Philippe Rahm

The emergence of a new sense of spatiality

Melatonin Room, 2001 © Décosterd & Rahm

For Philippe Rahm, architecture and space, the office building and the workspace, can be considered ecosystems. The emergence of embedded technologies and the dematerialization of architectural productions are faced with the question of changing our relationship to space. By focusing on the physical and chemical properties of materials, space, and its users, the experimental architecture of Philippe Rahm leverages data which is invisible to the scale of a building and reveals many possibilities.

Philippe Rahm is a Swiss architect. He is the director of Philippe Rahm Architects and teaches at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture of Versailles and at the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Your work in architecture draws upon the application of the conceptual sciences towards construction. In fact, your works find more in common with the scientific world than the abstract artistic world—even if many have been commissioned within the realm of contemporary art, often as events as in the architectural biennale in Venice, various expositions, or in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Where does this taste for research and scientific experimentation come from?

Philippe Rahm : I studied architecture at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. During this time, architecture in Switzerland was undergoing a transformation, following the arrival of Postmodernism marked by Aldo Rossi joining the faculty at ETH in Zurich. Postmodernism, which seeks to generate sensibilities with geometric forms referencing classical or ancient history, hitherto had found little work in Switzerland. The Swiss architectural patrimony relies essentially on medieval architectures more or less drawn from the myriad of buildings designed for the middle class. All of this here was far from the major layouts, forms, and figures (beautiful passageways, Renaissance perspectivals, and well designed palaces) which served as the base for Aldo Rossi’s lessons on postmodernist theory. Reference and analogies have been similarly displaced now by an attention to materiality, notably in the experiments of Herzog and de Meuron or by a pupil of Rossi: Miroslav Sik.


Materials physiology

These architects have made fewer reference to the cultural history of materials, in favor of that which is more cost effective, like Eternit (fiber-cement), asphalt, copper (in industrial zones around the periphery of Zurich) or more trendy, like glass or stone—which are featured heavily in the work of Zumthor. The latter has particularly developed the idea of the sensuality of materials, following Sik or Meuron who spoke already to the temperature (the coldness or heat) of certain materials—but these notions reveal in every case a connection to a cultural dimension or a feel for the context of the city. My work started within this lineage of materiality; however, I left behind the analogical reference to go into the dimension of materials that concerns the more chemical, physical, electro-magnetic or physiological aspects, thus abandoning the discourse of narrative or cultural context. There hasn’t been a specific link to other engineering departments of my school, but I have maintained in my studies a level of scientific rigor; architecture schools as with art in Switzerland, are fairly scholastic and insistent on methodology. In what I deal with, I have conserved this dynamic (the rigor, the methods) while applying other ideas: shifting the focus. If one is to say that I have gone “against” what I learned, it would be in this respect, the content more than the form: I have negotiated a mode of developing concepts, a pragmatism and a scientific logic for conceiving architecture while pushing aside historical references.

Projext for EPADESA, 2010 © Philippe Rahm

Philippe Chiambaretta : Does this particular rigor, in respect to the way of constructing an architectural project, correspond to a Swiss trait?

Philippe Rahm : I have taught in several schools in different countries and it is true that the general level of students varies in function of country: in France, there is potential for improvement. This being linked more to the schools themselves them to the countries—in fact, to the instructors and of the unexpected dynamics which they bring to a certain school.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Would you say that architectural training in Switzerland is very selective and hard to break into for new students (as is the case in Spain for example)?

Philippe Rahm : No, in my era in any case, it didn’t matter whom, anyone could enroll in the undergraduate program; however, the dropout rate for first year students was 50%. Thus the weeding-out is not so much at the level of admissions but by the rigor of the programs.

Philippe Chiambaretta : During the period within which you finished your studies and began your research, had you already been introduced to notions of climate?

Philippe Rahm : I left school in 1993 and at this moment, they were discussing materials by their semantic or symbolic sense, but not to climate.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Then this is your own area of interest, your curiosity for physical, atmospheric, and biological characteristics of materials, which has driven your research?

