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4 August

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Marist Bulletin - Number 299


Interview with the architect Joan Puig-Pey author of the “Master Plan for the Hermitage”

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On the 2nd February, the feast of the presentation of the Lord in the temple and the purification of Mary, popularly called “Candlemas”, the architects responsible for the Master Plan for the renovation of the Hermitage, Joan Puig-Pey and Jaume Pujol, with Elsa Pereira, a Portuguese architect who works with them, were present in Rome. Their aim was to present to the General Council the architectural dossier produced in their office in Barcelona. They have known each other since school and have shared an office and work since 1983.
After their presentation to the General Council, the three architects, acceding to the requests of the brothers of the community of the General Administration, kindly agreed to share once more their studies and their propositions.
The model, in which one could see the changes to the property and the constructions adjacent to the house built by Champagnat needed to turn this into a Marist sanctuary, aroused great interest. The visualisation of the model was complemented by the presentation of the plans that define the spaces and the functions of the house. At the end of this presentation we were able to have the following conversation with them.

AMEstaún. Who is Joan Puig-Pey?
A Catalonian of the world. Fifty years of age. An architect since 1983. Married to Dolors. Three daughters and one son. Active and restless. A marathon runner. God? Compassion and mercy are incarnate in the face of my God. Like Elijah, I find him in the gentle breeze more than in a storm. I live and celebrate this experience in my small community. I have known Champagnat through his work and personally through Marist Brothers with whom I have shared a great deal. I seek beauty in what is hidden, in the soul of people and in little things. However, a beautiful face remains indispensable, and very enjoyable! I love my profession. I serve society through it. Last Christmas, some client-friends wrote to me in a book: “Thank you because with your work and your witness you have changed our lives.”

You have just presented to us the “Master Plan” of the dossier that the General Council and the Province of L’Hermitage are proposing to realise in the property and the house where the remains of Saint Marcellin are kept. You have run a good marathon in order to make this Master Plan a reality!
I certainly agree! I have worked on it since 2004. Everything started following the merger of the former Province of Catalonia with the two Provinces of France which has resulted in the current Province of L’Hermitage. The first Council started to perceive a global plan for the Marist places of origin: Notre Dame de l’Hermitage, La Valla, le Rosey-Marlhes and Maisonnettes. They consulted me and I was hooked. During the summer of 2005 I presented a draft. The Master Plan presented today corresponds to the first of the places, Notre Dame de l’Hermitage.

What is a Master Plan for an architect?
I will give you the theory: It is a basic instrument for prescribing and planning. It is concretised in a document. In our case a thick dossier that is confined to a piece of territory of the municipality of Saint-Chamond, within the Parc Naturel du Pilat, and the group of buildings where Notre Dame de l’Hermitage is found. Its developmental process is rigorous: studying what exists; putting ideas into order; establishing criteria and master lines of planning, in accord with a programme of needs; establishing a precise calendar and giving an approximate budget. A good Master Plan optimises many means. For an architect, it is an indispensable instrument for the type of planning wanted at the Hermitage.

What are the characteristics of this Master Plan of the Hermitage?
The characteristics were studied jointly with an International Commission of brothers created with this aim in mind in 2003-2005. Once the Commission defined the programme, (the terms of reference) the Plan established seven objectives:
Firstly: To rediscover the historical memory of the places. Secondly: To organise the functions in accord with the needs of the resident community, that of the guests and that of the day visitors. Thirdly: To arrange zones for the community that are intimate, tranquil and well oriented. Fourthly: To transform the “Champagnat itinerary” on the first floor of the historical building into a space of great spiritual quality. Fifthly: To rationalise movement within the buildings and to suppress architectural barriers. Sixthly: To centralise services and infrastructures (kitchens, storerooms, heating, laundry, workshops …). Seventhly: To stabilise foundations and walls, and to endow the whole project with a degree of comfort corresponding to our time and sensitivity, in an aesthetic line of elegance and sobriety.
The Plan determines some criteria to be followed, at the level of the pilot study. Functional criteria of security, aesthetics and of economic rationality in terms of solutions and the choice of materials. Certainly a mixture of projects complicated to develop, which requires a lot of work.

And what perspectives are envisaged for the realisation of these possible projects?
Open and illuminated perspectives! I see the firm will to see them through to their end. Besides, through what I know, this reform comes within a future project for the Institute that is a lot more important and ambitious, the Hermitage Project. As a lay Marist I feel very happy to be participating in it. A project that will allow, in the Motherhouse, a new experience of community life in our Province. But as a professional and a technician, I also see a clear future, for if I really feel the enormous responsibility of a great architectural project, I note the joy and the energy that seizes all those who are concerned.

When are they going to start the definitive planning?
We have already started. The whole project has been divided into four projects that are independent but complementary: The Main or Historical Building, built in part by Champagnat himself and that originates from 1825. “Le Rocher”, the former scholasticate of 1898. The eclectic group of constructions of the “Cèdre”, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And the exterior spaces.
That is to say that we are already working!

