French Revolution: CAAU’s Thomas Coldefy on Corbu, Paris vs. China, and More

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

Thomas Coldefy and Isabel Van Haute are the young duo at the helm of Coldefy and Associates Architects Urban Planners (CAAU), leading a diverse international team based in Lille, France. Principal Thomas Coldefy spoke to Architizer about what the upstart firm is working on both in its native France as well as the sprawling metropolises of Hong Kong and mainland China.

The Hong Kong Design Institute

Architizer: Tell us about your background — where did you work prior to starting your firm, and why did you choose to set off on your own?

Thomas Coldefy: Prior to CAAU, I had worked for several well-known architectural and urban planning practices in France and the U.S. both during and after my studies at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, including SCAU with Tadao Ando, Franck Hammoutène, SOM and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

CAAU is the second generation of the practice. After my father’s retirement, I came back from New York, where I was working for KPF, and we naturally decided to keep the family name as part of the education I received and reformed CAAU as the diminution of Coldefy and Associés Architectes Urbanistes. The firm in its current form can be considered to have started in 2006, when I returned from New York and participated in the competition for the Hong Kong Design Institute. Even though we now have a very different orientation rooted with our own design philosophy and values, keeping the family name is important to remind us where we came from.

Lucie Aubrac School in Tourcoing, France

The Hong Kong Design Institute is perhaps your best-known project; which others are you proud of, and why?

Different projects hold different challenges and constraints, and of course they don’t all have the same means. Still, for each and every project, we try to create something that we are proud of, which can translate in many different ways.

What better way to showcase our work than to be located in our own building?

As far as completed projects go, we are extremely proud of the Lucie Aubrac School in Tourcoing; it is the first secondary school in the region to achieve a BBC label [the French rating system for low energy consumption buildings]. Additionally, since schools can be sometimes considered a conservative typology, I feel we were able to create an original design for the community that also improves the user experience of both teachers and students in classrooms and exterior shared spaces while also being able to innovate technically in different aspects of the façades.

Arboretum – ZAC Porte de Valenciennes, Euralille, France

Additionally, we are really proud of the mixed-use Arboretum project within the Euralille development; so much so that, since its opening, we have moved our offices into one of the ground-floor commercial spaces. We thought, what better [way] to showcase our work than to be located in our own building? And, finally, though it is a bit of a smaller project with a historical rehabilitation aspect, we are also really happy with the results of the Rigot Stalars project in Dunkerque, which had challenges at a smaller scale. We were able to be quite creative with the interiors, using recycled materials to carry out the theme of rehab/reuse.

Rigot Stalars, Dunkirk, France

Of course, there are a lot of unrealized projects, both abandoned and in progress, that we really are passionate about — for example, the office building in ZAC Austerlitz in Paris for which we were second placed, unfortunately, or the Étaples Painting Museum, which will begin construction soon. We recently won a competition for a mixed-use development in Lille, which we are really excited about. It is the redevelopment for the site of an old school called De Stael, and we think it will be a great project and a great opportunity to make our mark in the city.

Étaples Painting Museum, France (rendering)

How does the architectural heritage of France and/or China influence your work?

Le Corbusier was quoted as saying, “Architecture is the masterful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light.” I like the idea that our sensitivity will bring a poetic feel to a predominantly business world in China for people to remember. Whereas there can be a tendency to create architecture like pieces of fashion, we believe buildings should stay as long as possible and become timeless.

These are at the roots of education in a city like Paris; you are obliged to admire the delicacy of its architecture, which has shaped our identity and makes our country shine out to the entire world. It was a brave and terrifically ambitious act to maintain consistency in the quality of the city urbanization that is for us a great example of the responsibility of architects.

What do you find exciting about architecture and design right now?

I think that it is a great time to design and create cities, and, with all the media and communication around the globe, we can continue to enrich our reflections that contribute to all our work. A lot of people question our focus on China now, as the “boom” is said to be in its decline.

We feel that it is a great time to design and we can really make a contribution

For us, we feel it is the perfect time to participate. We are not interested in creating landmarks for landmarks’ sake. We aim to respond to our personal instincts and sensitivity with great sense for social and human needs to reveal the identity of each project. As opposed to putting our design ego at the center, we prefer to look at urban fabric, function, and human factors to create places where people can interact, communicate with maximum synergy. We design with a holistic approach allowing us to challenge the design brief and boundaries between the building infrastructure, the landscape, the function, and the fun; we call it “going back to basics” and designing with human values.

The status of the built environment today and the development of cities is demanding a real reflection on these issues. It is no longer the time to colonize a region with a new ideology, but really push boundaries in order to contribute to the human experience. We feel that it is a great time to design and we can really make a contribution.

West Kowloon Air Clouds, Hong Kong (concept)

What does the future hold for the firm?

We are really excited about the recent momentum we have had with the quality of our completed projects, and the new opportunities presented to us. Whereas we had previously focused on developing in the Hong Kong area after HKDI, we have recently opened an office in Shanghai and are looking to grow our development in mainland China. We still have some work to do to completely establish ourselves, but we think it is a great time to be there.

I am an optimistic person who believes in things happening when you provoke them; as long as we face open-minded people who share the same wish to design better cities and humane, well-thought-out buildings that I would call “touchable,” we are given the chance to do good, sensitive design. In France, we have everything to be happy and are privileged with our access to history and cultural knowledge; I hope we can transmit some of it through our designs.

Paul Keskeys Author: Paul Keskeys
Paul Keskeys is Editor in Chief at Architizer. An architect-trained editor, writer and content creator, Paul graduated from UCL and the University of Edinburgh, gaining an MArch in Architectural Design with distinction. Paul has spoken about the art of architecture and storytelling at many national industry events, including AIANY, NeoCon, KBIS, the Future NOW Symposium, the Young Architect Conference and NYCxDesign. As well as hundreds of editorial publications on Architizer, Paul has also had features published in Architectural Digest, PIN—UP Magazine, Archinect, Aesthetica Magazine and PUBLIC Journal.
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