In 2015, the brothers applied this ethos to the public realm for the first time: in Rêveries Urbaines, an exhibition in Rennes, north-west France, they presented a series of proposals for the urban environment. Designed with their characteristic sense of whimsy – trickling streams, open-air heaters and grazing cows – these were open, exploratory concepts designed to adapt to the context in which they might end up. The overarching theme was of the city as public living room: a series of outdoor spaces that are activated, not when we engage in commercial transactions or purposeful activities, but when we linger and simply exist in our shared surroundings.
Nuage-Promenade, launched this week as part of the satellite programme at Design Miami, is the life-sized manifestation of one of these dioramas. A 100m-long, 3m-high, curvy pergola on spindly legs, it responds to the particular climatic and environmental conditions of the Floridan city – its expressive, tropical foliage and its intense sun, rain and wind.
The structure incorporates a contoured modular shape – the nuage – that has recurred in the Bouroullecs’ work since 2002, first as a component for a shelving system and more recently as a series of vases. It’s a form that, when clustered together in a repetitive manner, builds up to create larger forms. It may sound ripe for a parametric designer, but for Ronan Bouroullec its appeal is as an organic, not a digital, component. “It is easily understandable that people are fascinated by the repetition of a single piece, thanks to industrial techniques – the uniform tile, the brick, the square, the repetition of a piece that is permanently aiming to a uniform grid,” he says. “But there can be a different take on this logic, where you apply more freedom to the piece. Nuage, when added together, always creates different shapes even with just one element. The structure naturally grows in different directions, with a unique pattern that connect the whole, but with a distinctive configuration. This is something man can easily observe in nature, all trees are somehow the same and all trees are different.”
Used on this large scale in Miami, the cloud-like qualities of the nuage form are enhanced. Made in steel and glass, the tubes let sunshine dribble through and cast colourful shadows on the ground like with a stained-glass window. The structure intertwines with native plants in an “instinctive yet repetitive construction – a little [like] the way ivy is growing onto a buildings”. Over time, the material will develop a patina that allows it to blend into with surroundings even further. “The shadows will slowly evolve, their mass and colour will affect the surrounding, and the people. Ponds, plants, benches will react to all these slight changes. We can imagine that in few years, when the interlacing between plants and man made clouds will have further developed that the atmosphere will be stronger and stronger.”
True to the Bouroullec’s original vision, Nuage-Promenade brings shade, shelter, seating and visual charm to this pedestrian walkway, thereby offering itself to passers-by for a moment of rest or reflection. It does, however, sit oddly amid the hyper-commercial context of the Miami Design District, a luxury retail destination owned by global real estate investment funds. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that its true intention is as a resting space for shoppers before they continue to swipe their credit cards. But a designer can work only in the contexts that exist and hope their interventions have the strength of purpose to change the way people experience their surroundings.