“We need to redesign >>good fat<< in the architecture, using stone, earth, bricks, wood.” – says one of the most persistent ecology solutions visionary in architecture. Édouard François has been interested in sustainable and nature-embracing designing before it was fashionable. And he is passionate about healthy cooking too! I have not met him in person yet but hopefully I will persuade him to share a cup of coffee upon his visit to NYC. That is of course if by then we both won’t be done with drinking this narcotic substance.

What is more necessary for the future of architecture: re-interpretation or innovation? Finding new solutions or ‘recycling’ old ideas? Or maybe there is a particular group of ideas from the past that should be revisited today?

For the future there are various things that are important, and it is complicated to answer the question posed in such a binary manner. I am not a fan of building hierarchies within the domain of architecture itself. Looking more broadly, I think first and foremost we have to take care of the climate. It means considering the issue of heat on the planet that is going to be rising up. It is actually already happening. The predictions at this point reach the date of 2050, when it is predicted that the average temperature will rise around 1,5 degrees. Cities will be more and more hot, and we need to think about that starting today. It is quite a military attitude to fight against that. To Find solutions we need to apply as much vegetation in the cities as possible and soil must be as permeable as possible – meaning, as much as possible water should be stored in soil to redesign natural circulation. 

Is the progress towards meeting the 2050 deadline efficient enough? 

No, on a global scale there is not enough going on for the cities to actually meet this deadline, but it is not about that. The date itself is a good motivator but it is about an approach and attitude you need to have while designing – it all starts with the architect’s head. For example, it is useful to think about the amount of greenery you put around the building. And that influences the design process because you need to have a massive floor on the bottom of your façade and a let’s say one meter of space surrounding the building where the plants grow. That is just an example of a solution that also translates into how public spaces should be designed. For example, we are now designing a pedestrian Avenue in Bordeaux where the ground is totally permeable.

How about other issues that architects should or must address? 

The second issue in my point of view is materiality and materials: we should find new materials to design in. Two of them are already quite obvious. First is earth / rammed earth clay, which you obtain right away on the building spot, you don’t pay for it or for its transportation. Using earth/ rammed earth clay is one of the most ready-to-use solutions to minimize carbon footprint and energy spending. My company has a patent for printing 3D forms in earth  with a 3D printer. We are using it in Neuilly sur Seine for example, for little pavilions on the main avenue of the city (on the historical axis between Le Louvre and La Défense in Paris. We are working with natural rammed earth, not the heated or cooked one. This method opens up a series of possibilities when it comes to shapes. The building itself is printed on site by a giant 3D printer.

The second material that is already obvious is almost everything that comes from recycling. Minimizing waste is possible and should be mandatory while demolishing buildings. We are living at the moment of history where we are trying to deal with energy and the next chapter will be answering the question of how to deal with garbage. And to give an example, we are doing a commercial center that is built with the recycled materials of the buildings that were on the site previously. We put materials in the gabion – a steel cage in which you put all the materials from demolition and squeeze it into a form of brick and that is the material you build with. 

Do you feel alone in your approach? Or is there an actual movement that you consider yourself to be a part of? 

Once again, it is much too complex to answer a simple yes or no, but I have spent most of my life quite alone, but my best projects are not alone at all. When you look at what I was doing twenty years ago it is totally in the shadows. Architects are not artists. Artists are advancing into society; architects are not so far ahead and in contrast to society. But at the same time, I feel that architects should be more far ahead – it is the direction we must go. 

How did you arrive at a point where you knew that sustainability is an idea you want to dedicate yourself to? As a professional and a human being for that matter? 

It was always obvious to me to play within the intersection of architecture and nature. But I would say that one of the sources was to try to answer the questions about the future and continuity of the profession and myself – my life in general. For example, for many architects now it is obvious that concrete as a material is done. There is not enough sand left to make it, it is energetically too consuming. But that is a perspective you get only once you project yourself a little bit further into the future, only then you realize that this solution is finished. So, it is about the attitude in the light of such realization: do I continue or do I start searching for new solutions? For me personally it is also very important to work with the maximum of useability in mind. If I am in front of a dilemma of two solutions: one that is less aesthetically appealing but much more lasting and a second that is beautiful but not that usable – I will always choose the first one. 

Was there a particular event from the past – a firestarter – for this attitude in you? 

Well, I would say that the time I was starting my professional work itself. The end of modernism is a dramatical period. It is very much about beautiful facades covered by glass and filled with air conditioning. That is not only unhealthy but also extremely boring. For what is more the beauty of the building is so not the issue we should be addressing as architects. We are building for humans that are living inside. Of course, they want to be surrounded by beauty but in a longer period of time they will appreciate more the usefulness and efficiency of the space they live in and from that can arise a different kind of beauty. 

