Going public
An interview with MUOTO
Paris, FR

In our interview with Gilles Delalex and Yves Moreau in their Paris office, we delve into the architectural practice of Muoto. Moreau tells us how they began not by doing architecture but rather videos and art installations, growing slowly into their architecture and urban design office of today. They are constantly engaged in public discussions and debates claiming that architecture is not merely about being ‘nice’ designers. This is part of a series of video-interviews with a selection of emerging European practices. A project by Itinerant Office within the cultural agenda of New Generations and the support of Funder35. Interview: Gianpiero Venturini - Video: Luca Chiaudano - CPStudio


Growing slowly, learning by doing research

GD: We didn’t start by designing buildings. We started instead by making videos and art installations. We didn’t jump straight into the profession. The office then grew very slowly but this gave us time to reflect on what we wanted to really do. We never really had plans to set up an office together, but we always wanted to work together. We were doing many projects like subcontracting small jobs and art installations and really almost any project we could find. So, architecture strangely came very late and we are a much younger office if you look at the date the office was established.

YM: Since we began working, we have won a few prizes and they all kind of incremented each other until they led us into a new phase. We got a prize from the Ministry of Culture in 2008 that granted us access to public commissions. As a young team, this was a big step for us. Later on, we were able to build a project in Saclay, the public condenser, for which we won an important national prize, the best building in France, 2015. Now we are in the post-phase of this prize, one where people are starting to get to know us. Earlier, we were just a young team.


Flat and horizontal structure

YM: We are a studio, which indicates that we have a flat, horizontal way of working where everybody can manage and work on all parts at the same time. It’s not a pyramid system, but because it’s also a small office. Another one of the things that has developed on its own, without us really deciding, is that we have been able to develop singular projects and be able to select the projects we want to work on. We don’t really have want to expand at the moment or suddenly have 50 people in the office. We would rather work on less projects of better quality than perhaps more commercial projects. We are able to concentrate on the essential projects and the ideas we want to develop.


Public competitions

YM: We work mostly with public clients. Since those early commissions we won in 2008, we have applied for many more. The French system is quite interesting. You have to apply, and they then select four to five teams to submit a proposal. In these competitions even a young office has the chance to win because it is really the best project that wins. We send around one to two hundred applications and maybe get selected in five to ten competitions to submit a proposal. We then try to win one of those. Those are usually public clients. However, at the moment, there is a change happening slowly here in France wherein, even for big projects, public authorities launch competitions where they invite private investors to make a team with architects, researchers, potential users and this brings a shift in how we work. Instead of working 100% public, we might join the private investor system and work 50% public and 50% private.


Architecture as a public thing

GD: Our research is pretty relevant to the times, what is happening in today’s society and how we can continue to make public buildings when finances don’t follow. We are concerned with how we can still be involved in this idea of publicness and architecture as a public thing as part of the idea of res publica. We have been reflecting on this and have theorised that we might be in a moment of deep crisis; an identity crisis that most western countries are experiencing, especially in France where we are trying to do an architecture that relates to its time. We are not simply trying to be attached to this particular moment, rather we are trying to reinvent what it could be. We must do the same building as before but cheaper, for instance. We might have to use lesser material or deal with different kinds of urban policies. We might be in an era of the end of big infrastructural development, and we are wondering how architecture can replace the role building plays in the development of public infrastructure.


Getting involved in public discussions

GD: We need to think of the programming of the building, of the urban sphere, of the urban scale, and we have to take part in public discussions and public debates. That is necessary because otherwise we are merely nice designers and nothing good will come of that situation. A lot of subjects such as politics, ecology and engineering are fundamental to our practice. Usually, they are not part of the briefs and we are not obliged to deal with them. However, I think we have to bring them in and raise these subjects anyway and do the architecture that comes with it. We need to widen the scope of our job. That’s necessary if we want to do more than just making things beautiful or designing façades.Perhaps we did some projects for our own benefit, like the very first ones that were more fundamental, in some sense, because they didn’t come from any demand. Now we are responding to problems rather than raising the problems themselves. We have to think of going back to our roots and trying to propose more things that nobody has asked for, instead of trying to win a competition in order to propose something. Usually the brief has a clearly defined subject and is usually narrow in a way. Competitions are not necessarily the best way to test out new ideas. I think we need to start working on our own briefs.



Photography Courtesy of MUOTO