L’Arbre Blanc (the white tree) reinvents the tower block

In 2013, Montpellier city council launched the “Folie Richter” competition. It sought to identify a blueprint for a beacon tower to enrich the city’s architectural heritage. The RFP stressed the desire for a bold project that had to fit into its environment and include shops and homes. The brief was clear: city hall wanted a team made up of a young architect working with an experienced colleague...

A unique project since its origin

The seventeen-storey building is a full participant in city life, aiming first and foremost to be accessible to all the people of Montpellier, with an art gallery on the ground floor and a rooftop bar linked to a panoramic garden. By allowing people to take physical ownership of the tower, it will become an object of pride for the people of Montpellier, and a tourist attraction.

A human adventure

While L’Arbre Blanc has become, even before its inauguration, an icon of French architecture, it was born of the audacity of Nicolas Laisné and Manal
Rachdi, two young French architects who initially made their names on the basis of their talent alone, without support from financial partners. “We each received an RFP about a 21st century folly commissioned by Montpellier city council,” they recall.

It immediately occurred to Manal Rachdi and Nicolas Laisné, who have been friends since they met in Jean Nouvel’s practice, to join forces. The problem was that both architects had the same status and roughly the same age.

So they had the idea of approaching a foreign professional. “I am very keen on intercultural dialogue, which could only add value to this bid,” explains Nicolas Laisné. “We then together drew up a list of people we would like to work with on this project,” remembers Manal Rachdi.

Surprise! Sou Fujimoto, who had never taken on a large- scale project in France, replied positively to their e-mail. The Japanese architect said he was interested but wanted to know more about the two Frenchmen’s objectives. “The discussion we had on Skype put my mind at rest. We then met up in my offices, where I realised we really were on the same wavelength,” recalls Sou Fujimoto. Manal Rachdi agrees: “What we have in common is that nature inspires us, but we translate that very differently into our work. So we thought there would be great value in comparing our takes on this competition.”

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The teams started to work intensively on the design from summer 2013 in the Japanese architect’s studio.

“While we drew, the team produced model after model every day to get a better picture of the design in real time. We fleshed out all our dreams, imposed no red lines, even when things seemed impossible,” remembers Nicolas Laisné. “The synergy in our team and the collective intelligence that we were able to call on forged a hypercreative atmosphere that helped us design the project in record time,” adds Dimitri Roussel.

“We emerged from this unusual and exceptional phase with a strong concept that already incorporated the primary intentions for the project,” explains Manal Rachdi. It was a Herculean effort and the concept was so finely-honed that the final look of L’Arbre Blanc is not dissimilar to the first models, in terms of its form in particular but also its large outdoor spaces, an idea on which we rapidly agreed after telling Sou how the people of Montpellier lived,” says Nicolas Laisné.

Other players involved in this one-off adventure included Montpellier-based developers Opalia, Promeo Patrimoine, Evolis Promotion and Crédit Agricole Immobilier Languedoc Roussillon, who had on-the-ground responsibility for the successful implementation of a project that resonated across the region.

An icon born in a Tokyo workshop and which is now rising gracefully into the French city’s skies.

Extraordinary architecture

The team fully embraced the aims of Montpellier city council’s competition. Their team effort led them to build L’Arbre Blanc, this beacon tower that
city hall desired.

“This project was ambitious in numerous respects. Number one: it was the first time a city had imposed a level of architectural quality. Two: L’Arbre Blanc is a team effort by four property developers and three architecture practices. And three: we enjoyed a very rare degree of freedom on this site because it is a “stand-alone” plot, with no requirement to align with any neighbours. The outline of L’Arbre Blanc is that of the roundabout on which it is located, avoiding blocking the views of the adjoining apartment block.

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“To reinvent the tower, we took the human dimension as our starting point. We began by creating public spaces at the top and bottom of the building: the ground floor is a glass-walled space opening out onto the street, while on the roof there is a bar open to the public and a common area for residents, so that even the owners of first-floor apartments can enjoy the view,” says Sou Fujimoto.

The attention paid to its setting, and to local lifestyles, guided the architects throughout the design phase.

“We devised a climatic architecture, which integrates into its environment in terms of the climate, topography, and near and distant landscapes,” says Manal Rachdi. In fact, viewers see the architecture of L’Arbre Blanc differently depending on the angle, their viewpoint, how close they are, the light, and so on. The metal façades are very light to achieve a degree of flexibility, as Montpellier is in an earthquake zone.

The design came naturally to the architects. Very quickly, the balconies and shades that adorn the building lifted it like a tree rooted in the soil. These items also have an environmental aspect because they protect the façade of the building. To free up the façade as much as possible, the wet technical parts are clustered together in the core of the building. “These terraces create coolness and enable energy savings of between 20 and 30%,” says Manal Rachdi. Each apartment has an outside space of at least 7m2 (the largest is 35m2). The team worked hard in 3D to adjust their location.

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“So that these 113 apartments all enjoy an interesting view, we had to ‘sculpt’ the project in a complex series of exercises. We performed numerous spatial experiments and there were permanent back-and-forths between physical models and digital simulations,” remembers Manal Rachdi. “The large number of balconies and pergolas really do promote outdoor living and enable a new type of relationship between residents. They provide shade which comes and goes throughout the day,” says Sou Fujimoto.

The many technical innovations of L’Arbre Blanc include the terraces, whose cantilevers, which are up to 7.5 metres long, constitute a world first. To achieve this, the team of architects devised a unique technique inspired by the drawbridge. For each balcony, two uprights were fastened to inserts sealed into the slab. Two girders were then clipped and bolted horizontally to the façade.

A crane with a custom-designed platform featuring a motorised counterweight then installed the balconies on the various floors. “To solve the complex problem of the tension to use, we worked with engineer André Verdier on the principle of tension members in the guard rail. Each terrace, featuring wind-breakers, can support up to 350 kg per square metre. This means they can be furnished,” explains Manal Rachdi.

They really are outdoor rooms which bring life in the apartments out onto the terraces to deliver an inside/ outside way of life that is perfectly suited to a city that enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year.

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