A1 Building of the Port Autonome de Paris, Gennevilliers, France
Text Matthias Boeckl
A Centre of Calm amidst the Transloading of Containers Quality architecture for a freight-shipping terminal located on a major waterway, and an Austrian architect who has made a career in Paris are two equally unusual but highly positive phenomena. The A1 building by Dietmar Feichtinger shows that the banal task of erecting an office block in a port area is suitable subject for the application of high aesthetic and technological standards.
The Mecca of Modernism The spontaneous path taken by Dietmar Feichtinger’s career is reminiscent of the idealistic young architects in the 1920s, who undertook a pilgrimage to the Mecca of Modernism to learn there about the "future“ at first hand. One examples was the young, determined and socially committed Herbert Eichholzer who came from Graz in 1929 to work for Le Corbusier in Paris and later applied Corbusier's theories in his Styrian homeland, before falling victim to the Nazis. After completing his studies Feichtinger also worked in aesthetically advanced offices, all of which have in common an orientation towards the new technologies of transparency. He initially worked with Volker Giencke and Klaus Kada in Graz, then in Paris for Chaix & Morel, who have devoted themselves to a clear technological formal language. After five years with Chaix & Morel Feichtinger embarked upon the adventure of self-employment and opened an office in Paris, which, in its ten years of existence, has won an impressive number of competitions. In the meantime, following on these successes (that were founded on the precision and diaphanous elegance of Feichtinger’s steel and glass elements) he has completed two large building projects in Austria: the Donau University in Krems and the Kulturhaus in Weiz – we will report about them. In Paris construction has recently started of his slender passerelle across the Seine, near Dominique Perrault’s National Library – it was the outcome of one of the first anonymous competitions organised by a public client in Paris and laid the foundation stone for Feichinger’s career as a self-employed architect. Since then Feichtinger architectes have carried out numerous further bridges, but with the new office block in the Parisian container port this young office has shown that it can extract a subtle poetry from every kind of building commission.
Autonomous Aesthetic The fascinating thing about buildings for inland waterway transportation is their incredible efficiency and highly developed logistics. The Seine, which has always been one of Europe’s major waterways and played an important role in the historic development of Paris, is navigable by cargo ships with a load of several hundred containers. The Seine is linked by canals with many other rivers to create a network of waterways throughout Europe, which, with the Rhine and the Danube, connects almost the entire continent. In the extensive port of Gennevilliers the containers are transloaded to trucks and trains and transported to their final destinations throughout the country. The container crane that carries out this work stands directly beside the office building, allowing those using the conference room on the third floor a very direct experience of the transloading process. The most striking characteristic of the building is, naturally, the cladding made of anodised aluminium fins that were specially produced by a German manufacturer. As it primarily serves as solar protection this second skin covers only three sides of the building; the north side, where the conference room is located, is left exposed. The structure is a simple skeletal frame glazed on all sides, the internal concrete columns are skim plastered and painted grey. In principle this arrangement allows open plan offices but here, like everywhere else, the users mostly prefer smaller spaces that are made using lightweight partition walls. The fins made of perforated metal – a prototype for the Donau University in Krems – can be adjusted individually from inside the building. Their colour and structure is reminiscent of the corrugated metal of the containers, that are transloaded here, but they maintain a fine aesthetic of their own that goes far beyond any banal notion of suggesting associations though the use of images. The fact that on the south side the fins are also vertical rather than horizontal (which, in fact, would provide more shade from the midday sun) shows that the skin of metal fins is not merely functional but is also an autonomous aesthetic element On the three lower levels this simple quadratic building is indented on the west and south fronts, which creates a more expansive entrance situation on the one side and a recess, much like an internal courtyard, on the other. The roof terrace, from which you have a view over the entire port area, offers further direct contact with the outdoors. The full height glazing used in the ground floor offices conveys the immediate presence of the transport world outside, as a railway track runs directly past the east facade. The principal user of the building is the management of the Paris terminal, located on the third floor. A number of transport companies have rented office space on the floors below, while on the ground floor there are counter areas, where the freight papers required by the truck drivers are dealt with, as well as common rooms for the port workers. For these users, but above all also for visitors that have business to do here, the small building conveys a uniquely attractive vibrancy. On the one hand it is completely integrated in its industrial and business surroundings through the various spatial and aesthetic means employed, while on the other it demonstrates a subtle independence, which is what ultimately distinguishes the world of machines from that of human beings.