Disegno #22

Public Crystal


7 August 2019

“He’s more interested in electronics these days,” says Ronan Bouroullec matter-of-factly of his brother Erwan, as he runs up the stairs of the workshop building across from their main studio in Paris’s Belleville. He’s keen to show off an elegant, life-size mock-up of one of the aluminium-bronze joints that the pair has developed for six new crystal fountains designed for Paris’s most famous street, the Champs-Élysées. Although both of them have overseen the project from conception, Ronan was more involved with the detailed design. These fountains, each 13m tall, will spin at a speed of half a rotation per minute, using a clockwork mechanism and illumination from above to create a moving spectacle of dancing water.

“After 20 years as a designer, I am starting to think about the city,” says Ronan. That Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s interests have begun to diverge after two decades of close collaboration is perhaps not surprising. Their eight-person outfit has taken on a widening range of ambitious projects, now spanning public spaces and wayfinding, interior design, furniture and, indeed, electronics. This is not the studio’s first foray into designing for public space and, judging by a series of still-confidential proposals in one corner of their office, it won’t be their last.

By 2016, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec had amassed enough of these spatial designs – both practical and theoretical – to mount their travelling Rêveries Urbaines exhibition, which comprised follies, canopies and other imaginative spatial embellishments that were designed to modulate, break up, scale down, and otherwise humanise the Haussmannian monumentality of French cities.1 Such interests have continuity with the brothers’ previous work, both in the many installations they have presented at design shows, and in their projects for French authorities and institutions, including a crystal chandelier for the Palace of Versailles. Other public-space installations by the designers include their 2017 Nuage pergola in Miami, the models of which feature prominently in Rêveries Urbaines. The Bouroullecs based Nuage on their 2002 modular Cloud shelving system for Cappellini, which was also reimagined on the micro scale in 2016 as a series of aluminium vases for Vitra. It is unsurprising, then, that many of the brothers’ urban works hark back to their early 2000s designs for dividers and break-out spaces, which sought to soften the monotony of open-plan offices.

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s fountains on the Champs-Élysées were unveiled in March 2019. (Image by Morgane Le Gall)

Despite his studio’s near ubiquity in French design – both commercially and institutionally – Ronan is not satisfied with the breadth of its projects. “There was a certain frustration that our work is accessible to a small group of people,” he says. “For the first time, I have the feeling that I’m doing something that’s for everybody.” To date, the practice’s output has been more likely to find a home in high-end offices or apartments than on the streets of Paris. Even a more mainstream design, such as the Serif, a 2015 television for Samsung that was updated this year, retails at upwards of around £1,500 – more than three times the price of more pedestrian models. “We’re interested in reaching a more mass audience,” says Ronan. In that sense, the location of the brothers’ new fountains could not be more fitting. They will sit on the rond-point des Champs-Élysées, above the entrance to the Franklin D. Roosevelt metro station in the heart of Paris’s famed eighth arrondissement, a spot passed by some 300,000 people a day and notable for the roar of passing traffic.

Despite now being fully subsumed into the city’s 19th-century fabric, the rond-point des Champs-Élysées has a history that stretches back almost two centuries. The 164m-diameter roundabout was originally laid out by Louis XIV’s court landscape architect André Le Nôtre in 1670 as the end of the la grande allée du Roule, an avenue which began at the Tuileries Palace and continued in a north-westerly direction into the surrounding countryside. In 1709, the grand avenue became known as the Champs-Élysées, named after the Elysian Fields, the mythical resting place of Greek heroes. A year later, a row of elm trees was extended toward where the Arc de Triomphe stands today, completing the avenue’s full 1.9km length. Following the French Revolution, France’s new government, the National Convention, ordered the erection of a statue dedicated to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the middle of the square where the roundabout now sits, but the project never materialised and a mound commemorating the assassination of revolutionary writer and politician Jean-Paul Marat was built in its stead. In 1817 the roundabout received its first fountain, designed by Jacques Ignace Hittorff. This was swept away during the subsequent modernisation of Paris under Baron Haussmann, as it formed an obstacle to the increasing volume of traffic.

The commission, which is funded by the Fonds Pour Paris, is the Bouroullecs’ first public commission of this scale.

In 1854, the civil engineer and landscape architect Alphonse Alphand came up with a solution to create six smaller basins on the roundabout’s perimeter, a layout which has remained the same ever since. The fountains were given a facelift in 1935 by glassmaker René Lalique, but the densely packed crystal fronds that he designed to surround the water jets proved too fragile and were replaced in 1958 by Max Ingrand’s sturdier design. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long either; it was soon replaced by a more durable plastic replica of the original. But just like the enthusiasm for all things plastic fantastic, the fountains deteriorated and, by 1998, were out of order again – a result of leaking basins and faulty hydraulics, as well as the intense revelry that swept the capital following the French victory in the FIFA World Cup that same year.