At Barcelona?
In our study office in Barcelona, a team is developing the base projects (project, building permit). In parallel I have formed another team, technicians, all French, with architects, engineers and economists (the equivalent to our architect-aid), technicians for the organisation and construction, for security and for health and hygiene, and for inspections with the Bureau Veritas. A large team, in accord with French legislation. Independent technicians, the majority from Lyons, for whom I will be the visible head. I have assumed, with respect but also with a profound joy, that for some years I will travel frequently as my life will be shared between the two capitals.

In the presentation of the Master Plan we understood that you highlighted a series of values that, as an architect, grab your attention in this house, in this property and in tis environment. Can you talk about these values?
As an architect, the first thing that I must recognise is that the Hermitage, for my client, has the special value of being the starting point of its foundation, its cradle. It is part of its material and spiritual patrimony. In order to understand my client, I must discover what the place, the building has that is special.
Secondly, already in tangible terms, I am accentuating its particular location, in the middle of an environment at a very human level, with elements of great natural and landscape value.
Thirdly, I observe that the oldest buildings present a very elementary architectural composition. On the other hand, its volume, of a certain value, is situated off-centre in relation to the little valley, near the right bank of the Gier. This asymmetric disposition gives energy and lightness to the whole project, since it distances it from classical canons of order. The fact of not obeying any internal order of composition deprives it of some harmony, but also prevents the rigidity that comes from following the axes of symmetry, the hierarchies of relationship and the academic proportions between emptiness and fullness. At the time of my intervention, I felt freer to do and undo, to open and to close. I can “transgress” and easily approach the principles of composition, for example, of the cubist painting of the early years of the twentieth century. Especially when it comes to the facades of the historical building. Everything depends on how far the level of modernity will go.
The “Rocher”, on the contrary, is more academic. This can be very well seen from the far end of the football field, on the pathway near the river.
Fourthly, my attention is attracted by the topography that is worked and manipulated, with the buildings crystallised with the sculptured Rock, emerging from the soil like a gigantic crystal mineral.
I also highlight, echoing the film of the Great Carthusian Monastery “The Great Silence”, the quietness of the night, broken only by the murmur of the water…
Everything brings me, bit by bit, to discover an identity. A unique-architecture-for-a-unique-place.

An ideal Hermitage!
Absolutely. A very real Hermitage! But veiled. If I recover certain powerful images from the whole of the end of the nineteenth century, purifying the superfluous additions and accentuating the resistances, I am going to facilitate an encounter.

With what, with whom?
Brother Seán, Superior General, never tires of repeating: “We have to reclaim the spirit of the Hermitage.” For me, as an architect, this is a metaphysical request! But I assume the challenge: in following the Master Plan I mark, in its annex of ideological contents, that the one who enters this environment today with a certain sensitivity can encounter the first architect of the Hermitage, Marcellin. But today, a great deal of sensitivity and observation is necessary. It is difficult to perceive, because history and usage have hidden and transformed this fact a great deal. All the team is working so that, in this place, it is possible to rediscover the Building, and with it, its Author. The work of his hands, of his courage, of a vision, of a madness, of his spirit. To see the stone cut, fashioned and changed into a building where the first stages, the first Councils were experienced, where Marcellin himself lived and died. This is my response to Brother Seán: “Brother, Today there is Life: Feeling welcomed, “living” at the Hermitage, this will be the encounter with Life, Marcellin himself.” This needs to remain very clear: I am not going to make an architecture of cardboard, pretty but empty, without spirit. Nor a museum. In this twenty-first century, if you carry Marcellin in your heart, you will find him in His house. Simply, I am going to help you by providing the means…

From a landscape, ecological point of view, what would you note in the Hermitage?
The Hermitage, by its situation within a small valley, does not shine out particularly, neither by its panorama nor by vast perspectives. This, which is a handicap from a commercial point of view, in our case is an added value. Our society today is very sensitive to nature. Here there is a course of living water in the middle of the property; a rock opposite; a vegetable garden that is always used; a wood close at hand; absence of noise… Message without words that attract our attention in contrast for us who come from the city. When you enter the ambiance of the Hermitage you discover the lost garden.

How does an architect feel when he enters the Hermitage?
I distinguish between the place and the house. I have already spoken about the place. Concerning the house, to enter it produces a sensation of chaos. It is very confusing. There is a reason: the Hermitage is an ensemble of constructions that increased and adapted to the needs as they arose, without any global criteria. Do we need rooms? We build rooms. Do we need a chapel? We build a chapel. A kitchen? And thus this happens: we demolish this and we build that, thus increasing and modifying according to the space that is available. Without a vision of the whole project, the result is difficult to understand. And architectural barriers appear, small stairways everywhere because the levels do not coincide. There are stairways that only go halfway. Why don’t they continue to the ground floor, you ask yourself? In the middle of all of that, however, you discover the stone and the architecture in wood, half hidden. I say to myself: there is the authenticity, an aesthetic value to be highlighted if possible.

