A Building for Luxembourg

Ingeborg Flagge (IF) Was the Luxembourg Pavilion for the Expo 2010
in Shanghai commissioned through a competition or directly?

François Valentiny (FV) There was a competition in 2007 that our
studio won. Forty international practices took part.

 

IF What aspirations did the client formulate as a basis for the design,
regarding content and program?

FV Obviously the brief defined a spatial program, of which, strangely
enough, the key element was the restaurant. Originally, displays of the
steel industry, the banks and the Luxembourgian satellite company
were planned for the exhibition areas. However, that division later
turned out to have been misguided—to put it crudely.

IF Was the competition based on a definition of how Luxembourg sees
itself as a democratic state, on what values or images should be of
significance in a national pavilion?

FV No, in terms of content there were no parameters as to how Luxembourg
should present itself in its Shanghai pavilion. The board, which
is the client for the building and which makes all of the decisions—the
chamber of commerce, the big sponsors including Arcelor Mittal, SES,
Cargolux, and ultimately the government—was mostly concerned with
its functional performance. There was no content-driven philosophy.
However, the Expo commissioner Robert Goebbels is ultimately responsible
for the building, its development, and content, so many matters
were spontaneously addressed together with him ad hoc on site.

IF Isn’t such an approach—tentatively formulated—a sign of poverty?
After all, an Expo is not just about economy; it is also about ideas,

symbols, and images that should give visitors to the pavilion an impression
of Luxembourg.

FV That’s true. However, these days politicians find it harder than ever
to formulate it as such. Sometimes it’s up to the architect to do that,
for example the way that Günter Behnisch did in 1972 with the design
of the Olympic tents in Munich, or as Axel Schultes did with the Bundeskanzleramt
in Berlin. I knew while we were working on the pavilion
that we would have to deliver more than just functional architecture.

IF Has Luxembourg always been involved since the first World Fairs in
the nineteenth century?

FV Yes. Parallel to the development of our pavilion, the Musée National
d’Histoire et d’Art has been compiling a history of Luxembourg’s
contributions to the various World Fairs. However, one cannot speak
of a consistent tendency as far as architecture is concerned. The pavilions
were always different. At 3,000 square meters, ours is certainly
the second largest in the history of Luxembourg’s participation
in World Fairs.
I think that the attraction of taking part in a World Fair for all countries
is that they all start from the same line. That is by all means comparable
with the Olympic Games, however, those involved require a certain
level to qualify. Only at the Olympia there are elimination contests
before the final round and hat is not the case at an Expo. It is a stage
on which each participant has the same chance at creative fantasy.

IF What do you think motivated Luxembourg to take part in this Expo
in Shanghai?

FV I’d have to be able to see into the minds of the politicians to be able

 to answer that truthfully. I am not able to do that. However, I do know
that Jean-Claude Juncker, one of Luxembourg’s few farsighted politicians,
made the decision that the country should take part in Shanghai.
It is not only about an important market at which to sell products,
which Luxembourg, however, doesn’t have. China is a gigantic empire
that will be defining politics for the rest of the world in the near future.
Luxembourg’s motivation was to be able to participate on a political
level in a world in which China will be the leading power. This attitude
is shared by many these days and was not only a solitary decision by
Juncker.

IF Were you familiar with Asia or China when you were commissioned
with the pavilion?

FV No, I had never before been to Asia. My first trip to Shanghai was
a journey into the unknown. However, to my surprise I didn’t feel out
of place there. The China that I knew from films, literature, art, and
politics was never a foreign world to me, nor was it when I first visited.
It was different but not foreign. It might sound strange but in my eyes
China is still a farming country with a very pragmatic way of thinking.
That is also applicable to Luxembourg—obviously despite all of the differences.
Maybe that explains why I didn’t feel like a foreigner.
A further fact is that values in both countries are primarily defined by
money. So in order to understand their politics and to find one’s bearings,
there’s no need to go on sociocultural diversions.

IF Did you view the competition area in Shanghai before tackling the
competition? Or did you limit it to viewing the plans?

FV No, I didn’t go to Shanghai to look at the competition area. I always
try to avoid that. A concrete situation limits me in my creativity;

it takesme off track and paralyzes my spontaneity. If I had seen Shanghai
first, I never would have done this design. I need a certain naivety in
my approach in order to be able to find a solution. Too many concrete
impressions of a place are more likely to hinder me than to stimulate
me.

