In its new forms, ‘classical’-style architecture is the butt of harsh criticism. This slant comes down to misrepresentation and summing up this architecture to its worst expression. In Val d’Europe, on the outskirt of Disneyland Paris, the quality of execution is nevertheless admirable. Is this a matter of style or a commitment to certain values? Interview with Bernard Durand-Rival, Senior Manager in Architecture-Urbanism for Real Estate Development at Euro Disney.
L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui: Val d’Europe is a government‑led initiative. Yet the Walt Disney Company wanted to have a say in the area’s urban planning and construction. Why is that?
Bernard Durand‑Rival: In order to explain this particularity, one needs to briefly go back to the history of the Walt Disney Company’s theme parks. The first one was built in California, in the middle of orange groves. Suburbs developed around it, together with shopping centres, motels, detached houses… in short, a suburbia of dubious quality. The park was stifled by this environment and couldn’t expand. It could only renew itself from the inside. In reaction to this, the parks built in Florida later on are part of a vast natural space that is completely devoided of urban scale. Marne-la-Vallée had to provide, in view of its predecessors, the opportunity of a new strategy. In addition to the park being a touristic and recreational destination, the Walt Disney Company wanted to actively participate in the development of an urban destination. Consequently, building yet another suburb around a tourist destination had to be avoided, and instead an area with a truly urban ambiance and a coherent architecture had to be developed, somewhere pleasant to live and work. In order to do this, we wanted to breathe in the spirit of European cities, notably in the layout of public roads and of contiguous houses.Our wish was thus to structure roads and public squares but also to rediscover former hierarchies between avenues, streets, promenades and paths.
AA: What is the architectural approach adapted to this urban planning ambition? Why draw on the notion of ‘style’ for this project?
BDR: We wished to avoid fashionable effects, to achieve durability in quality, and a majestic aspect that lasts. The point was also to avoid an overly heterogeneous architecture and instead, to favour a coherence of the whole, imbued with diversity. In other words, it’s the decision to create an architecture that is long-lasting. We nevertheless had to feel our way around our approach of this notion of style. We had a real crucible of forms to choose from. However, the neo-classical vocabulary stood out in our eyes because it carries within itself a simple geometry, understandable by all. It evokes both Greek temples and primitive huts. It’s a universal language you find in all great cities, from Saint Petersburg to Washington, from London to Paris. Finally, we’re implementing the idea of a ‘story’, so that our approach, far from being a passing fancy, is a plausible urban narrative.
AA: Would you call this architecture a pastiche?
BDR: To me, a pastiche is a caricature and we wished for the exact opposite. We wanted to use stylistic references appropriately. When we want to evoke a style, we want to do so in the best possible way. However, ornamentation and relief are expensive. Conscious of the economy of the project, we propose to focus spending on what is located at eye level: majestic ground floors, generous, well-designed entrances and halls… all also requiring some fake features. But this is quality fake, and there are plenty of examples of that in the history of architecture.
AA: The architecture of the Val d’Europe, compared with the so‑called ‘classical’ real estate projects developed in the nearby cities, is particularly immaculate. How would you explain this difference?
BDR: When you aim to create stylistic consistency, you need to work out how to respect composition rules as much as possible. In addition, orna-mentation in classical architecture, contrary to what most people think, often has a function. A cornice or a pediment, for instance, are used to protect façades. In the end, they’re very useful anti-ageing devices, but they need to be well designed and manufactured properly. The reason we’ve achieved a certain quality of execution in Val d’Europe, is that we’ve been present throughout the process, ever since the competition. Right from the start we gave technical specifications about the implementation of detail. Furthermore, there is a set of mutually accepted rules between developers and ourselves. Finally, the whole project is subject to a pre-licence enabling all parties involved in Val d’Europe to comment on the project before submitting it for planning permission. At each stage of the process, be it the design or the Market Survey draft, we have a period of two weeks to validate drawings or written documentation. During that time, we carefully check that what we previously validated is going to be executed to perfection.
AA: Is ornamentation not more costly?
BDR: You’re asking an architect. A long time ago, I designed a church, rue de la Roquette, in Paris. I had envisioned a Botta-style building in stamped concrete. The contractor’s view was that I was 50% over budget. Working towards unusual and very detailed proposals generally scares people off. And so companies do everything they can to avoid overspending, or claim that they’re heading for problems. Thus it’s important to establish a dialogue in order not to stall a project, while maintaining a certain level or quality. But this dialogue requires that we or the architects should possess a certain knowledge. We cannot but deplore the fact that construction companies have fewer and fewer qualified artisans. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where we have to train the labour force in order to obtain beautifully executed details.
This article by Jean-Philippe Hugron has been previously published on AA’s 429th issue –Ornaments, icons and symbols – released in March 2019. Buy your copy on our online shop.