Philippe Rahm : Yes, though my research was also influenced in reference to the prior generation, Arte Povera—within which art was fulfilled by taking into account the physical and chemical nature of things. Here I’m thinking of a work by Anselmo as an example, of two stones attached to a head of lettuce. The biological realities (as in the occurrence of the process of decomposition, whereas the lettuce rots and the composition is deconstructed) have been integrated with the formalism of the work. These are the elements which have interested us, and in our first projects, we attempted to understand how concrete transforms with time, what are the components of concrete, its aggregates (phosphates...), and how its deterioration by erosion brings new nutrients into the soil aiding in photosynthesis. Our work began from this point and incorporates the physiology of materials, taking into account questions of climate, the humidity of the air, these elements all have an effect on materials.

Philippe Chiambaretta  : Thus Arte Povera formed the link between a scientific approach and the artistic approach of the architecture: like a key relating the artistic and scientific aspects of your work?

Philippe Rahm : Yes, certain experiences of Arte Povera have been very important for us, within a dialogue which deals with not so much art as architecture, with questions of gravity, of the oxidization of materials. The works of Richard Serra, for example, around the notions of stability and balance, based in concrete realities, under a totally material, and not narrative, world; in the same way Mano Selan (????), insists on the fact that objects or works speak to nothing else but what they are.

Philippe Chiambaretta : The complete opposite of Postmodernism therefore.

Philippe Rahm : Yes—but they are ideas which were already present in the Nouveau Roman (New Novel) of the 1950’s, or within the experimental music of Cage for which did not try to represent anything else besides themselves—and (more obtusely) which comes from decidedly father away, the Impressionists or from Mallarmé: a tradition envisioning the reality of pure things, of a language which says nothing but what it says. (“That wants to say that it wants to say, literally and in all senses,” said Mallermé).

Philippe Chiambaretta : How did your research develop during the 1990’s and 2000’s? What are your centers of research and within which ecosystem have you worked?

Philippe Rahm : We began participating in competitions in French-speaking Switzerland; at the start, I was a “young architecture office which won competitions,” of which one was fairly important, two buildings and a city plaza—but the realization of the project to follow was turned down after a popular vote. We began pretty quickly, between 1993 and 1998, on these themes based on the physiology of materials and their behavior under weather stresses. Then in 1998, we were one of the teams invited to the Swiss national exposition in Neuchâtel: we lost the project, but a trajectory was set. The research we that we were conducting on materials at this moment folded into a reflection on man and the inhabitant. We posed the question of the impact of architecture on man: if Anselmo’s lettuce was attacked by oxygen, what is it to man? We interrogated the link between architectural materials and man. At the same moment, the arrival of the internet, cellphones, and the whole telecommunications revolution was all underway; otherwise put, this was the arrival of an entirely new, invisible dimension of electro-magnetic fields, a whole world of waves. The question to answer was how these waves, which modify the nature of space, affect our understanding of the pathways of information and the human physiology. In 1998, involving a few projects, we thus begin researching the influence of air and light on the bodies of inhabitants and we began to partner with the scientists from the University of Lausanne. It was very simple at the time to establish contact with specialists across backgrounds, here physicians and biologists—of which we have worked with hormone specialists, electro-magnetic light specialists…Thus, we established this link back in 1998.

Projet pour EPADESA, 2010 © Philippe Rahm

The living body

Philippe Chiambaretta : At the moment of the internet’s arrival, a moment where antennas where installed throughout Paris and when the public begin questioning the potential harms connected to these “invisible architectures.”

Philippe Rahm : Yes, a moment when nothing was fixed anymore and when things were dematerializing; but what we were contributing to the field, in a context of a general craze for dematerialization, was a consideration of dematerialization from the physiological perspective, determining if it has a constructive relationship to space.

Philippe Chiambaretta : And how have these questions, which in their initial stage do no find immediate practical applications in construction and architecture, evolved in their integration into architectural projects since 1998?

