Calculations, numbers, standards… According to Philippe Burguet and David Hamerman, the art of building is increasingly reserved to experts. When they established the Festival of cabins in 2016, the duo hoped to return to the sensitive and humanistic fundamentals of architecture and move away from a practice that has become too generic. Philippe Burguet, director of La Soierie social and cultural centre, in Faverges, and David Hamerman, architect and co-founder of Hamerman Rouby Architectes (in Montpellier), tell the story of the Festival of cabins in this interview.
Interview conducted by Jean-Philippe Hugron
L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui: How was the Festival of cabins created?
Philippe Burguet: The starting point of the event was an association, La Soierie, which develops projects involving performing arts. The association combines cultural and social aspects into all its activities. For instance, we are committed to providing French language classes for immigrants recently settled in the region. And we were looking to develop a new project together with the municipalities community, a project that would engage the entire region of Lake Annecy Springs, a valley surrounded by mountains. We wanted to launch an initiative that could bring all the people together for an event.
David Hamerman: I am an architect and teacher based in Montpellier and I taught Philippe’s son. It was Philippe who invited me to discover this valley with a new eye. I soon began to notice how all the local infrastructure, public space, commercial areas, everything was dominated by usage. In natural environments such as this one, large and small real estate development projects have a deeply detrimental impact on the territory’s image and substance. This is not a situation exclusive to Faverges; it is also the case in many other rural districts across France. And so, given these alarming circumstances, I felt it was essential to help the locals, elected o cials and technicians relate to the sensitive dimension of architecture. So the starting point of the festival was this desire to restore the balance between reason and the senses when it came to raising constructions.
AA: Why ‘cabins’?
PB: Mainly because cabins are simple constructions, with very few enforceable standards. As such, cabins could be legally regarded as works of art, which are much less regulated.
DH: To make architecture the heart of the debates within the district, we also felt it was important to return to the fundamentals: the idea of shelter. Cabins not only have a primitive appearance, they also have this unreal quality associated with childhood, love and the innocence of ‘spontaneous making’.
AA: Why impose the use of a single material: wood?
DH: The festival has some rules — the cost, €1,500 maximum; the size, the structure’s footprint must be under 6 sqm; and the use of a single material, which builders should understand to truly grasp all of its potential. The simplicity of the construction gives participants the freedom to question fundamental issues such as space, light, in and outside, the relation with the earth and the sky… About architecture and landscape, generally speaking. It is also a way for us to comment on the situation: how could we not speak out against the absence of timber constructions in Haute-Savoie? I am not a vocal advocate of timber, but architecture should proceed from context. Besides, promoting the use of wood in construction is an excellent way to help develop local production, and it is also a way to encourage practices, construction methods, project approaches that are rooted in the natural and human environment. Too long has this region su ered the blight of generic architecture.
AA: There is no programme… no function for these cabins. Why?
DH: The cabins are the programme! In today’s context, uses are screens that conceal mediocrity. It was a deliberate choice not to emphasise uses, because we wanted this festival to be about reconsidering how we build in a given environment. Architecture is space, not planes and uses.
PB: The fact that there is no programme also gives architects, the people from the valley and the public who come to experience these designs the freedom to look for, and sometimes nd, purpose in them. Some of them have been used to hold town councils, shing club meetings, or even romantic trysts. In a way, people have made the festival their own. They have also processed the idea of contextualisation — in other words, they understand how every construction reveals a landscape that they perhaps no longer saw. These cabins are the result of the pursuit of simplicity, but also of a candid and open interrogation.
AA: Has the festival changed the perception of the architect’s job? To what extent would you say you achieved your goal in that regard?
PB: The festival has undeniably had a signi cant impact. Some local residents wanted to take one of the cabins home with them before it was dismantled, others wanted to ask an architect if they could reproduce the same structure in their garden and some even went so far as to copy or reinterpret the designs they saw and liked, sometimes just to build a simple chicken coop! But there is another positive aspecthere: the very close bond formed with the architects at the start of each edition. Like so many of us, I feel there should be less distance between the public and architecture. Which is why I am so happy to see it abolished while the cabins are being built. Curious visitors often turn up tosee how the architects are going about raising their structures… and sometimes end up witnessing their repeated failed attempts! I am also happy to see how involved they are. For instance, we have a local logger, Joris, who joins us to help during the construction phase. So in that moment, there is real solidarity and people are brought together by architecture.
DH: The district’s population understand what we are trying to do, especially since we are using architecture as a means to underscore the sensitive relationship between nature and culture, between agriculture and silviculture lands. We are all able to appreciate how much architecture can contribute to bring value to a territory, so long as it is done in a respectful manner. Building is not a con ictual practice.
AA: How are you going about raising local authorities’ awareness?
DH: I am not trying to blame local authorities. Their real problem is their lack of resources and culture on architecture and landscape. When it comes to solving technical problems, they know who to turn to. But when we start talking about the sensitive dimension of things, they’re at a loss. In a context where technicians are absorbing everything today in France, we are missing a sort of intermediate power. I could also mention the names of some of my colleagues and criticise them. I am not in agreement with everyone in the profession: too many architects prefer to focus on the business rather than the projects. They give in to requests that are absurd. On the many problems that should be reconsidered from the perspective of architecture and landscape, we need to go back to the concept of ‘process’. When we talk about land planning, many elected o cials prefer to enlist the help of technical consultants o ering generic, decontextualised solutions. Flavourless ‘products’ that have a catastrophic impact on the territory. The whole idea of this festival is to reconnect architecture with its context. We like to say that it is a festival of architecture and landscape. Obviously, it is about raising awareness, but beyond that, it is also about preserving rural environments, learning to acknowledge the context. Through these projects that we choose with a jury of professionals, we are not only trying to reveal new talents, but also to inspire architects to have respect for the site and to be as involved as possible in the “making” of architecture.
AA: What have you learnt from this festival? How do you see things going ahead?
DH: Architecture is a regulated art. Building cabins requires no authorisation and no speci c knowledge. Hoping to establish a exible relationship with regulations, the festival wanted to free architecture from its constraints in order to recreate the bond with context and landscape, which has been lost for many decades. It also aimed to bring out very diverse solutions, inspiring as many di erent ways of inhabiting a place. Today, the people of Faverges understand that a cabin could be roo ess. Another strength of the festival is honesty. We invent nothing. We simply try to go back to the fundamentals. The festival turns the focus of architecture back on the obvious and promises a return to a candid dimension in construction.
PB: The festival talks about architecture and makes it into a smart handiwork that anyone can relate to. It is also taking all the e ort and handwork and expressing that in a way that is visible. It is a chance to try things, come up with ideas, experiment and most importantly learn from each other. The competition is increasingly popular abroad and alongside French teams we have architects from Italy, Spain, Russia and Japan joining us to share their contributions. This festival is a deeply humanistic event. And it must continue to be one in the future.