The Paris Researcher Pioneering a New Way to Recycle Building Materials
Anna Saint Pierre's Granito project is harvesting the ingredients for new architectural building blocks from demolished structures.
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Rapid urban change comes and goes without many even noticing it. Entire slices of a city’s history disappear overnight: What was once a wall of hewn stone is now fritted glass and buffed metal. The building site is always, first, a demolition site.
This is the thread that runs through Granito, a project by the young French designer and doctoral researcher Anna Saint Pierre. Developed in response to a late-20th-century Paris office block due for a major retrofit, one involving disassembly, it hinges on a method of material preservation Saint Pierre calls “in situ recycling.” Her proposal posits that harvesting the individual granite panels of the building’s somber gray facade could form the basis of a circular economy. “No longer in fashion,” this glum stone—all 182 tons of it—would be dislodged, pulverized, and sorted on-site, then incorporated into terrazzo flooring in the building update.
Opened in 1997, Le Parissy, as the office block was called, served for two decades as the headquarters of telecommunications outfit Télédiffusion de France. With a small panoptic tower anchoring a semicircular, glassed-in atrium, the complex was “designed to be futuristic,” says Éric de Thoisy, head of research at SCAU, the architecture firm behind it. In a rare case of continuity, SCAU was commissioned by the new property owner in 2018 to convert the place into a coworking hub. Saint Pierre’s project is a small but compelling component of the firm’s design, which is still being finalized. In renderings the atrium floor is paved in her telltale “granito” (granite plus terrazzo). Visible from the street, “it will be a fifth facade,” she says.
The thinking behind Granito has its origins outside of SCAU, where Saint Pierre is employed part-time under a work-study program open to the STEM disciplines in France. She spends the bulk of her days at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (EnsAD) in Paris, researching the preservation of architectural materials and the cultural weight imputed to them.
In conversation she often summons up the watchword “restoration,” which has a greater resonance in France, whose architectural patrimony has been subjected to cycles of revolution and war, more so than in North America. The practice of restoration in Western Europe cannot be separated from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architect responsible for crafting the indelible image we have of Notre-Dame. (Most notably, he added a spire that stood for 150 years before succumbing to April’s horrific fire.) Viollet-le-Duc’s interventions at the Île de la Cité were romantic in nature and revisionist in intent, yet yielded a picture of history that was more “alive” than history, as global responses to the inferno revealed. This reflects the uneasy bind that restorative, or preservationist, efforts often find themselves in—choosing between what to save and what to reinterpret for new generations.
In the main, however, today’s preservation regime hitches its wagon to a spurious authenticity, freezing history at an arbitrary, idealized moment in time. It congeals and asphyxiates, whereas Saint Pierre proposes particalization and transformation. Preservation, for her, is not a pictorial practice but a way of unlocking the narrative potential of a site.
Aware that disassembly uncovers but does not necessarily disclose, Saint Pierre locates meaning in rubble. “An edifice’s matter,” she writes in a forthcoming academic paper, “gives an account of its long chain of fabrication, of its successive episodes of transformation from its geological origin.”
That is a fine register of time, one in which the two decades separating the two Le Parissy projects look both yawning and nil. “It’s very intense to remake our own building so quickly,” says de Thoisy. “But it’s also interesting because it talks about the way things move and the way generations work with each other. The facade was chosen by Luc [Delamain, project lead and SCAU partner], and now Anna wants to come and break it up and take it down.”
Ideas about the ways we build have changed, too. Acknowledging how large a carbon power the building industry is, Saint Pierre identifies the need for crafting new hybrid building blocks. This imperative has led her to formulate an atomistic understanding of architectonics. In her prototypes, stone slabs are smashed into rubble, then crushed into powders, compacted into terrazzo, or sandwiched into gabion walls. (The latter is a separate application she’s exploring for another SCAU project.)
More than anything else, it is Saint Pierre’s persistent emphasis on site that distinguishes her project from upcycling, an ethical repurposing of waste into objects but one that rarely points beyond issues of consumption. At Le Parissy, she likens the prospect of harvesting the granite to an “open quarry,” with all the coordinated activity of artisans and machinery that such a site of work encompasses. Because her source materials are mined, processed, and then recorporealized in situ, they form an economic and environmental loop, replacing the “shorter temporalities” that planned obsolescence has habituated us to.
But just as central to Granito is the phenomenological loop. Memory inheres not just on the facades of buildings, Saint Pierre suggests, but in their core materials and even the composition of those materials. In Paris, “a really charged city with very old materials” like Lutetian limestone, her work finds an ideal playground. SCAU is beginning renovation work on the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, the reputably ancient municipal hospital just steps from Notre-Dame. The interiors are, unsurprisingly, a mess, de Thoisy says, but he is sure his colleague will be able to pry some usable past from the site. For Saint Pierre, it will offer the next opportunity “to find a story about the geology and geography of a place. When you walk among the materials on a site, it’s like archaeology.”
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