Randja studio won this architectural competition in 2015, which made me very happy. I did not know too well Saint-Lô and its surroundings then, but I felt somehow an attraction for this land with a peculiar geography, this real and old peninsula, and this Manche département name always struck a chord with me. This appeal, as much as the programme itself, was a strong motivational element in our application.
What I knew in 2015 about this territory was fairly basic info, and could be summed up like this: the French national stud farm, the bocage countryside, the dairy industry, the Vire river, and Saint-Lô being the département’s administrative centre; it all formed my popular imagery perception. Saint-Lô is also very much part of a tough modern history, the city having been flattened by dreadful bombings at the end of WWII. I had these recurrent images of an absolute chaos – probably dating from my school days –, of a city crushed a barrage of bombs, except for the old city walls that withstood it.
As far as I am concerned, the project development in any given territory always starts with sensations, and with a knowledge, however basic at first, that guides my approach on the day of the site’s first visit and of introduction to the operation by the project manager. That day we drove from Paris in advance to arrive in Saint-Lô with time to wander into town to catch the atmosphere, to see the faces, to grasp the moods, people complaints and their expectations, all shaping our offer. I do think that the locations, and by the same token the architectures, are systematically wrapped in historical, societal, political philosophical and symbolic movements, whether or not they are real. These active forces collide with the programme’s constraints. All these abounding signs subconsciously bang on and whizz by our brain, and promptly mould into an intuitive form, a beckoning direction: an architecture. That day, the broken stones of history, the stones sticking out of the Cotentin hills (a road sign showed us the climbing routes), the stones cut for the rampart and the gabion rocks one finds in the site construction all converged to assert the materiality of the future Technopôle Agglo 21 project.
We shall use the aggregate, the very concrete that was used after WWII, the shattered stone turned into rubble, that Saint-Lô gathered and sorted to build anew its solid and protective walls. The concrete is part and parcel of the town’s recent history, having been utilised many a time for its reconstruction. This history of concrete coincides with the arrival of highly skilled Italian bricklayer migrants who rebuilt the bruised town. They did set up structural works companies that were specialised in concrete and are still active today; one of them is the Zanello company which masterfully carried out this work. The intuition is already there: the aggregate, the stone as the only material, the ramparts as the form.
The first thing that leaps out during this initial visit is that we are not actually in the city, but in an outskirt business park, the like of which can alas too often be seen in France. A series of corrugated iron boxes overhung by garish company signs along the local road. If a construction temporarily enjoys a great and full view on the bocage countryside, it should expect, after a few years, to be surrounded by a multitude of business premises and warehouses. But that is no matter, as our favoured shape, i.e. that of a fortress (hence the FORT name for our project), has been intuitively selected. The ramparts did show us the way the project’s shape. The offer makes sure to conceive a building allowing for a strong inner character, equivalent to the layout seen and implemented in town, i.e. encompassing all functions within thick walls. We were rather immediately convinced of the interest to have the viewpoints converging inwards so as to dynamize the users’ interactions. This was also thought out to address a fundamental aspect of the programme: fostering the businesses creativity by enabling exchanges. The viewpoints on the landscape are not particularly sought after, with the exception of the 280-seat amphitheatre facing the local road that allows the passing-by drivers to see the building’s function and to enjoy seeing a structure that, for once, is not an umpteenth company sign.
The desired and achieved inwardness aims to densify and bring the building’s uses together, so as to have the future users “collide with each other” in the interstice spaces. Three main functions take place in the two large programme centres, the events and the collaborative work spaces. Located in three different empty spaces surrounded by this concrete shell, they allow for access to the inner spaces and extend them. The first is a staircase doubling as a row of seats, an open-air hemicycle extending the planned inner amphitheatre. The two others are ornamental patios. This urban technology organisation takes after the medieval town where spaces were clearly located within the city walls and where all was in motion, including the dwellers. This plan allows for intervals suitable for informal exchanges, for discussions and of for a wished for creativity…
The chosen materiality is this aggregate which is gathered, used again, transformed, assembled and open to view, in order to form a concrete. I wanted poured-on-site concrete, and I was well aware of the difficult technical nature it requires. Mastering this difficulty was not a problem as local concrete structural works companies are very skilled in this field. They were set up at the time of the post-WWII reconstruction, and are still very much innovative and active; they are in competition with large cement groups, all vying for the numerous building sites works for the nuclear industry, which is very much present in the département. I wanted a concrete that would be both rudimentary and innovative. This perfectly executed concrete shall be visible from the outside as well as from the inside. The insulating material is to be inserted between two layers of concrete.
To avoid this process being realised by prefabrication, it was essential to favour and rely on poured on site concrete, on local aggregate (the quarry being located at less than 12 miles from the site) and on a local experienced workforce. The concrete of the structure and of the external shell are load-bearing construction elements, they remain always in sight, sometimes untreated and sometimes smooth, quite often in a rudimentary state showcasing thereby the aggregate. This aggregate of stones, the starting point of the creative process, is implemented without concrete, on its own in gabion cages to form protective rotating gates.
