The New Architect Is an Anti-Establishment, Problem-Solving Entrepreneur
Or so says François Roche, the head of Paris-based practice R&Sie(n), known for its syntheses of digital media, nanotechnology, and botany.
This past Monday the anti-establishment infiltrated Yale School of Architecture in a dashing gold scarf. Seducing the audience with a breathless stream of Franglais, whose charm derived from the speaker’s sheer enthusiasm for his subject, François Roche rose to a god-like status typically only afforded movie stars. And if there were a god in whose likeness he is modeled, it would have to be Janus, the forward-backward-looking deity of beginnings and transitions.
As Roche drifts nebulously in and around the purview of art and architecture, human and mechanical, historic and futurist, he raises questions of authorship and agency that strike a nerve for a profession coming to terms with its post-recession identity.
The name of Roche’s practice with partner Stéphanie Lavaux, R&Sie(n), sets the tone for the position the firm is out to stake for architecture: pronounced in French, the acronym sounds out “heresy.” It’s not simply controversy that the designer is after but the introspection that results from challenging the faith.
When looking beyond the eerily beautiful aesthetic of conceptual machines like Olzweg, Roche’s interest in the dualities of authorship comes to the forefront. These hybrid machines are attempts to create what he calls “singularities,” mass-produced, infinitely variable artifacts whose variability is the result of a giving over control of the machine to the maker. Here, the role of the architect-author is that of an entrepreneurial synthesizer, whose hand is not totally erased from the artifact because of the risk taken in its making.
For Roche, this authorship must always be about a sort of violence, because the risk the author takes in creating the work is one of life and death, both in that the work must sustain the author’s physical livelihood and that it must sustain his or her creative ambitions.
Following his Monday night lecture, Roche met with students in Ariane Lourie Harrison’s “Architectural Theory II” class on Tuesday morning, swapping his gold scarf for dark jeans and with it, the grand spectacle for frank speech. A form of rebellion, bottom-up architectural practice runs precisely against the grain of common career trajectories; instead of exiting school and entering into the apprenticeship of a starchitect, only to be forever trapped in servitude, Roche insisted that students deploy their unique skills to build their own practice immediately after graduation.
Finding work becomes a matter of creating problems to solve, like with the Hybrid Muscle project where he invented a system of energy transfer, from human to animal to machine, to construct an operable umbrella structure. Further, he proposed that architects demand what they’re worth to the institutions and clients who employ their services. His instructions? No free gallery showings, no bending over backwards to be published. Re-conceptualize the program, the site, and architecture itself.
For all this forward-thinking discourse, elements of Roche’s pedagogy can be traced back to the architectural canon. His self-professed fascination for Villard de Honnecourt and the unpredictability of medieval construction methods suggests that the “new” relationship between designer, machine, and artifact in his work simply reinterprets the relationship between master builder and craftsman that produced Gothic churches. It does so by substituting machine for craftsman and the singularity of his form-making for the variability of the craftsman’s ornament.
Roche’s argument for an architecture that dabbles in biology, technology, and art is, in fact, the humanist proposal made by Alberti in the 15th century in his De re aedificatoria. Roche, of course, insists he is looking forward, not backward, and he is—if the scope of the rear view mirror is limited to the post-industrial practice of the discipline. Yet, regardless of the temporal direction of his gaze, it’s clear his finger points the discipline away from where it is now.
Roche fashions himself as both an artist-architect and an architect-entrepreneur. As an artist, he does not waver from the image he projects, however multifaceted, and pursues only the work he enjoys; as an entrepreneur, he seeks opportunities to profit from that work, going so far as to move to Bangkok to reduce overhead costs. Moreover, his work reaches beyond art and architecture, appropriating for the discipline inquiries in biology.
In “I’m lost in Paris,” a residential landscape project, he synthesizes glass blowing and botany and nanotechnology. His current research in nanotechnology studies psychological reactions to hormones recorded by data collectors dispersed through vapor. Like his public persona—he has allowed only a single portrait, that of an ambiguously aged and gendered Roche, into circulation—these multiplicities are sides of a tightly crafted coin whose face is redrawn upon every turn.
Whether or not you agree with his politics or aesthetics, Roche is an undeniably necessary character in contemporary architectural discourse. His provocations suggest that an appropriate response to the recovering economy is not simply to revive our methods, but to reset the model of practice on multiple scales.
Practice today is stagnant. Even firms like SHoP, who’ve reached their design tentacles into construction and development, continue to work within the system. In reaching outside of architecture to the sciences and arts, Roche recovers territory once under the discipline’s scope. This time, rather than resuming the Renaissance role of jack-of-all-trades, the architect must be an orchestrator, mining the other disciplines for their specificity to produce something as yet unseen within ours.
Amrita Raja is a Masters of Architecture student at Yale. She graduated summa cum laude from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2009, with degrees in Interior Design and French. At Virginia Tech, she was awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Medallion and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies Outstanding Senior Prize. Amrita has written for The Roanoke Times and The Washington Post and runs independent blogs on food and design.