Francois Perrin Unites The Past With The Future In Groundbreaking Architecture
I’m enjoying the quiet of a Thursday morning at Echo Park Lake, waiting to meet architect Francois Perrin, when a loud CRACK! rings out across the water. After a moment of that classic LA mental calculus—gunshot or firework?—I turn and see a crowd of people on the shore across the water running and screaming. There’s a flicker of oh shit, but it only takes me a second to remember where I am, which explains the scene immediately. Nothing to worry about. Just another film shoot.
Perrin greets me in a cheerful French accent. He looks every bit the delighted Los Angeles transplant—deep suntan, white linen shirt, sunglasses—and why not? Here we are at a café table by the water, the weather sitting pretty in the mid-70s, while most of the city is siloed away in cubicles. It’s fitting that our meeting is al fresco, as Perrin is a deep appreciator of climate. His work, which can look strikingly raw to an unseasoned observer, makes use of often overlooked materials to create structures that sit lightly on their sites, not so much blending into the surrounding landscape as echoing or enhancing it. He combines site specificity with environmental consideration, designing his structures to respond to the wind and sun through their placement to regulate temperature without consuming resources. LA turns out to be an ideal place for such experimentation.
Perrin was drawn here in a way familiar to anyone who has longed to head west. He loved surfing and skating; dreamed of the waves and weather. He had finished his studies in Paris and was looking for a different scene, somewhere that resonated with his own experimental ambitions. He saw the work that Gehry and other LA architects were doing in the early ‘70s and ‘80s—an embrace of unusual materials, a consideration of climate, radical experimentation with structure and shape—and he thought: I can do that. But it was also an escape from the weight of history, all that ossified perfection so present in Paris. What many criticize about LA—the tendency to run roughshod over its own history, its aesthetic lawlessness—was what he found to be most liberating.
“LA is constantly rebuilt and destroyed. The quality of architecture is very diverse, from high-quality residences to low-budget mini-malls and apartments. I often say LA is a mess but that I love it, because a mess pushes you to experiment. You can only make things better,” he tells me as I pull apart a pas mal croissant. He eyes it with pity. One thing LA can’t get right. He is drinking only water. “Paris is a finished city. Even though there is interesting contemporary architecture happening in Paris, when you’re an architect you’re intimidated by this beautiful city that is finished, and you’re a little bit afraid of messing things up. You don’t want to destroy such a perfect place. Here, in terms of aesthetic, people don’t really care what you’re doing. And I guess that leads to a lot of atrocities throughout the city, but to me as an architect that is trying things and trying to make new things, that’s very liberating. I feel I can do pretty much what I want.”
Perrin’s next project marks another departure from traditionality. At this year’s Chicago Biennale he’s taking up residence in the botanical gardens, where he plans to place a series of ethereal tent-like structures, hanging from the greenhouse structure like ornaments among the trees.
“I wanted to develop a model of housing for the future that would address the climate and nature, the way we place ourselves in it. So I created these kind of modern tree houses that reference the ancient tree houses, which are kind of the origin of architecture, that you find in New Guinea or Africa,” he says. “But I’m also, in the shape and in the material, trying to do something future-facing, something very light. They could be hanging in the forest canopy suspended from the trees, or they could be placed down in the water and could float; they could be easily assembled.”
This combination of futurism and primitivism defines Perrin’s architecture well. With this project he stretches the idea of an inhabitable structure almost to its breaking point, at least from a Western perspective. Perrin sees value in the instinctual responses to environment, the architecture produced by necessity, seen in cultures that have maintained that fundamental connection to the planet and to their environment.“In this project I’m looking both at the vernacular of architecture and the origin of architecture. As a surfer, I go and travel around the world. That was kind of my architectural education. Instead of doing architectural tourism in cities, my architecture tourism was more travelling the less developed parts of the world—the coasts of Africa and Central America and around the ocean—and looking at the vernacular of the architecture and learning from all these people who had created an architecture based on the specific climate and specific landscape, using local material.”
Reaching both backward and forward, wrapping the future to meet the past in the present—that’s what architecture does at its best. Buildings that were despised become beloved. Lasting architecture functions on something akin to geologic time, at least compared with our increasingly schizophrenic era of fast food, fast fashion, 24-hour news cycles and the next must-watch Netflix show. Look at the pyramids, or the Notre Dame. Does Perrin long for the eternal? I ask him if he’s had to see any of his projects succumb to time in this turbulent, impious city. Did it hurt? “I love all my projects, you know, like if you have many kids. It’s already happened to some of my projects here. My first project was an art gallery down in Chinatown and it lasted less than a year. It’s painful to see your work disappear, but that’s part of being an architect. I respect it. I believe in architecture as a kind of temporally transcending thing that goes through the edge of time,” he tells me. “I’m trying to do something for the moment but also something that won’t age, something timeless that will, you know, stay relevant. I’m trying to refer more toward the past and look into the future rather than just addressing the present and current trends.”
Our time is up, and he heads off. I linger a moment longer, savoring my coffee and the sunshine, when, again, CRACK! They’re doing another take, enacting on repeat a faux panic taking place on a set that is an idealized version of the very place they are now, phony fruit stands and ticket booths meant to look like a quaint little farmer’s market in the park, laid out near a strand of palm trees that have made a number of cinematic appearances, including in Chinatown and in early Chaplin movies. It will all be gone tomorrow, an ephemeral instant transmuted to celluloid. But the trees, the land, and the water will remain.
Written by Sid Feddema
Images Courtesy of Francois Perrin and Chicago Architecture Biennial