Grafton Architects’ Toulouse School of Economics seems to embody the city, and embed users within it, says Andrew Clancy

Buildings.

Words
Andrew Clancy

Photos
Dennis Gilbert

This is a story of a building. I stay ‘story’ as it is based on a reading, as opposed to a physical visit. This reading has been of plans, photos, my memories of a city, a Zoom-hosted tour of the building, Google maps, conversations and more. However I have not walked the halls you see in these photos, nor leaned against the walls. I have no privileged position to offer. This prompts the obvious question of what the point of these words is; what do I communicate in this essay beyond what is available to you if AT just published photos and plans without this text?

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Floor plans. “In order to provide places of research and education which are pleasurable to work in”, says the architect, “we have devised a building strategy, where the individual office ‘bars’ are 10.8 metres deep, thus providing natural air, light and ventilation to each office. Each office ‘bar’ is considered for its particular orientation and each given a particular profiled elevation to protect the rooms within. This methodology is also used at the large scale, where the ‘specials’ – for example, the seminar rooms and terraces – are strategically placed, both symbolically on the public/city wall edge, and to the south environmentally, allowing us to position these large volumes with very little fenestration, to act as a ‘deep wall’, controlling light, shadow and shade”.

Despite efforts at objectivity every review of a work is also a telling of the story of the reviewer. In the interaction of the critic’s opinion – what they see – and the work being examined, we can open up points of congruence or difference. Somehow in seeing what others see we are invited to look anew ourselves, to gain insights which may not be those the writer has themselves, but arise in the abrasion of the reader’s point of view with both the representations of a building and its written description. Architecture lives in imagination, and as a tangible part of the lives of those proximate to it. These are not contradictory. The task perhaps is about empathy, in the end.

In one reading, the role of the critic is not unlike that of the architect – in the sense that it requires a reading into a situation, and a placing of something in the world which accretes its own meaning in the mind of those who engage with it.

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“For us”, says the architect, “Toulouse is a city of bridges, quay walls, city walls, ramps, promenades, brick buttresses, brick and stone towers, mysterious cool interiors and cloisters, archways and courtyards. The big space of the meandering Garonne provides the wide horizon, the sense of connection with the landscape beyond. The linear man-made, tree-lined canal cuts through the city and sets up framed, axial, linear spaces. We have made a composition of the reinterpreted elements of Toulouse: the buttresses, the walls, the ramps, the cool mysterious interiors, the cloisters and the courtyards”

Architecture of course is far more complex, a gathering of diverse inputs and contingencies which shape the building through friction or formation. In this manner the built work will always speak as much about the world which shaped it as the architects. The weaving of these disparate forces – economic, social and material – requires commitment and nerve, all supported by the profound trust and backing of the client. Building any kind of building is an achievement, and so for an architect to build a single great one is very rare. To build multiple masterpieces can inform the discipline for decades.

Which brings us to the matter at hand – a new building for the Toulouse School of Economics by Grafton Architects. As its completion was contemporaneous with university buildings by the same architect in Kingston and Paris, we might miss its place in the chronology of the practice. Toulouse is Grafton’s first major commission after the completion of its breakthrough Bocconi project in Milan, resulting from a design competition in 2009, at a time of incredibly scarce opportunity in its home territory, Ireland. Having won huge acclaim for its first international project but with almost no active work on the boards, the lag before securing the next cannot have been easy for the architects. Resilience and patience are unavoidable facets of practice which we don’t speak about enough, nor about how to be ready when the chance comes. In that, Grafton could draw on experience; the practice had after all been well prepared by multiple recessions in Ireland before.

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Always clear-sighted about the task at hand, there is no evidence of the tenuous nature of the times to be seen in the building. A confident and intricate play of volume, light and material, it effortlessly does that rarest of things – realising the full potential of a truly remarkable site, held between the line of the Canal de Brienne to the south-west, the campus of University of Toulouse 1 Capitole to the north, and the Place St Pierre to the south-east. A broken part of the medieval city wall forms the southern boundary, while adjoining sites also hold the mute masses of two churches, St-Pierre-des-Cuisines and St-Pierre-des-Chartreux. As Grafton partner Yvonne Farrell says, “If a student presented it as a thesis site, you might remark that it was slightly over-egging things”.

The brief is for a school of economics, with hundreds of cellular offices for individual researchers along with lecture theatres and congregational spaces. We can see in a bird’s-eye view some correlations perhaps to Bocconi. The office accommodation is suspended above the site in three linear bars, slender enough to be naturally ventilated and lit, but here any similarities end as the parti inflects to the remarkable site, and a deep reading of the brief.

The central bar follows the predominant grain of the main campus to the north-east, while the two flanking it are cranked, one turning to address the canal and the other to the muscular gable of St-Pierre-des-Cuisines . It is here that the school is entered, from the public space held between the brick gable of the new building and that of the church.

A low ramp brings you to the centre of the plan, through an implied portico formed by the ends of two of the office blocks and a suspended passerelle far above – and it is at this point that the building’s true nature begins to become clear. The brickwork facades make way for a vertiginous concrete landscape of stairs, lifts, decks and balconies which weave between the confluence of the offices above. From here the three bars above read as an exuberant jostle. This ground floor is really a perimeter plan, with auditoriums holding the perimeter to the south, and the rest given over to the infrastructure of the building – its circulation and operational needs. Standing here, not yet indoors and yet surrounded by the building above, below and on all sides, the visitor is instantly implicated in its theatre: people moving, light playing over surfaces, deep views into the interior and to the city and sky beyond.

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Moving up we are threaded through the building by this concrete armature – weaving back and forward, binding the various parts together into a singular landscape that feels at once carved and assembled. The spaces between the office bars open up to frame views of the city beyond, or down to the entrance space, and other captured pockets. At one point this circulation weaves out to close the gap between two of the bars, over the entrance, to form the portico.

This ‘sky cloister’ is a space to linger, held between the building and the city. Also, perhaps, a space for us to reflect on Grafton’s thinking. “In college we were drawn to Corbusier over Mies because there seemed more room for expression”, Farrell recalls, and it is tempting to make a link between the incredible spatial sequence of this building and Corb’s idea of the ‘promenade architecturale’, or perhaps more pertinently to the circulatory theatre of his Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard.

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But the building I am most reminded of is one I haven’t visited, indeed none of us have: the unbuilt Dominican Motherhouse by Louis Kahn (1965-68). Here, working in the aftermath of Anne Tyng’s departure from the studio, we see Kahn carrying on their debates in his radical reimagining of the cloister as a threading-through of multiple volumes, a gathering of residual spaces, elisions and collisions between volumes – linked by the habits of the place, with relationships between the spaces in effect becoming the thing that binds the community together. G

rafton has gone further, winding the cloister up, weaving it back and forth to unite the building into a theatrical volume, framing both the life of its occupants and the city beyond. The reference to the monastic precursor of the European university is also a contextual one to Toulouse’s own rich built heritage. This is not erudition for its own sake; rather it is a deeply felt connection with architectural thinking that allows Grafton to make a building of real value to its users.

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“We realised early on that architecture was too complex to not do it well”, says Grafton partner Shelley McNamara. “There has to be an emotional component – otherwise why bother? At its simplest it is about making spaces for people to be apart and together. We are always conscious of that sense of intimacy, of the individual in the group; there has to be space for everyone”.

Here, monumentality is played out through the making of intimate spaces to read it against – a harbouring thing. Scale is proffered not as a dominating thing, but an ennobling one. In remaking the typology of the cloister, Grafton is chasing a gift for the community of economists who commissioned the work –