A period of neglect followed. “The fountains completely disappeared during the last few years,” says Ronan, who notes that the lawns on which they had stood were overgrown, while the now-dry basins had essentially become invisible. Removing the shrubs and small trees that had taken root was the first step towards overhauling the site. “When I visited for the first time, there were still remnants of Ingrand’s design, which is extraordinary given the amount of foot traffic,” says Ronan, adding that preservationists and authorities never suggested that the fountains be restored to their previous state. Not only were the landmarks not listed, but the relative novelty of the last iteration meant they had not become a part of Parisians’ collective memory.

Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec.

The invitation to create a new proposal came from Fonds Pour Paris, a charity set up by the socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo in May 2015. The foundation allows wealthy donors from across 16 European Union countries (including France) to give towards new cultural monuments in the city, while also enabling them to write off almost 90 per cent of their donations against tax. This style of philanthropy, common in the United States, feels unusual in continental Europe, where public spaces have typically been paid for using public funds. Indeed, the organisation also has an American branch, the Paris Foundation, which raises money on behalf of the city from US donors. Impressed by Rêveries Urbaines, some of the charity’s more design-conscious board members invited the Bouroullecs to submit a proposal. When they did so, it met with unanimous approval.

While the city of Paris keeps a firm grip on the foundation’s activities – including approving its projects every year and appointing its board – it would be easy to raise accusations of elitism against its members, who include Guillaume Houzé, the communications director of Galeries Lafayette, Nathalie Bellon-Szabo, the director of catering giant Sodexo, and Philippe Journo, the founder of development firm Compagnie de Phalsbourg and major donor to the French Ministry for Culture. In this vein however, it’s interesting to note that the official name of the roundabout where the fountains are located is rond-point des Champs-Élysées-Marcel-Dassault, named after the famous French industrialist and politician who bought a mansion facing the fountains in 1952, a building which now serves as an auction house.

Nevertheless, this is a big moment for the Fonds Pour Paris. The fountains on the Champs-Élysées will be the first project completed on its behalf. Other designs in the works include a new lighting scheme for the Arc De Triomphe by Olafur Eliasson, as well as a controversial sculpture commemorating the Bataclan terrorist attack by Jeff Koons. And although the city and the Fonds are keen to highlight the unique funding model and heap praise on the donors, Ronan is adamant that the manufacturers, engineers and contractors should receive as much praise. “All the companies that worked on the project spent an enormous quantity of time on it, especially compared to the amount they’ve been paid,” he says, praising the “collective intelligence” of all involved. Although the studio collaborated with the Nantes-based Atelier Blam, their trusted engineering and design consultant, overseeing the fountains’ design and production stretched the brothers’ practice to its limits. “This type of project is more suited to an architecture studio,” says Ronan. “It’s different to working as a designer. If a company wants to work with you, they organise a whole team around you – it’s very easy. Public space projects are a lot more complex.” A more hierarchical, larger office might have made it easier to focus, although the advantage of the current set-up is that it allows both brothers to be involved in each piece of work. “I want to draw every day and work on everything. If we continue in this direction – because I like working on this scale – we will need to organise the office differently,” says Ronan.

Each of the six fountains comprises an elaborate crystal-clad aluminium-broze framework. (Image courtesy of Studio Bouroullec)

The total budget for the fountains is relatively modest: €6.3m for six fountains, half of which was spent on repairing the damaged basins and installing the complex water-delivery system, onto which the Bouroullecs’ finely crafted, crystal-clad aluminium-bronze frameworks can be grafted. “Two hundred and fifty people worked on it and provided work to small companies, many of which are struggling in the current economic climate in France,” says Ronan. Despite the project’s private financing, it is sited in a public space, which is there for all to see and enjoy. Judging by the array of models and samples in the brother’s studio, their attention to detail has been extraordinary. The Fonds Pour Paris is equally keen to emphasise that the fountains will not be named after any of the donors, with only a plaque on the side listing the benefactors.

The fountains seem like esoteric clockwork instruments, but they have been designed to resemble abstract trees. Initial mock-ups made more than three years ago were well over 20m tall and featured five branches, but these were deemed too overbearing and cluttered so the Bouroullecs reduced the number of branches to three. In addition, the early iterations would not have fit onto flatbed trucks. Water gushes from the fountains’ fronds, which are encased in collars of Swarovski crystals emanating from the top downward and illuminated at night by rows of LEDs.

“The choice of material was clear for us,” says Ronan. “Glass is important in Paris, from [Hector] Guimard’s métropolitain entrances to Jean-Michel Othoniel’s Palais Royal metro entrance from glass baubles.” These are references to the elegant art nouveau pavilions that adorn some Parisian metro stations, and feature translucent panes of glass and crimson droplet-like street lamps, as well as the more contemporary entryway designs that include coloured glass baubles. The brothers’ take on these is more aesthetically restrained and delicate, but technically more elaborate. The crystal pieces – essentially two halves of a short tube – are attached to an underlying stainless-steel structure. Their inner side is coated in a reflective material, which means that on an overcast day the fronds will blend into the surrounding city, while, at other times, the cut crystal will refract the light, creating a delicate shimmering apparition. “It can almost disappear during some parts of the day and appear transparent, while at other times the light disperses,” adds Ronan. What’s more, each fountain rotates on its axis once every two minutes, a speed that is just about noticeable to passing pedestrians. The effect will be a subtle spectacle, with the vast water sculptures spinning slowly, like pirouetting ballet dancers beside the fast-moving traffic.

