Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
Société Générale Headquarters in Paris, France by Architecture Anne Démians
November 13th, 2016 by Sumit Singhal
Article source: Architecture Anne Démians
«My role as an architect is to ensure that this important density is consistent with the quality of the site and with each workspace. This density is assumed as a positive constraint, likely by nature to propel us towards the future. Les Dunes project differentiates itself from others by its architectural identity, it offers a new image of modernity through a innovation in construction in a gentle rupture / breakaway from what’s previously been done over the past 30 years. The entity as a whole is more than a building, it is a landscape.» Anne Démians
INTERNET’S INFLUENCE ON TERTIARY INNOVATION
Following two decades of technological upheaval directly related to the Internet, changes in society have emerged with their consequences on our ways of living.
Heralding a new era, digital tools profoundly boost individual and social exchanges and modes of expression. Our working attitudes are thus modified and our relationship to space is shaken. This digital transition impacts work relations and manifests itself in the office, but how are they (re)drawn?
The new division of Société Générale in Val de Fontenay, in eastern Paris, responds to this strategic challenge common to many large corporations. It is emblematic of the digital transformation of the banking sector as a whole. It is called Les Dunes, listed as a «marker»/»reference point» in the commercial real estate sector. Winner of the international competition launched in 2011 by the banking group, architect Anne Démians designed these 90,000 square meters of office space that is shortly due to welcome 5,000 employees.
THE TRANSITION TO DIGITAL : AN OPPORTUNITY
The birth of this creation is directly related to the evolution of Société Générale and the symbolic importance it accords to its adaptation to the infotech world and to its change of management. At the turn of 2010, this banking establishment – created 150 years ago, present in over 76 countries, serving 30 million customers – is reorganizing itself with the priority of recentering its business model within the context of the new global economy.
Françoise Mercadal-Delasalles, Director of Resources and Innovation of Société Générale Group, is responsible for implementing these managerial and spatial changes, inevitable, as this process requires a precise qualification of the utilization of collectively used spaces.
As this member of Société Générale Group’s Executive Committee wrote in a manifesto published in the Journal of Financial Economics [No. 120 – December 2015] «We must observe how the digital relationship has changed our physical relation to work. Coming to a soulless office in the morning to plunge head first into a computer alone behind a desk, or worse, in the middle of an open space, no longer makes any sense. Coming to the office has to provide something more. New workplaces will respond to the human need for warmth and sharing. To meet the challenge of this change, the very piloting of this gigantic project must integrate the concepts and methods of our digital age: co-creation, collaboration and cooperation.»
THE GENESIS OF THE PROJECT
The analysis of this competition and its technical specifications illustrates Société Générale’s willingness to carve out this project of a disruptive nature from the ongoing transition and the opportunities it affords.
Through his exchanges with Académie Française member Michel Serres, François Mercadal-Delasalles wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy that states «every major rupture in the history of humanity led to depriving mankind of faculties, but every revolution brings new ones. With the widespread diffusion of information technology, it gains a new set of individual, group, network and knowledge connections and with these, an ability to multiply invention and creation.»
Completely lucid concerning the bet he accepted – relational intelligence as a response to the erasure of our pyramidical schemes
-the banking group had to design a new tertiary world. His initial premise provides three guidelines to his program:
– To integrate the real estate of the site, a constraint which has a direct impact on its architecture.
– To construct twenty-first century office spaces with good/clean energy performance, spaces adapted to the expectations of the new generations of workers in terms of reversibility and modularity, up to and including the company’s canteen.
– Build an entire workspace «made for people»./- Build an entirely «people-centered» workspace.
Because she has been innovating in tertiary properties for the last ten years, Anne Démians sees this competition as a means of continuing her quest to innovate within the urban territory. She created a «landscaped building» for the Société Générale which is characterized by something totally compatible with our digital age. This is a pioneering architectural act that prefigures the mobility of the immobile.
ANNE DEMIANS’ PHILOSOPHY OF THE PROJECT
«The facades become highly sophisticated technological objects, to the point of finding a unique relationship with the interior, itself modified by the mass intrusion of a digitally born spirit. Our behavior, in relation to how we work, is obviously different. With infotech, we have less need for daylight, while needs relating to comfort or ergonomics are integrated with, however, a superior rendition in production.
For several years now we have seen dramatic changes to our ways of living and working. What I propose in this project is firstly to consider the question of materials. There is this great idea that through the evolution of a facade, there may be new materials to explore, other than those with which we’ve been filling our sketchbooks for years.
