François Roche doesn’t want to be photographed. Or maybe he does. Normally he just says no to requests for a portrait – it’s still no, but salted with maybe. He’s intensely uncomfortable about the idea.
We were warned this might happen. R&Sie(n), the Paris architecture practice that Roche runs with his partner, Stéphanie Lavaux, at present communicates with the outside world via a creepy, androgynous computer avatar. An acquaintance of Roche cautioned that he once only allowed a magazine photographer to take pictures of his hands. This “no portraits” rule has deep roots. R&Sie(n) was founded in the late 1980s, “a kind of advertising period, where everybody – Jean Nouvel, Philippe Starck – everything was devoted to the promotion of identity, promotion of portraitures”. So they decided to “dis-identify” and de-personify the studio. “It was post-punk, post-post-post-punk, you cannot abuse me because you cannot identify me, you don’t know who I am,” says Roche. “And this way I could do what I want, I could infiltrate your network without being identified as a virus. It was a strategy of contamination.”
But the wall of anonymity around R&Sie(n) is crumbling. “We are not too far away from perhaps suiciding this avatar,” says Roche, “and to reappear as ourselves.” After 20 years, the strategy is wearing a little thin, and lately things haven’t been going well. The practice has just flirted with bankruptcy, a crisis that necessitated laying off most of its staff. To add insult to injury, R&Sie(n)’s contribution to the Venice Biennale had just fallen foul of the local police. The installation, called the Building Which Never Dies, contained some radioactive uranium – perfectly safe, but it still got confiscated by the cops. Still, the unusual is business as usual for Roche – a professional outsider and purveyor of architectural provocations. A previous installation slowly decayed. R&Sie(n)’s most recent completed project is a house that incorporates bacteria-cultivating jars into an overgrown facade. The practice is trying to get approval for a poisonous garden in Croatia. Roche told an audience in London last year that he’d be quite happy if someone got lost in one of his buildings and died.
R&Sie(n)’s office, on a residential street just off the cacophonous Boulevard Belleville in Paris’ 20th arondissement, looks exactly like the sort of place that could incubate these projects. The bare concrete walls, floors and ceilings are partitioned by hanging sheets of bubble wrap, giving it an atmosphere midway between edgy start-up, germ lab and serial killer’s lair. It’s also quiet, reduced to Roche, Lavaux and a single member of staff after the recent troubles. Lavaux joins us for only a short time and even then remains almost stonily silent. The partnership may be faceless, but its public voice is clearly that of Roche. This role suits him well: he abounds with charm and energy. A conversation with him is a high-octane intellectual experience, a tour d’horizon of the history of ideas, literature, science, and politics. And sometimes architecture, but for Roche it’s all architecture, all blurred together.
Roche came to architecture as “a coincidence. I was not Frank Lloyd Wright playing with cubes with the imagination that I could be an architect. It’s pure coincidence, fortuitous trajectories.” Originally, he planned to be a mathematician, but couldn’t get into the university course he wanted to take, and opted for an architecture diploma instead, without feeling much commitment to the subject. Before his studies were finished, he went to the desert in southern Algeria to decide if he really wanted to be an architect. He decided yes.
But R&Sie(n) is still ambiguous about whether it wants to be part of the architecture world or not. The name is a pun: the R of Roche and the S-ie of Stephanie turned into an abbreviation that sounds like “heresy” in French. Beyond the radioactive installations and the toxin-gardens, the constant talk of infiltration and contamination, there are only a few built projects: three private houses. Much of Roche’s time is taken up with teaching and speaking. There are two larger projects in progress, a museum of glaciology in Switzerland and the botanic garden for poisonous plants in Croatia. Roche was asked to design the French pavilion for the Venice Biennale, but said no. Instead he contributed the glowing Building Which Never Dies to the Arsenale, where it stood in standoffish non-relationship to the rest of curator Kazuyo Sejima’s exhibits until the police cut short its immortality. Roche sees this upset as a success: “People are talking more about the studio than they were six months ago. The rumours of the scenario are infiltrating the media culture more than the production.”
In other words, the destruction of the installation made a better story than the installation itself. Shrewd. It couldn’t have been planned better. So is this outsider status deliberate – another strategy, like the photo fatwa? “Sometimes I would love to be in the mainstream, to be like the others,” Roche says, smiling. “It’s more practical, it’s more comfortable, it’s more successful. We became an anomaly because we had no other choice, it’s not politics or a strategy.” To clarify, he launches into a story – a fable. A frog and a scorpion are escaping a forest fire, and have to cross a river. The frog can swim and the scorpion cannot, so the scorpion asks the frog if he can hitch a ride across on the frog’s back. But you’ll sting me, the frog says, it’s in your nature. If I sting you, we’ll both die, the scorpion argues. The frog agrees to carry the scorpion across, and halfway the scorpion stings the frog. As they drown, the frog asks the scorpion: why did you sting me? The scorpion replies, I’m a scorpion, it’s in my nature.