Philippe Rahm : We have become much more demanding nowadays…and in fact it has led us to lose competitions! We can say that our focus has been to try to establish a new formal, architectural vocabulary from our questioning. We have thus retaken the traditional elements of architecture, applying a physiological perspective; space, for example, can be defined as a certain quantity of air between walls, or also a quantity of air with chemical properties that we breathe.

We have made a catalogue of traditional themes, in creating a reevaluation of the architectural language, which finds a place within the field of art as the latter offers the possibility to question and reinvent visual languages or otherwise. We have thus been invited into art expositions: in 2001 to the MOMA in San Francisco, where we presented a piece titled Mélatonine room, based on a question of hormones (more precisely on the reaction of melatonin with light in function of the latter’s intensity within the electro-magnetic spectrum), then in 2002, at the Venice Biennale, with Hormonorium. Up until 2004-2005, we worked thus on pieces which investigated the possibilities of a reevaluation of the architectural language in the point of view of physiology.

"Harmonorium", 8th Venice Architecture Biennal, 2002 © Décosterd & Rahm - photo Jean-Michel Landecy
"Hormonorium", 8th Architecture Biennal of Venice, 2002 © Décosterd & Rahm - photo Jean-Michel Landecy


Philippe Chiambaretta : In the 2000’s, there was an evolution in popular perceptions on the earth, especially with the problems of global warming…has this all influenced your work?

Philippe Rahm : Up until 2004-2005, my work was tied to questions of the perception of space, how the body perceives space; then, starting in 2005, I started to work more so on the exterior phenomena: meteorology, climate… We have passed from a physiological architecture to a meteorological architecture, and it is true that between 1998 and 2004, the period of our “physiological” approach, it was fairly difficult to find commissions, as these subjects really didn’t interest many people. Whereas the climate aspect is a phenomenon which resonates with themes of sustainable development and global warming, and has interested many more people. Energy, heating, ventilation systems, etc., have become important topics, unavoidable in the design of a building, and have connections back to the invisible elements which we were working on before. Our past research has found a new validity within this context.

However, a confusion has taken place within the art world: some have mistakenly thought my work came from Yves Klein—when at the time, I was not familiar with him, and our work was practically antithetical to that of Klein, for whom the problem of energy was not posed and was purely consumed, while my work departs from a closed system operation, of a total isolation giving autonomy for a dialogue with the exterior.

Philippe Chiambaretta : But exactly, what conviction motivated this idea of economy that you use to distinguish your work from Klein, and that finds an echo in the worries of the years following 2005? Is it a premonition that you had of the events that would be to come?

Philippe Rahm : It was rather an accident. My work was based on an inversion of a lecture on the philosophy of Hegel, for whom architecture is the most imperfect art, as it is dependent on gravity and other constraints. In fact, according to Hegel, the form of the architecture are owed not as much do to the architect as to these constraints (gravity, climate…) and the architect is thereby very limited; he can pretty much just follow the dictates of nature, even down to the basic symmetries and lines present in nature. For Hegel, this characteristic is a detractor, placing architecture at the bottom of the hierarchy of arts, while poetry is at the peak, as it is the art freest of physical constraints. For me it is the opposite, this physical constraint, is architecture’s trump card, and I told myself that this must precisely guide the rematerialization of architecture and moves towards the world of sense, sensuality. In discourse with this idea, I have always wanted to preference physical and climatic facts over narrative elements, tied to symbols or signs.