IF Apart from the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn you’re the first to
admit that. All architects that I question on this matter time and time
again swear to have repeatedly visited a future building site. However,
Fehn explained to me in an interview that he felt so stinted by the
concrete magic of a place that he often couldn’t think of a solution. Or
the present state of the place depressed him so much that he had to
struggle against it. And that is obstructive for a good design.

FV I can well understand that attitude.

IF Had Studio Hermann and Valentiny ever done designs for World
Fairs or Expo pavilions before? Are there experiences that you could
fall back on?

FV Yes, in the last thirty years of our studio, we’ve done six designs
for Luxembourg and Austria. However, we never won. It was about
time for it to happen.

IF A pavilion for a World Fair is almost always a temporary structure.
How does an architect deal with that when designing?

FV I think that one doesn’t focus too much on the fact that the building
will be demolished within six months. I also have experience in stage
design and I was never worried that it was only destined for one, two,
or ten performances. In my opinion, the permanent, the perpetual in

architecture is hopelessly overrated. One needs an igniting idea for both

that carries it and is convincing. As far as I’m concerned the effort
is the same, whether a structure remains standing for a long or short
period. Of course it does hurt to see a building, into which so much
concentration and enthusiasm has flowed, demolished; particularly
since it embodied the land that had it erected for a long period.

IF But what exactly is this idea of the built self-representation of a
country? What does it stand for or rather what can it stand for?

FV That is a difficult subject. Basically, it’s a matter of finding a convincing
architecture that visibly presents a country without a label and
without a flag, making it unmistakable. Finding a “talking” architecture
is a task that it almost impossible these days. It would be similarly
impossible to create a building with elements of a “national architecture.”
As is well known, these don’t exist anymore; globalization
means uniformity, we may not like it but we can’t stop it. It would be
more natural to expose the character of a country as Peter Zumthor
managed to do with his Swiss Pavilion for the Expo 2000 in Hanover
with a building made of roughly cut and stacked wooden planks.

IF How did your design concretely come to be as it is? What association
did you have that culminated in this form?

FV The whole thing was a long process in which ideas merged with
coincidences. At first, our idea was to double the size of the site for
the Luxembourg pavilion by integrating the small square on which it
is situated. A series of stairs would then have connected the pavilion
with the square, thus giving prominence to our building. However, it
then emerged that the square was to be built upon and our idea collapsed.

Conversations with friends had also made it clear that such a pavilion
would not be very attractive and it would not be a magnet for attention.
I then pondered upon what Luxembourg actually stands for apart
from its banks, wherein lies its identity. The answer that I discovered
for myself was not very exciting: everyone here lives in small houses
with steep roofs; there’s a hedge around each house. In contrast to
Italy, where one welcomes guests by inviting them to a restaurant, in
Luxembourg one receives them in one’s own four walls. Everything
happens at home. I then tried to translate this little house, which is so
typical for us and which we all love, into a design. However I changed
the shape, scale, and materials to such an extent that something new
and different emerged, that however signaled something familiar. Then
came the explanation from Georges Santer, who lived in China as an
ambassador for many years, that Luxembourg is pronounced “lùsèn
bâo” in Chinese. The first part of the word means “forest” and the
second part means “fortress”; fortress in the forest. It is a complete
coincidence that that concurs with a description of Luxembourg from
the Napoleonic era, when it was called a “departement des fôrets”
and was one of Europe’s largest fortresses. This coincidence came in
very handy for us. The amount of forest in Luxembourg is still comparable
to that time and our fortress is a daily experience.

IF The pavilion is relatively small, however it appears monumental as
a result of it closed composition and the rusted Cor-Ten steel material.
Was that intentional?

FV Yes and no. After I had shelved the first design, I had a further conversation
with my friend Marc Solvi, whose company has been doing
business in China for years. He said that I need to stop trying to teach
the Chinese something or to prove something to them through a new
design. He argued that the strength of Luxembourg is its small size.

I should follow the principle that “small is beautiful too.” That would
be new for the Chinese. Thus was created the second design, with
which we won the first prize.

IF Monumentality is something that often appears in the architecture
of your studio and in your art. What fascinates you about it?

FV Monumentality doesn’t leave an aftertaste for me as it does for
others. The pavilion seems large, almost brutal as a result of its materiality
and through its closed composition with few openings. We
counteract that with nature or rather with plants; delicate green and
swaying grasses. We thus emphasize the large size while also playing
with it. I enjoy this kind of approach.

