Some places will need to build towers, where to improve you need to elongate your architecture but this isn’t the only solution.”
Gautrand does feel skyscrapers and their surrounding public spaces can be exciting and can bring pleasure to their inhabitants while giving architects greater design opportunities.
“If you are living on level 30, it can be wonderful, offering natural light, extensive views of the city and perhaps a garden or park beside the tower for recreation,” she says. “My favourite projects are mixed-use developments where I mix the density of the building and non density of the public spaces surrounding it.
In her speaking engagements, Gautrand regularly refers to her C35 Mixed-Use Building for Citroen, which grew global recognition for challenging the conservative architectural boundaries within its Champs-Elysées location.
She is now pushing forward with another unconventional project, a tower in La Defense that is longer than it is high.
“The tower will stand at 140 metres tall attached to a horizontal podium with will reach 200 metres long,” she says, noting that the podium design of the project is designed to improve public space.
Gautrand is also working on the Music and Dance Centre in Israel, due for completion in 2015, in a vertical sculptural assembly, a rare setup for a theatre space.
“These are my favourite type of projects, I love them,” she says. “Inside there will be a core meeting place, which connects all the people who are visiting different function areas whether they be at the contemporary art exhibition or at the ballet.”
Gautrand is inspired to design fluid and visually rich buildings based on the site specification and the culture of the area in which the buildings will stand.
“I try to go further, to be more curious, more innovative and I think that with the context in one hand and the program in the other, together they allow me to get the solution, one that while it may be contemporary, is fully respectful of its surroundings,” she says.