The new ecological dilemmas have given an importance to this work, but I have a “little theory” on this topic. One can base architecture within a formal energic reality and come back to the technological and physiological necessities: one must question the heating temperature and the relative humidity, which varies in function of the breath and thus by the number of people, as these elements play into the calculation for volume of air to be ventilated without losing energy. These notions which have become important again, bestow a physiological sense back to architecture. I think that architecture was physiological at the start of the 20th century: modernist architecture departs from hygienics and a desire for sanitation—one could also say that this comes from sanitation problems in cities—about which Haussmann was concerned, or more specifically from the construction of sanatoriums, but also this was an issue for the Bauhaus and for Le Corbusier. Even if bay windows don’t really cure tuberculosis, architecture can allow for an improvement of hygiene and health. But starting in the 1920’s, after the discovery of antibiotics, architecture lost this mission: the modernist program, suddenly, loses its relevancy owing to the effectiveness of medicine. An interest in ancient cities was revived, the very same winding roads and poor ventilation that was hated during the 19th century as they were the very synonyms for illness, as antibiotics allowed them to exist. The interest in historic cities could be explained thus—but, in fact, architecture drifted around a bit, it really didn’t know what its mission was, and was thus lead to the fabrication of narratives: it is post-modernism, it is Robert Venturi (with his bright red fire station), all a conception which continues today, with young architects. But the issues posed by sustainable development impart a new reality to the physicality of architecture and lessen the semantic aspects.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Your presences in galleries is therefore not the signal of an escape from the material aspect of architecture; more so to the contrary, your work would like to stay faithful to the reality of architecture and you would like to bring this into construction; and thus today, you beginning to win competitions again is because the juries have become sensitive to these topics. Could you speak to some specific projects of yours, and how your research from the past ten years has found an echo today in construction? How do you envision, counter the position of Hegel, a specific interest in the materiality of architecture?

Indoor Meteorology

Philippe Rahm : Returning to the materiality of architecture requires us to leave behind our customary references which we have relied on to define forms, the choice of colors, etc. In the same way that I have reevaluated the compositional elements of architecture from a physiological point of view, I have taken the same elements according to a meteorological angle. Whereas the 19th century functioned with classifications according to forms like columns, stairs, ceilings…, that is to say according to the visible, solid elements; today, one could say that the important elements are no longer these but the invisible elements, the in between: the void, the temperature, the humidity—space itself. In this way, I think that this work is completely architectural, as it deals with space itself and not with the envelope of space.

I began to become interested with these meteorological elements, like vapor, temperature, light, and at the same time, attempting to re-explore the elements of composition. I have in this vein replaced traditionally elements, including symmetry, multiplication, addition, inclusion…by meteorological principals of activating the elements of architecture into motion: it is no longer inclusion but convection, evaporation, pressure, conduction, etc., guiding the architectural composition.

I have accordingly proposed a project, for a competition, where the principal of ventilation was the backbone of the project; I received criticism from people arguing that one cannot structure a project on the basis of a current of air…But precisely, all of the reversal of the architectural process that I was attempting was comprised in that—and this reproach is in fact a lovely formula by which to define my work. I depart from technical realities, tied to actual demands for a reduction in energy, to invent the forms. It is designing first the radiators and ventilation, and then creating the forms and designing the spaces. The climatic engineers no longer come after, but before.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Even if the parameters of comfort and energy are the determining components, the morphology of the building is also essential; you must nevertheless, in construction deal with the envelope and the transmission of the exterior climatic condition to the interior.

Philippe Rahm : In the choice of materials, I try to determine if it will rise in temperature quickly or not, if there is a strong coefficient of inertia or thermal conductivity; concrete, metal reacts strongly with exterior heat, for example, and one can make a choice in dialogue to this aspect. This plays in with the choice of colors also: black or white are going to change the wave lengths to heat something or reflect the light. Form also can be a factor, as hot air is lighter and thus the section can be designed in function of encouraging hot or cold, humid or dry air (the first being lighter than the second, leading to, for example, the niche in the interior of bathrooms). I have followed how these elements influence the different choices and design of the plan; from these projects, we have succeeded in getting a fairly good mastery of the interior. Now the next stage of our work is to address the envelope.

Philippe Chiambaretta  : Do you have recent concrete examples?

Projet pour l'EPADESA, 2010 © Philippe Rahm

Philippe Rahm : The project l’Epadesa, in Paris-La Défense which is a more complex project than the others, for which we are trying to integrate a relation to the immediate environment. It is a massive building with nine floors, and with a south and northern façade overlooking low-income housing complexes. We have thus conceived a repartition of the interiors in discourse with ventilation, thinking of the utilization of the interstitial spaces as reservoirs of new air and light circulation…this drives a sort of evaporation of the architecture by diminishing or repurposing the thicknesses of the envelope to let air and light circulate. Further, the volume of the building was reconceived so as to not block the northern winds and collect the cold; we sought to let the wind pass without the building being an obstacle and to not give to the neighborhood behind a cold pocket.