And the aesthetics appear! How does aesthetic sensitivity vibrate in a historical context?
For me, the reading of the written history in the stones, in the wood, generates in man a profound emotion. Since it enters in resonance with his own history and his culture. I have said for a long time at Les Avellanes: it is not the stones that speak, it is the heart that speaks. It is my eyes that write the history. That is why it is good to be aware that an old stone or a building called historical, in themselves, have no value. My sensitivity to an “historical context”, before an object, as simple as it is, resonates when I can recognise the trace of the intelligence and of the artistic expression of the one who worked it. In them I discover myself.

In the concrete case of the Hermitage, how does your sensitivity resonate?
Sensitivity resonates before beauty. An object, as simple as it is, which only has what is necessary to accomplish its function, is beautiful. Look, for example, at the stone stairway near the large chapel. How beautiful! And it has nothing! Only some rough steps in cut stone… This stairway is from 1835, that is to say that it was built during the life of Marcellin! When he and his collaborators started the constructions that we can still see today, they were not seeking aesthetic aims. They resolved functional problems with the means of the time and with the small financial resources at their disposal, without added values of ornamentation or of decoration. Functional construction one hundred percent! Postulates that the architectural vanguards of the modern movement in Europe in the thirties of the twentieth century would claim.
They were practical. If in the woods there were trees eight metres high, then beams eight metres in length were cut and built. And the building would not be any bigger and in this space there would be a hall, a corridor and rooms, etc.
The challenge for us as technicians today undertaking a work of rehabilitation and restoration in these contexts is to resolve the new needs with sensitivity, with the materials and techniques of today, without betraying its identity. Some will allow reconversion; others will not and should be demolished.

Some examples?
1. At the Hermitage – everyone says – the discord produced by the facades of the historical building, their harsh and rough texture, their grey colour. At that time, it was the best solution. Today, it is no longer so. On the contrary, beside this we have the “Rocher” which is an elegant and stylised building. It should be worked on by seeking a unity and a visual harmony for the texture and the colour.
2. The ensemble of the small buildings of the “Cèdre” contributes nothing to the understanding of the whole project. My feelings and my sensitivity give me the intuition that, if we highlight the two historical buildings, that will imply by the same fact the radical transformation of these small buildings of the “Cèdre”.
3. The central courtyard. Today, this is a sordid space that is not very welcoming at all. My proposition is to cover it at a considerable height, with a solid roofing that allows the filtered passage of daylight. A space that, - my sensitivity tells me – can acquire a high architectonic quality.
4. The spaces known as the “Bedroom of Father Champagnat”. They were remodelled not so long ago. It is a place that pleases hardly anybody. It is a point to be studied, to be discussed and to be seriously worked.
5. The row of “toilets” situated on the main façade. Today, they are of no use. Without comment.
There are still a lot of other things…

And what does the architect Puig-Pey think he will offer the Marists of the future who come to the Hermitage?
I am going to tell you what I intend doing; in a short while, I will show you the precise plans. I am going to do my best to develop the project of their house, so that they find THEIR place. A house that fulfils their needs, physical, intellectual and spiritual. How can I do this? By using all my ability as an architect, all my knowledge and the help of all my collaborators. The method? Firstly, listening to and understanding the needs; then designing. After, in the “work” phase, directing with humanity and firmness, two things that are perfectly compatible. And especially, as far as possible, communicating my enthusiasm to my collaborators, to discover together the essential aspects of the house. “This is what you can only see well with the heart.”

Would Marcellin Champagnat be a good client for an architect?
He would be a demanding client, not easy. He would note very precisely the work to be done and he would demand from me a high degree of competence. But at the same time, he would prove to be very understanding.

From a spiritual point of view he used to say: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the workers labour…”
Exactly, that is it, Psalm 127…

You remember it perfectly!
Yes, yes. I have this Psalm in my office: If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the architects labour. I have it as my point of reference: In times of doubt, and there are quite a lot of them, in times of uncertainty, these words invite me to raise my eyes and persuade me that I am not alone, that there is someone else. Being able to do this act of humility humanises me. Every architect is tempted to believe he is divine. And do you know what I have discovered? Who is this Lord? My team, my collaborators. The architectonic work bears the seal and the imprint of the architect, but the work is work of a team. It is in this sense that I interpret the words: If the Lord does not build the house; your ideas, your estimation, your talent, with the setbacks that occur, your impetus and your enthusiasm and the fire in your heart… building a house is a work of a group. I believe that for Champagnat it was very clear. It was because of this that each morning, the brothers started the work of building by reciting this psalm. Logical!

Joan, may Marcellin continue to be present in your work teams, with you and with your collaborators, so that you will be able to offer us a Hermitage, a sanctuary where the architecture is at the service of Marist spirituality. Thank you for your contribution and your responses.

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