Until this project, Société Genérale used metal and glass in all its constructions. Here, the idea is that if a man takes his place at the heart of such a collegial and productive operation as a bank, there must be a manner of expressing it materially. The proliferation of functional layers that comprise the facade, including the one more present, wood (a reconstituted wood that needs no maintenance) gives more depth of field to the eye. This wood does not exist in Europe and it was only after several months of research in Japan that I could fully understand all of its qualities. So I travelled to Japan meet its Japanese manufacturers who, perhaps because of their insular fragility, are several years ahead of Europe in terms of industrial research.
This wood is 100% reconstituted from recycled wood, and is, itself, 100% recyclable. And we imported it to propose it as a major and communicative symbol of this new project. The stakes were high. More than 200 kms of wood had to be posed in the form of wood strips.
It is a real concern to produce and build consistency and to ensure that the architecture itself is a true act of intelligent production. There is the passive dimension of the proposed entities. 90 000 m2, three buildings, oriented east/west and south-facing gardens. The terrain was 23,000 m2 for 100,000 m2 of construction. I had the idea of folding the terrain up, like a sheet of paper and of creating three waves that would contain the essential part of the surfaces. Between them, a herbarium, gardens and wood on the ground to give the feeling of continuing the same universe.
Two scales are positioned in complementarity. They support this stated need to of a reconstructed nature, in relation to light, strongly present in every part of the structure. Patios are integrated in a lower floor of protected and shared spaces. Because, with no fewer than 5,500 people expected in this location, the goal was to create constantly evolving work and meeting spaces. A central pavilion and an indoor street contain a Business Center and cafeterias / cafés. Almost 13 000 m2 of space is available to the company.
The staircases connect various distribution networks with the idea of providing an interface between the defined areas’ usage, but with a potential for requalification of the space, if necessary. The Interfacing of the interior spaces, fluidly straying into the reception areas, is particularly representative of the company’s unique mindset.
Les Dune’s space accompanies the integration of infotech. The latter promotes working over a longer time range, making intensely productive sequences cross with more relaxed ones, interacting together. Workpaces are changing in their destination, but with increasingly indistinct boundaries, while their design is extremely precise. It is also possible to envisage a smooth crosspollination between work and complementary activities, without a sharp break.
Here we are now at the heart of the identification. Until now, glass facades expressed the power of the company. Now, we must slightly shift towards a more individual expression. We are also – I must insist on this point – replicating individual requirements of generating new ways to of using space.
There are several means of perception stemming from this intention. The outer blades (east and west) are simply sunshades. They reduce direct light penetrating the offices. When closed, the covers are quite shiny. They are made entirely in aluminum. And it is the contrast between these two materials that creates the thickness of the facade, giving it a special feature that replaces the thicknesses produced by stone and concrete by new methods to recreate the effect of this thickness.
«We must promote a company where everyone is more available, but at the same time, we feel the need to leave the virtual character of infotech behind to try to embody the physical. This is new and daring experiment.»
Société Générale Real Estate Director and master developer of the project, Jean-Marc Castaignon thinks that Anne Démians convinced the jury «because her discourse didn’t impose an object or a concept on us, even though her architecture is very distinctive, but instead, she presented her vision to us, which played in her favor.
ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE AND LIVING ENVIRONMENT
Since its inception, Société Générale has had a strong architectural culture as shown by its various addresses; its historic headquarters at 29, Boulevard Haussmann redesigned in 1912 by architect Jacques Hermant in the Art Nouveau style; the Twin Towers of La Défense created by Andrault and Parat; the Granite tower designed by Christian de Portzamparc; the Julia building signed by Oscar Niemeyer in Fontenay-sous-Bois. Today, the Les Dunes complex, totally connected to and located opposite the suburban train station of Val de Fontenay (RER A, Eole, 30 000 passengers per day) is an «organic» building: its horizontal architecture contrasts with the verticality of the towers of la Défense, promoting the shared communal areas. «It will be a lively place where people come to work together, where these multi-hierarchic, multi-skilled horizontal communities can be put together and dispersed easily at each new business venture, a place that will give way to a collective intelligence,» assures Françoise Mercadal-Delasalles.
A LANDSCAPED BUILDING DESIGNED BY ANNE DÉMIANS
Office buildings housing 5,000 employees usually refer to a tower block. In vertical mode, Anne Démians preferred the triptych of a horizontal composition which takes the form of east / west-oriented bands positioned to take advantage of the transversal light. Les Dunes are designed as five aligned buildings that seem to rise from an earth accordion-pleated like a sheet of paper by the architect. Her project voluntarily stands out from the traditional assembly of islets and proposes a constructed landscape of smoothened reliefs and invariably seeded. valleys. The landscape thus becomes dense and energised.