Stories are important. Roche names far more writers than architects in our talk, particularly Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, mathematician and explorer of absurdity, but also Joseph Conrad, Céline, Edgar Allen Poe and cyberpunk authors – Bruce Sterling “reviewed” one of R&Sie(n)’s completed houses by writing a story about it. “Fiction now is better describing our environment than people which try professionally to describe it or analyse it,” Roche says. “Fiction is … decoding. That’s why we’re interested in scenarios, stories. [Our work is] not totemic architecture, it’s not building as an icon – the icon is the storytelling.” Maybe that’s why many of the practice’s projects can’t be easily pictured, but do work as evocative descriptions – the antithesis of building-as-logo, postcard architecture. “Architecture has to go beyond this purely physical existence to approach the narrative aspect,” Roche says. “The narration of a building is mainly more important to me than the visibility of a building.”
Descriptions: R&Sie(n) designed an electrified museum in South Korea that would accumulate dust and particles from the smoggy air – it absorbed the city around it. Another unbuilt project is an extension to the FRAC architecture centre in Orléans constructed out of sticks of recycled glass. A robot would constantly move and reposition the glass sticks, reconfiguring the building according to its own inscrutable logic, forever. Speaking at the Architectural Association in May last year, Roche said he wouldn’t mind if someone got lost and starved in this ever-changing labyrinth – they would become part of the building.
Even the completed projects are oddly furtive. The house that Bruce Sterling wrote about, Spidernethewood, had a net “facade” – the surrounding forest was supposed to consume the building, hiding it. Shearing, a house in Sommiéres, southern France, was designed to blend in with the landscape: a “stealth house”. The third house, I’m Lost in Paris (Icon 075), is the strangest of the bunch – again, it’s shrouded in greenery, festooned with glass jars brewing bacterial cultures. The location is secret. These are more rumours than they are buildings. As such, they’re suited to the “media future” Roche detects around us. “It’s to use the media cultures as a propaganda of rumour, a propaganda of storytelling, which is a process of sharing,” he says. “If I want to share with you, I don’t put the pictures in front of you. I tell the story about the pictures I saw, and immediately that forces the imagination to go further, to invent another reality.” It’s the architecture of the mind’s eye.
But the kind-of-invisibility of R&Sie(n)’s work is also a product of the practice’s fascination with “contamination” and “infiltration”. It specialises in buildings with ambiguous boundaries, blurred or blending in with their surroundings – hairy, overgrown, accumulating dirt or constantly reconfiguring. In the case of the FRAC proposal, the word Roche uses is “smearing”, which nicely captures the kind of uneasy, visceral sensation that you get the impression R&Sie(n) really strives to create. Where does this interest in infiltration and subversion come from? Again, Roche launches into a story. After the failure of the street uprising in 1968, some radical French leftists tried to bring down the system from within, by infiltrating French car manufacturers. “They tried to change the means of production, car mass-production, but they never evaluated the possibility of changing the design of the car. And that’s fantastic.”
Now Roche suggests that design has to be what’s radicalised. “If we want to start this infiltration again, we have to infiltrate not the car company … but more to infiltrate the media cultures. So the [agenda] of the studio is still politics – to infiltrate media culture and … to make the absurdity of the system visible.”
But the thing about this savvy, 21st-century subversion is that it’s so tied up with irony and double meanings that you can never be entirely sure that Roche is being serious. Maybe he’s really trying to infiltrate and bring down society from within – or maybe it’s just a pose. Or maybe the pose is the strategy. Roche even describes it as “a little bit coquetry” – like the no-photos rule, it’s flirting, silly-serious, all to do with ambiguity and trying to occupy two positions at once.
The photographer thinks he has found an angle that will work for everyone – a green gel on the lens, a creative angle, and the scene can be rendered with appropriate mystery. But the avatar will die soon and more conventional portraits will be allowed. The strategy of anonymity is being undermined by the very “media future” Roche revels in. “I discovered [that] students … were taking pictures in lectures as a provocation, to say ‘heyhey, next time you will be on my Facebook’ … It has become a game which is ridiculous, because now everything is devoted to transparency and visibility. So we have to come back into the spectrum of visibility. If we don’t, it could appear finally as an extreme pretension.” So how will he kill off the avatar? “We will do it as a ceremony,” Roche says. “We have to do it as a ritual of some kind, a ritual of rebirth. Now it is a bit early, but I think this year or next year it will be done.”