Frugal construction, materials and ways

Frugal architecture: 20 inspiring examples from the Grand Est

Jean-Claude Bignon, September 2021


An architect and technologist, Jean-Claude Bignon is a professor emeritus at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Nancy (ENSAN) and an honorary graduate of the École nationale supérieure des technologies et industries du bois (ENSTIB - University of Lorraine). In partnership with ENSTIB, he was co-founder of the first DESS, now a Master’s degree, open in France to young architects and engineers, devoted to wood materials and their use in architecture and construction. A researcher at the Centre de recherche en architecture et ingénierie (CRAI) within the UMR MAP (CNRS-MCC), Jean-Claude Bignon is the author of more than 200 articles, publications and conferences, for which he was awarded the silver medal of the Académie d’architecture in 2015 and the « tributes » of the International Wood Construction Forum. For the « Mouvement pour une frugalité heureuse et créative », he offers his expertise on the history and philosophy of frugal construction.

In the mid-1960s, an exhibition entitled « Architecture without architects », curated by the architect Bernard Rudofsky (1905-1988), cast doubt on the certainties of modern architecture, the industrialisation of building and « 20th century materials ». The result of a long journey of exploration of the world’s habitats, the exhibition was first presented at the MOMA in New York in 1964/65. This abundantly illustrated account is first and foremost a critique of the history of architecture, which was then exclusively interested in « the nobility of architecture », but « never condescended to tell us about the houses of lesser people  »1. It is also a critique of our narrow conception of the art of building, which appears in the light of uncodified architecture. The multiplicity of examples named by Rudofsky, whether vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous or rural, reveals ways of shaping and staging, ways of doing and materials for doing that break with the dominant architectural approach. From these places built on many lands or rivers, mountains or deserts, the idea of alternative models emerges. Each building is built without breaking with tradition, but on the contrary in an inventive continuity. These time-tested models leave little room for invention, understood as an abrupt or violent interruption. But they are distinguished by slow inventions, patient declensions and multiple adaptations, sometimes barely perceptible.

Each construction resonates deeply with its environment. Far from being an above-ground architecture, which seeks to abstract itself from the topography and the torments of the landscape, it hugs the slopes, the hollows and the bumps. Each wall and each roof tells of its borrowings from local resources, materials and know-how. In the end, it is simplicity, sobriety and accuracy that mark these dwellings, which are magnificently adapted to the ways of living, the climates and the landscapes. Bernard Rudofsky summed it up by saying that they translate an « art of living based on the cult of frugality ». Echoing this inventory, which was largely ignored by the architectural world at the time, a few adventurers of an approach that we would call ecological today tried to put into practice methods borrowed from indigenous techniques. In Egypt, Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) undertook in 1945 to build a large village, Gourna, near Luxor, using mud bricks for the walls and Nubian vaults, and training peasant masons on the site2. In Algeria, André Ravereau (1919-2017) encountered the cultures of the M’zab3 and produced in the 1960s, in the region of Ghardaïa, an architecture situated in the desert earth. In India, in the 1960s, Laurie Baker (1917-2007) took up ancestral brick techniques to build many houses and facilities in Kerala in the spirit of Gandhi4. Strangely enough, it is as if, at a time when the architecture of the North seemed to be losing its mind, that of the South was valiantly keeping its feet on the ground.

But if the « elsewhere » revealed by these works has opened our eyes, they should not mask the « here ». The rural and traditional architectures of our regions are often the bearers of the same approaches and attitudes of simplicity and economy. The earth in Champagne, the wood in Alsace and the stone in Lorraine could serve as a guide to explore the frugal practices of the Grand Est. But it is perhaps the theatre of Bussang5 that is the most accomplished historical figure. This large wooden shed, rebuilt by a local family of carpenters in the 1920s, is set on a mountainside pasture with a stage that opens onto nature. It borrows its cladding boards and carpentry parts from the neighbouring ironworks. For Maurice Pottecher (1867-1960), theatre critic and poet, and protagonist of the place, wood for the theatre is less a technical material than a mythical one. By gleaning its grammar from the barns and granaries that flourish in the Vosges mountains and colonise the region’s imagination, he created a building of magnificent sobriety, a theatre for the people. Today, the environmental crisis has reactivated the issues of a sustainable present and future. Faced with the tension between needs that are claimed to be unlimited and the resources that are imagined to be available to satisfy them, but which are not, frugal architecture appears to be an ethic that offers hope. Wood, earth, stone and straw are thus invited to the table of ‘new’ materials. Second-hand products and the leftovers from lavish feasts are beginning to avoid ending up in already overfilled bins. Architects are learning to become companions of the discarded. Just as important as the choice of materials, the way in which they are extracted, produced, transformed and the way in which they are transported, assembled and used are becoming new incentives for action. Zero waste through the right measure, the end of life as an entry point, the old to make the new, sparingly transformed materials, easily repairable and dismountable components and shared work are becoming the challenges for the architecture of today. Finally, in the face of the loss of man’s relationship with nature, with « all those complex and fragile links that man had patiently woven, poetic, magical, mythical, symbolic  »6 , as evoked by the historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), it seems increasingly necessary to re-establish a relationship with materials that is more than instrumental. Materials have an identity that must be revealed to make us dream. It is up to the architects to become maieuticians of the soul of the material. Today, building frugally is a formidable adventure to house people, their vital needs and their wild hopes, and to make them (co)exist with the greatest possible joy. A group of curious and attentive colleagues, worthy heirs to the Rudofsky explorers, are working on this with excellence in the Grand Est.


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