Philippe Chiambaretta : This atmospheric approach to a building could therefore lead to a new formal language, a new architecture.

Philippe Rahm : Yes, for me this is the goal: an ambition that is more architectural than political or ecological. I am more interested in the way this vision can change the architectural forms than in the political debates, of which in fact I am mostly using to push this renewal of forms. The ecological side is a constraint that I accept, but not an end: I do not use architecture to respond to ecological principals which overtake it. It is a new reality which can make architecture go out into the open, and could also re-center architecture on its own subject; while architectture has been a bit lost because it no longer speaks of fullness, of the visual, of solids, today we can return by the air, and give rise to a new spatiality.

Philippe Chiambaretta : You take thus this constraint as a factor and not as an end—which seems to me to be a good thing, if one would like to avoid transforming these elements into dogmas.

Philippe Rahm : It has become a dogma because architects are not seizing upon them before the technicians do. If architects weren’t still continuing to work like back in the 80’s, if they weren’t still refusing to understand these new realities, they would not have imposed this upon themselves in this way. The retreat of architects allowed the technicians and the material merchants, who are thus satisfied, impose them. But it is necessary to integrate the new facts, and architects, after, will have made up for their initial hesitation: as with the disciples of Rem Koolhaas now, or the digital prodigy of Greg Lynn, basing their forms on questions of renewal and founding their projects on fluids, air…

Philippe Chiambaretta : Yes—and if one takes this vision seriously, not like a fad of the moment but as a principal of reality that bears a scientific weight, it seems to me that this opens up a new way of approaching projects. This gives new measures, new factors that are more quantifiable than symbols or narrative, by which it is difficult to evaluate the adequacy of a building.

However, in the world of construction today, an element must be taken above all others: energy—because it is easily measurable, and as it represents a concrete economy, in particular for offices. It becomes, or it will become, a norm, like the norms of security. And yet, that which demonstrates your response, is that the most interesting dimensions to explore are those which are invisible, the immaterial—dimensions that are perhaps less easy to access for the offices of research or the material merchants, but which open pathways for architects. Particularly in the specific domain of the office, for which one can say that it must favor the value of the well-being of its inhabitants to the end that they can be more innovative; the office must therefore create an atmosphere which is appropriate to the specific business. This could feed back into your work, which fabricates an atmosphere via odors, a temperature, a degree of humidity…

Philippe Rahm : On the question of the environment of an office, in addition to taking into account physiological conditions (the amount of light, the quality of the spectrums emitted), I think that it is better not to seek an optimal or most homogeneous but, to the contrary, create diversities. On the difference of Yves Klein, for whom one would be in a complete opening, or that of Le Corbusier, who sought the perfect optimization of climates, today the trend is more towards creating differentiated space, gradients of temperature, of light…One could create offices out of spaces more or less laminated, more or less heat according to whether it is a space of transit or of resting a certain time, and create in this way a climatic-spatial cartography. But there again, one could reverse the thing; one could in effect imagine that these ideas open on a functionalistic determinism of places, whereas one could offer flexible spaces or options, like making between the 19th and the 21st floors a space open for whatever use. One could thus envision the actualization of such ideas, instead of a regulated optimization, as a creation of spatial qualities which have variations and are adaptable.

Philippe Chiambaretta : One of the interesting points, in effect, of an office environment as it is being thought of today, is the dichotomy between, on one hand, a mass standardization (due to the logic of production which tends towards well-calibrated elements, a uniform standard) and, on the other hand, a need by the individual for micro-climates tailored towards workings, to make a phone call…

Philippe Rahm : Yes, and one could exactly split the two: proposing places that are tight acoustically or conversely very open. Modernity according to me is there, in the capacity to offer variations of sound, temperature, humidity—spatial varieties within which different functions can take place following the moments of the day, of work, the desires of the inhabitants themselves.

Translated from French by Heather Tipton

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)