The project, the programme
This project, undertaken by the Saint-Lô Agglo urban community and its president Mr Gilles Quinquenel, is based upon the drive of Mr François Digard, the former honorary mayor of Saint-Lô. The ambition was to ascertain another view of the economic model conception, to favour the attractivity of the land with a building that would represent the département and be its image bearer. « An architecture symbolising the region’s economic revival. The building, housing the « Saint Lô Agglo 21 » technology park, stems from a conception, an ongoing drive, strong motivation and beliefs». It is a development centre, a business incubator, a coworking space, a meeting place for companies wishing to develop and diversify. It is a place for creative, inventive and innovative companies, which will find there all the means to carry out their projects. It is also a place for training and information, a feature that complements existing initiatives.
In order to achieve this ambition, the programme required an original and appealing location, with the aim of attracting attention. An architectural gesture with a strong and visible identity. Within these new ramparts, two centres are spread out on two levels: an events centre, and a collaborative office spaces, both operating either simultaneously or independently. They are linked by exterior spaces integrated into the enclosure. The entrance forecourt, accessible from the outside pocket parking, extends inside the enclosure into a staircase and belvedere space that gives access to the activities’ two levels.
On the left-hand side, a large hall under the amphitheatre and demonstration areas, and upstairs, video-conference rooms, meeting rooms, the 280- seat amphitheatre calibrated to host conferences, seminars, lectures for the nearby Apprentice Training Centre or for the community council meetings. On the right-hand side, the business centre with a vast reception and exchange hall. Its high ceiling (8m) space includes the reception, the lounge, the snack area and the offices of the people in charge of running the facility (the territorial economic development unit). This ground floor features a large volume of collaborative working spaces with ad hoc furniture, closed meeting spaces (with glass partitions) and a FabLab. On the first floor, the same principle governs the space, with also closed offices for more usual requests.
Between these two centres, as already mentioned, are connections via outside amenity areas, and a connection under the monumental staircase grouping a circulation protected from the weather, the sanitary blocks, the storage rooms, the technical rooms as well as the areas (e.g. heating kitchen) necessary for organising receptions. The layout of the spaces is done by juxtaposition so as to avoid corridors; natural light is always favoured. The so-called «patios» are always present, they accompany the user throughout his movements. Interstice spaces are multiplied, conspicuous by the absence of doors; the thresholds are materialized by narrow sections and by outgrowths. These intervals with diluted contours are there to encourage visual and face to face contact between users.
The project plays with light; at first glance it seems opaque from the south facade opposite the car parks. On the contrary, it is flooded with natural light on the inside through the use of numerous large windows opening onto the interior patios. These openings capture a subdued, structured light and articulate the perspectives between spaces. Therefore these perspectives can go through the whole building from one side to the other, although the building seems massive and closed. The volumes are large, so that all the spaces have a 4m-high ceiling, which is enabled by the absence of any false ceiling. The walls, floors and ceilings are made of rough concrete; just a sound absorbent, i.e. grey fibra, is pressed against the ceilings’ central parts to provide good reflection. All the operating elements have been designed and integrated into the concrete during pouring.
Innovation being an essential objective of the programming, it was necessary to create a tool to encourage the creativity of future users to be applied to our design. This technopole favours creativity through the exemplary nature of its structural design and the technicality of its unprecedented implementation. In order to obtain this specific desired and deliberate mineral aspect - an apparent concrete structure in perfect harmony with the walls and floors - a very technically complex construction process is devised. This is an innovative construction process, that actually is the very first project for a double wall made out of poured concrete with inserted insulation. The building as a whole requested: 2,600 cubic meters of concrete, 155 tons of reinforcement, 40 kms of cables and 1,700 m² of floorings. Particular care was taken with the exterior joinery, with a «bare» exterior positioning on the ground floor and the opposite on the first floor. A great deal of ingenuity was required on the part of the various parties involved to ensure continuity of insulation, and to meet the constraints and advices of the supervising board. The construction of the curtain walls of the amphitheatre required a building site consultation. The glazing is held by «clamps», training and information, a feature that complements existing initiatives. It is a completely original concept which will certainly find its place in the territory.
which are suspended and carried by the high floor of the amphitheatre. The realisation of this complex building was above all possible thanks to the local companies. It very much owes to their involvements and to their skills - in particular the Zanello company, with its extraordinary technical know-how, its implementation and its mastery of concrete. But it is also the fruit of an adventure where human beings are the quintessential factor, showing that, in this region, mutual help between companies leads to an added intelligence. The innovation found in the ability to delegate, and the opportunity given to each person to be smart, to make his/her contribution to the whole, corresponds to the desired image for this project full of initiatives. - Farid Azib, architect
New construction of the Technology Park Agglo 21 Saint-Lô. The building is the bridgehead of the new business park around innovative businesses in the territory. Coworking spaces (rent by the day, month or project duration). The project hosts an auditorium, reception and exhibition spaces. This project is intended as an extension of the Urban Community (Council meetings) for the local development and education mission of the neighboring training center.