IF How did the decision to choose self-rusting Cor-Ten steel as the
material for the pavilion come about?

FV I wanted a material that emphasized the monolithic about the design.
The material was further intended to offset it from the other pavilions.
One of the sponsors is also the steel company Arcelor-Mittal
and I was looking for a material that characterized its home country. As
I said earlier, Luxembourg is still a farming country so a rusty material
is appropriate to its image. Then there were also totally practical facts.
It had to be a material that could be used for walls and floors and it
was important that it didn’t show signs of wear and tear after many
weeks and months despite the expected huge number of visitors to
the building. Cor-Ten steel was able to deliver all of that. If the building
were to remain for a longer period of time, I would probably have built
it in concrete. But a building for six months had to be easy to assemble
and remove quickly.

IF Why was that necessary?

FV Concrete takes considerably more constructive effort than Cor-Ten
steel. That would have cost more and would have taken longer.

IF Do you think that the Chinese will understand the design or rather
the building?

FV I think most likely not. Cor-Ten steel is fairly unknown in China. I
don’t know if they will appreciate the beauty of the rusting material
and its implications. But in my opinion one does not have to understand
everything that one likes. A certain inexplicable secret gives
things an aura. The unknown is usually more attractive than the familiar,
at least to me.

IF Is that not a contradiction to your formerly expressed opinion that
the Chinese think in images and stories and will thus instinctively understand
the pavilion?

FV Luxembourg decided to take the gilded statue of a “Greek goddess,”
the Gëlle Fra, which now stands in the capital city and is one
its most photographed attractions, to China and to have it erected in
front of the pavilion. The golden lady symbolizes the freedom and resistance
of its citizens to Luxembourg. It was only erected after the
First World War, in honor of Luxembourg’s volunteers who fought on
the side of the Allies. The statue, which was partly destroyed in 1940,
was only rediscovered in 1980 and has since become a charming visitor
attraction like the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. She will also be
displayed in Shanghai. The interesting contrast between golden statue
and rusty pavilion will give the situation a moment of surprise and effect
that will surely capture the Chinese.

IF What is the reaction to your pavilion in Luxembourg?

FV I’m surprised at how present it is everywhere, in advertising and
on objects in department stores. Luxembourg’s postal service also issued
a stamp with a picture of the pavilion. There appears to be much
interest in the pavilion and the building appears to be more important
than the exhibition inside. Without wanting to overrate it, we seem to
have hit a nerve with this design. Many people can identify with it.

IF But that’s the best thing that can happen to a design. It is recognized
to be the built expression of a country and people react positively
to it.

FV It would seem so. One must know that Luxembourg does not
have an independent culture nor its own artistic tradition. We never
had famous poets or musicians. All the great artists were only passing
through. In its history, Luxembourg was always part of a greater whole
and was never independent. Maybe the pavilion is—in all modesty—a
beginning of Luxembourgian identity. Maybe our cultural vacuum will
begin to change with it.

IF Is this a yearned for reaction or the beginning of a real development?

FV I can’t say that for certain, I’m no psychologist. But if I were to
assess the different reactions, a process of identity-finding is really
taking place. And I think that’s good.

IF Will this also bring about a debate in the political arena?

FV No, I don’t think so. That would be overrating the whole thing.

IF Would you build this pavilion again today, two years later and with
knowledge of Shanghai and China?

FV Yes, to me it is the only right pavilion for Luxembourg. As I already
said, if I had been familiar with Shanghai beforehand, I would never
have produced this design. However, without being influenced by prior
knowledge of the real situation, the idea for the pavilion developed
and emerged out of a fundus, that I, the architect, carry within; has to
carry within if he is creative. One of my teachers once said to me that
that fundus develops until around the age of thirty. One lives off it for
the rest of one’s life. One will never think anything that one has not
thought before the age of thirty.

IF What will happen to the Luxembourg pavilion after the Expo? Will it
be dismantled and taken back to Luxembourg?

FV No, I don’t think so. It will probably say in China and the material
will be sold there. But that isn’t certain yet.

IF If you were to compare the Luxembourg pavilion with those of other
countries, what makes it stand out?

FV Many of the other pavilions touch me greatly. They are innovative
and exciting. But ours is certainly the most sculptural of all; it is almost
like a walk-in sculpture. The other pavilions stand on the ground while
ours literally grows out of the earth. The other buildings consist of different
parts and materials while ours appears seamless.

“Nulla dies sine linea„