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Weaving Wonders: Dominique Perrault’s Metal Mesh Masterclass

DPA fashions intricate architecture from an industrial product.

Jon Cornachio Jon Cornachio

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In 1989, when French architect Dominique Perrault won the international competition to design the National Library of France, most of his contemporaries were still emulating the monumental concrete of Le Corbusier. Perrault, then only 36 years old, took a different tack, envisioning the library as four minimalist glass towers placed at the corners of an expansive public garden. Even more revolutionary were the lightweight steel screens that bookended each façade — the first large-scale application of woven metal mesh in architecture.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

The National Library of France; photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

The mesh, which was fabricated in collaboration with GKD Metal Fabrics, would become a reoccurring theme throughout Perrault’s career, as he transformed it from a cheap industrial product into an essential element of his avant-garde style. “With these large pieces of [metal] fabric, we obtained surfaces that could be hung wall-to-wall, wall-to-ceiling, unified and seamless,” he explained, “This underscored the architecture, creating places that are, metaphorically speaking, hollowed out, continuous, unassembled. An architecture of sculptured masses.” Examining five seminal projects, we look back on the architect’s pioneering use of metal mesh.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Velodrome and Olympic Swimming Pool by Dominique Perrault Architecture, Berlin, Germany

Metal mesh manufactured by GKD Metal Fabrics

The Velodrome, designed for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, is an early example of Perrault’s signature mesh cladding and his first project to employ it as a roof covering. In fact, the roof of the Velodrome is its main façade, since the architect chose to sink the bulk of the building into the ground in order to preserve views of the surrounding apple orchard.

The roof panels are made of stainless steel mesh and are joined together by springs, which hold them taut. From the orchard, these concentric rings of shimmering metal resemble ripples emanating from the center of a pond. They appear less like a rooftop and “more like stretches of water,” said Perrault. The façades are also clad in frameless mesh panels, affixed to the structure by bolts and round metal washers.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via GKD Metal Fabrics.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Albi Grand Theatre by Dominique Perrault Architecte, Albi, France

Metal mesh manufactured by GKD Metal Fabrics

The Albi Grand Theater is a contemporary glass box placed at the center of an ancient city in southern France. Its façades are veiled in curved screens of aluminum mesh, which bring to mind theater curtains being raised at the start of a performance.

The curvaceous design complicated the fabrication and installation of the mesh, requiring all 4,835 aluminum spirals to be cut to individual lengths. These spirals were then threaded around horizontal steel cables which, in turn, were fastened to the double-curved steel frame. To soften the contrast between this lightweight metalwork and its historic neighbors, Perrault specified a custom bronze anodized finish that complements the local masonry.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Refurbishment of the Pavilion Dufour Château De Versailles by Dominique Perrault Architecture, Versailles, France

Metal mesh manufactured by GKD Metal Fabrics

During the eight-decade reign of King Louis XIV, he transformed a remote hunting lodge in northern France into one of the largest and most impressive works of architecture in all of Europe, the Palace of Versailles. In 2011, Dominque Perrault became the first architect in centuries to significantly expand the Palace, now a national landmark and history museum.

The most stunning intervention is the new entrance gallery, located in the brick and limestone-clad Dufour Pavilion. The architect crowned the long and narrow space with a ceiling of parabolic mesh curves, anodized in three shades of gold. Their edges feature an ornamental “hem,” created by inserting aluminum plates of varying lengths laterally into the spirals. The elegant, swooping design, although realized in contemporary materials, appears right at home in the baroque-styled chateau.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

New Mechanics Hall by Dominique Perrault Architecture, Lausanne, Switzerland

Metal mesh manufactured by GKD Metal Fabrics

The New Mechanics Hall on the campus of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) replaced an aging mechanical engineering building, constructed circa 1970. The updated façade is clad in energy efficient glazing and is shaded by a 40-foot-tall kinetic sun screen, which “evokes the scope of mechanical engineering.”

The screen modules are based on the proportions of the original buildings but are differentiated by their angled profiles. Each module is subdivided into three panels — one fixed and two operable — which are infilled with spiral-sliced anodized aluminum mesh. In a first for the architect, these sliding mesh panels are motorized and automatically adjust position depending on the strength and angle of the sun.

Metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo by Michael Denancé; via Architectural Record.

metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Metal mesh, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Photo via Dominique Perrault Architecture.

Longchamp Racecourse by Dominique Perrault Architecture, Paris, France

Metal mesh manufactured by GKD Metal Fabrics

The renovation of the Longchamp Racecourse, home of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Europe’s most prestigious horse race, was finalized last year by the addition of a gorgeous 10,000-seat grandstand. Its design encompassed all that Perrault had learned about architectural metal mesh since the completion of the National Library of France nearly three decades earlier.

The building is defined by linear bands of glass and gilded metal, which reflect the movement of the horses. Spectators approach from the rear via an entrance stair flanked by two low-slung volumes. The roofs of these volumes form an elevated plaza, which is shaded by broad parasols of gold anodized aluminum mesh. Similarly, the expansive glass façades are protected by gliding panels of gold anodized mesh, this time made of stainless steel. These golden accents foreshadow the interior of the double-height lobby, where large acoustic baffles – consisting of metal honeycombs sandwiched between 8-foot-long sheets of spiral-sliced mesh – hang from the ceiling like elegant, woven tapestries.

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