It places in context the naves that form an urban room whose unity is comprehensible, although it cannot be grasped at a single glance. It is a succession of living sequences, active buildings, peaceful gardens and active perspectives that intensify with the play of transparencies. The landscape is undulating and the vigour of the ground seems to make the trees grow. The whole contributes to the city by an unprecedented bringing together of a low density residential fabric and a lively inhabited topography.
.Les Dunes are distinguished by two principles: dispensing with boundaries between the interior and exteriors, and the depersonalizing effect of verticality in the production and practised spaces. In contrast, the horizontal suites energize and translate the final object into a series of smoothly gliding prospects.
Anne Demians’ fundamental idea for the project is to use wood as a structural element to construct the image of this new site. Considered a generic material that extends all the way to the building’s framework, wood weaves links, which have become obligatory, between the upper and lower gardens, floors and facades. These three naves, appropriate to the scale of the plot, are embedded in the organic garden matter. The views are multiple and overlapping. We can look out over the city, as we can look inside.
SOLIDS AND VOIDS
An «organic» wood envelope covers the buildings with a single curved gesture to soften the angles, also serving as sun protection giving the whole and a natural, rustic tone. This envelope is reinforced by the woodland and landscaped spaces that occupy all the empty zones of the site while the buildings are all served by a long interior street of double height. The partition is thus designed to create an alternate between the solid and empty spaces, between the constructed and landscaped dimensions.
The trapezoid-shaped terrain is intended to provide 90,000 square meters on a total surface area limited to 23 000 square meters. The large buildings, by their continuity of verticality and horizontality, increase the available surface areas.
The arrangement of the three buildings is preponderant. As the perfect synthesis to draw the site’s character together. This articulation of the buildings’ volumes:
• Provides an identical sun protection, quality of light and views to all offices by its East-West orientation
• Naturally illuminates the gardens by its North-South orientation for enjoyment of the outdoor spaces
• Provides an opening towards the town
• Proposes a landscape
This spatial arrangement contributes to Société Générale’s image of quality of its implantation in the commune of Fontenay-sous-Bois and beyond.
ACCESS TO LES DUNES
Les Dunes is accessed through a ground-level forecourt located on the West facade close to the RER exit and by the Boulevard De-Lattrede- Tassigny on the lower level. The main access to the site by the forecourt is resolved by an autonomous dome-like structure that resembles a large pergola covered with glass and trellised screens, clearly visible from the transport access. This is the main entrance of Les Dunes, it includes a reception area, visitor badge issuing and a waiting area for visitors.
This dome also maps the lower of the boulevard: it is designed as an internal main street that runs through the centre of the tertiary services device. Fluid and dynamic, this covered pathway leads to the communal areas – fitness, business centre, exhibition halls and restaurants. A battery of escalators, stairways and elevators serves as differentiated access areas leading to the floors of each building.
To give a human dimension to workspaces, the architect Anne Démians has particularly focused on three main themes: the light, the quality of the outside view, and the integration of technology to preserve the fluidity of the spaces. Workspaces are light and benefit from very large windows – 4 x 3 – quite unusual in commercial buildings.
Light and views of the exterior (woodland and greenery) are thus peaceful factors of nature, creating an atmosphere conducive to calm and concentration. The facade offers an initial aspect of woven wood with walkways and balconies. Behind them, blinds. Still further behind, large windows guarantee optimal sunlight to each floor framing views of the gardens below.
This creates a kaleidoscope of atmospheres always connected through the materiality that is that of wood.
These plateaus can be partitioned off every 1m35. These spaces are evolutive and flexible. Respiration for these large areas is provided by generous outdoor terraces whose layout can be converted into meeting places or for other uses. From these «loggias,» employees can enjoy the buildings which by their material become landscapes themselves.
Open to the sky and nestled in the hollow between the buildings (on level -1) the patios are designed as pleasure gardens where persistent plants thrive in a semi-tropical climate, «the valley» is also conducive both to isolation or group meetings. Open to evolving business areas, they suggest new ways of working through their sophisticated design and easy access. The restaurants revolve around garden spaces, linking the interior to the exterior. These are flexible spaces that can, if necessary, also be used as workspaces outside business hours. Alternating strips of wood and colorful plants helps create high quality outdoor spaces with the changing colours of the seasons.
ANNE DÉMIANS, A COMMITTED PROJECT MANAGER
Ten years after creating her agency, Anne Démians ranks among the most respected architects of her generation among French developers and contracting authorities. Her approach inspires civic authorities because they see her as a highly committed professional whose economic pragmatism combined with the quality use of a building – and its possible reconversion – contribute to building the urban landscape of the twenty-first century. As she states, «Cities and urban areas are radiating outwards and opening the way to a different future, depending on whether or not they bring a history and a character with them. The urban impulsion depends on it.»
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