So, would you say that you have a style that is a result of this particular approach? 

I would say so, yes. At the end my actions come together as a certain aesthetic, but it is a general rule of the design process. For example, in the Middle Ages when the most pressing issue was to protect from wars, it resulted in building thick walls of castles but after a certain moment when that period ended, castles became more about showing how pleasurable it is to be alive and it translated directly into the design. And so is the case in the 20th century. When you look at modernist buildings they were about the issue of internationality and unification. Today architecture addresses different problems like energy, finding new materials and about being specific about the context of a given building. Some solutions can be universal but the choice behind using them should arise from analyzing a local context. 

How does your professional life affect your private life and vice versa? 

My personal life is exactly like my professional one: same attitude, same goals, same willingness to go further.  

And what would be the main source of daily inspiration? 

All things related to cooking. I used to say that we build as bad as we cook. It is like we have labels in the building (certifications such as BREEAM, LEED, etc.) and it is the same in cooking (organic, fair trade, etc.). Why do you think there are so many labels on food that inform us about certifications that the producer obtained for their products to be named, for example, organic? It is to maintain food as it is. There are new regulations coming into power that force food producers to obtain stamps saying “organic” because without them they can no longer sell their products. UE regulations are to maintain the industry and not make changes for better quality. A farmer that lives quietly in the countryside doesn’t need a stamp of anything: his products are simply good and healthy. It is the same in our industry, these certifications have been created to keep the industrialized process of building as usual, they do not help to question thoroughly and deeply the system as it is and find conscious and lasting solutions to climate change.

In the world of individuals, what could be the ultimate way to unite people around sustainability matters? And make them more actionable about making small changes and perhaps better cooks as well. 

The thing with architecture is that it gives away values long after the design process is finished. Years and years after you built it still affects the people that are using it. So that is the ultimate way of inspiring and passing along attitudes – through experience. And that adds even more to the point of how important it is to be mindful about the materials we are choosing. The majority of the buildings nowadays are made using poor quality of materials and after one year it looks wearied off. I call it the anorexia of materiality. We need to redesign “good fat” in the architecture, using stone, earth, bricks, wood.

Well, in cooking, good fat supports brain function. 

Exactly. And if you eat bad food, you are never fully fed, instead you are always hungry. 

Hungry and angry! 

Yes, you can eat as many burgers that you want but you will never achieve a contentment, the body will always ask for more. And so the same goes on with the building process that is mainstream now: the industry is thirsty for more and more and more. While in reality we need to return to good materiality, that is recyclable, easy to repair, that is closer to nature. 

We are speaking about grand ideas that are supposed to change the planet and by extension safe our lives but what about the micro scale? Do you believe that using certain materials can change everyday life?  

Yes, I do believe that. When you design something with a lot of value in terms of usability it impacts many lives of the people that are the users of the design. For example, in the general view of architecture, before the year 2000 the issue of the relation between inside and outside practically did not exist. We did a building in Montpellier, named L’immeuble qui pousse (the building that grows), with a sort of a tree house with a direct pathway from the house to the tree location. It was one of the first attempts to introduce a new relationship between inside and outside, between architecture and the environment. It was called “the building that grows”. Recently we did a tower in Grenoble, Panache, where the balconies are not at the same level as the apartment units. All the outdoor spaces are located on the top floors, so that everyone gets the best views and sunlight, regardless of the apartment location in the building.,

Is this one of the ways to re-introduce biodiversity to the cities? 

The general idea is that we should live in areas with a lot of mixed designs, buildings and multifunction. The more density of complexity – the better. That is the approach we are introducing in Bordeaux now. IN downtown Bordeaux, we are building a mixed-use neighborhood, with housing, offices, retail, public buildings, hotels. We try to offer mix also within each category, for instance with different types of housing units (co-living, student housing, social housing, etc.). In terms of form, we are imagining a neighborhood that re-creates the complexity and richness of the traditional city centers, with various typologies, materials, heights, all intricately composed and mixed.

And who are the decision makers you work most closely with when applying such important and complex design processes? 

The architects have the power to start the changes, but they need to be constantly in dialogue with law and administration. For example, in Bordeaux we worked closely with the mayor of the city; Alain Juppé, who also have been France’s Prime Minister. The job of explaining why something is important and how can improve the quality of life or the planet in a longer perspective – is never finished. 

This interview has been published in translation and in print in November’s 2022 issue of Polish magazine Architektura&Business

Ania Diduch_privmag
words: Ania Diduch