“We’re working on the scale of public space but with the precision of an iPhone,” says Ronan. The stem of the fountain had to be custom-milled from specially cast aluminium-bronze cylinders. The studio also designed a number of connections, the most ingenious of which is a detail that links the crystal elements, the stainless-steel rods underneath, and the strip of LED lights that runs down the side, which the Bouroullecs and Swarovski have patented. Even if the glass were to crack, either due to the weather or vandalism, it would not fall off.

The fountains’ delicate branches were designed to evoke abstract trees.

“[The city of lights] is a cliché, but I don’t like all of Paris’s light,” says Ronan. “It can be too harsh and not very delicate.” The LEDs that will be used in the fountains are less than 3,000 Kelvin. “It’s very yellow in a kind of romantic aspect. It’s extremely warm.” Evocative as they may be, the fountains will also double as functional street lighting. Their detailed design certainly seems to have benefited from a prolonged gestation – the studio started working on this project three and a half years ago – but the fact that no similar fountains exist, and that there are therefore no specific standards or precedents that the designers could fall back on or set themselves against, also helped.

If the finished product sounds rather complicated, Ronan is clear that there is an overarching reason for this: the elaborate design is meant to give the creations a visual presence during the off-season. Fountains in Paris are switched off for six months a year during winter, when they exist as little more than vast basins, collecting leaves, rainwater and cigarette butts. As it turns out, he needn’t have worried about his creations being dry for long periods: two days before our interview, Hidalgo announced that these particular fountains will be kept operational throughout the year. But the original thought – to create a spectacle even without the flow of water – is there should the city’s next administration prove less generous after elections in 2020.

The fountains have been installed at a time when Paris has seen widespread popular unrest on its streets, with the Champs-Élysées being a particular hotspot for protests. (Image by Claire Lavabre)

The location of the fountains comes with contradictions and complexities. “The Champs-Élysées is a very specific place in which you find every type of person, from the ultra rich to the very poorest,” says Ronan. “It’s a symbolic place for the French: where they come when they have to cry; when they want to fight; to celebrate everything from the end of the Second World War to the victory in the World Cup. I don’t think there is a more symbolic place in France for extreme joy and pleasure to extreme violence.” This violence has historical resonances in Paris, the city whose remodelling between 1853 and 1870 was not just about creating a dignified, efficient and hygienic metropolis worthy of its capital status but also about displacing the poor and creating a series of straight, wide thoroughfares through which the army and police could march to quell popular uprisings.

The most recent of these, the protests staged by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), has been under way since November 2018. The demonstrations, taking place every Saturday, started as a protest against rising petrol prices and an increase in fuel duty, and have since morphed into demands to end tax cuts for the wealthy, and lessen the tax burden for everyone else. Higher minimum wage and higher pensions – except for public-sector workers – have also been key goals. The yellow vest is not a class signifier as such and the movement unites the far-left supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right supporters of Marine Le Pen, both of whom have voiced their support. The protesters’ signature garment is universal because of a French law that requires every car owner to carry a high-vis vest in their boot in case of an emergency.

Indeed, car owners find themselves feeling increasingly marginalised – and it’s not just because of rising fuel prices and taxes. “The transformation of Paris is, at this point, a big fight between the mayor and the motorists,” says Ronan. “People like me, who live in Paris, want fewer cars, but people who live in the suburbs need the car to access Paris, so it’s a fight between different users of the city. I have no idea how our work will be accepted and considered in this context.” Paris’s intra-muros may be well served by the metro but venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique and options are suddenly more limited. Grand Paris Express, an infrastructure project consisting of a new orbital line around the city, as well as new radial lines, is under construction; though it is scheduled for completion in 2030, it couldn’t come soon enough. Hidalgo has already closed off the arterial road running along the right bank of the Seine after weekend trials in 2016. In 2018, the courts upheld Hildalgo’s decision following a challenge from motorist organisations. That same year, she announced plans to pedestrianise the city’s first four arrondissements if re-elected. The Champs-Élysées is also closed to traffic, though only on the first Sunday of every month. The car-free days began in 2016, and there are whispers that the emboldened mayor may increase their frequency.

By February 2019, public support for the gilets jaunes had begun to wane after a series of antisemitic and nativist incidents, as well as the destruction of private and public property, left many bewildered about the aims of the group. In Paris, the yellow-vest demonstrations have taken place on the Champs-Élysées itself. According to Ronan, the protestors have even used some of the fences from the fountains’ construction site to barricade themselves against the police. Anticipating a hostile urban environment, the fountains’ crystal elements are suspended well out of reach of pedestrians and are impossible to chip away. As to the risk, Ronan is circumspect: “This is the first time during my career I’ve had to respond to authorities about political crisis management.”