An architecture of air

Maison du Brésil, Paris — 07/07_2017

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Earlier today, I spent an hour in a densely packed and airless bus, from the Bibliothèque Nationale, where the beautiful reading room is always cool, almost cold even in early July, to the overexposed and scorched Porte de Gentilly. I was looking forward to visiting the Maison du Brésil at Cité Universitaire. I haven’t seen it since it was renovated. While I was on the bus the external temperature peaked at 90ºF/32ºC — not quite as hot as yesterday, but the sun was more intense, and the humidity higher — inside it was almost intolerable. The 67 route is great on a good day, today was not a good day. Even the short walk from the Stade Charléty bus-stop was an ordeal. But, arriving was a pleasure, escaping the heat and dust, I entered a very special enclave…

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My purpose, other than revisiting a place that I had loved in the past, was to feel my way around the architecture of the air, to find the form that is shaped by temperature gradients, humidity contours, pressure differentials and variations in air-speed…that is not built but is made, precisely, with sophistication and care. Yesterday’s rather cursory investigation of drawings and diagrams at the ‘Fondation Le Corbusier’ was a pretext. The heat today provided an opportunity to feel the air, to read its implications in the hairs on my arms, in my nose, on the back of my head or on the tip of my tongue — to discover another Maison du Brésil, that is as irrefutable as it is invisible.

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The entrance and collective areas of the Maison du Brésil impressed me as they had when I first visited. They are raw and direct in a way that I had not experienced at that time. But, I had forgotten how much of this intricate assemblage of envelope and objects is cut into the ground, negotiating a complex topography. And, I did not remember that its highly carved figure creates air-pockets, shaded buckets of night air, cold, pools of air that warm up slowly enough during the day that they remain cool despite high temperatures beyond the building. Full height pivoting panels — ‘aérateurs’ — disrupt the membrane that separates these pools. Some are exposed, in surfaces that get quite hot, others remain in the shade — these differences are important and carefully calibrated, calculated to induce beneficial air flows, inside and out, that are easily regulated by opening or closing the panels.

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I returned to central Paris on a train, 6 minutes on the RER B, direction CDG, to Luxembourg, followed by a walk in the shade across the gardens to my favourite bookshop at the intersection of Rue de Vaugirard and Rue Madame, Le Pont Traversé, and then the bus. Back where I started? I don’t think so…lessons have been learned, valuable lessons.

images, from top left clockwise — approaching the shade and an interstitial pocket of cool air, a carved ‘bucket of night air’ with ‘aérateurs’, and the face of the Director’s House defining the edge of a shaded pool of air.

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