Nouvelle AOM : approach

Interview with Cyrille Le Bihan and Mathurin Hardel, two of the founding partners of Nouvelle AOM

Nouvelle AOM is renovating a tower in La Défense, redeveloping the former county council headquarters for the Hauts-de-Seine in Nanterre…. So the practice is no longer exclusively dedicated to the Montparnasse Tower?

Mathurin Hardel
When the Nouvelle AOM collective (Franklin Azzi, ChartierDalix, Hardel Le Bihan) won the competition for the new Montparnasse Tower, we quickly realised that it would lead to other projects: the method worked well, as did the understanding between associates, which made us want to continue to work together producing architecture. Today about ten people work for Nouvelle AOM, with a practice manager running the Montparnasse Tower project (Kira Le Roy Singer, architect–engineer).
Cyrille Le Bihan
We also considered the fact that a large team would be needed for the Montparnasse Tower but that it can be quite oppressive to work on a single project for several years. It is healthier to vary subjects, both intellectually and for general wellbeing. It makes us more creative.

Transformation de l'Hôtel du Département des Hauts-de-Seine (92) en bureaux ©ida+

“Designing a programme, bringing a site back to life, is a challenge for which being part of a team, pooling experience, is clearly beneficial. It is a kind of accumulation of knowledge and memories.”

On the basis of what criteria do you attribute a project to Nouvelle AOM rather than to Hardel Le Bihan?

CLB Nouvelle AOM is preparing a document that will help to clarify the aims and criteria that lead us to participate in certain competitions collectively with Nouvelle AOM rather than individually with our respective practices. We participate collectively in order to be more competitive and because we believe in the method. Originally, we needed to combine our strengths, our ideas, our turnover and our teams in order to compete alongside the large practices and talent in the Montparnasse competition. The criterion that we retain today is that of projects where a collective approach is a determinant force. In other words, situations that merit or require – at least in our opinion – limiting the role of subjectivity. When there are several people around the table in discussion, a dose of competitive spirit is added into the mix, which makes everyone more objective.

MH Nouvelle AOM also has a role to play on projects where what already exists a key factor. This is the case for existing buildings (renovations): the more of us there are, the further we can take analysis and diagnostics and really weigh up the issues at stake.
A third criterion is in consideration of the change in use of a site and its degree of complexity. Technical complexity often goes hand in hand with complexity of use, as was the case with the Montparnasse Tower, which Nouvelle AOM took from being single-use for offices with a handful of retail units on the ground floor, to being a much more open tower, with a range of different destinations up through the levels.
Finally, Nouvelle AOM does not only focus on emblematic projects (which is not in itself readily definable!). We feel that it’s debatable whether or not awarding an emblematic building to a single person is a good idea. You might go as far as to say that the collective is able to dilute the concentration of power. One might be tempted to imagine that the collective increases the probability that the project be appreciated by the masses, the quest for acceptance not being incompatible with high-level environmental, design and technical ambitions.

Réhabiliter la Tour Montparnasse était l'occasion d'ouvrir sa programmation. Ici la métamorphose d'étages techniques en espaces communs et jardin suspendu accessible à tous les utilisateurs ©ida+

“We teamed up to build projects that individually we would have had less chance of being awarded. Not to increase business.”

So the emblematic nature of the Montparnasse Tower has determined the collaborative DNA of the Nouvelle AOM practice.

MH Emblematic sites and buildings become part of the collective memory; it is not only the users who are affected, but a mass of citizens. This certainly explains at least in part the growing expectation of some clients for the design process also to be conducted collaboratively. In the case of the Montparnasse Tower, Nouvelle AOM greatly contributed to the diversity of skills and abilities by assembling, right from the very start of the project, designers passionate about reuse, an exhibition curator, historians, researchers, etc. The practice is wed to its original particularity: bringing together multiple identities and being able to question itself throughout the competition and design phases.

La Tour Montparnasse avant transformation ©rsi-studio

What differentiates Nouvelle AOM from other architectural partnerships?

CLB The fact that we carry out the entire project collectively, from A to Z! As far as I know, most other large practices with several partners share out the projects in a much more compartmentalised manner. With Franklin Azzi Architecture and ChartierDalix, we didn’t get together to boost business but to do projects, together, that individually we would’ve had much less chance of winning.

Does Nouvelle AOM always work with the same consultants?

MH No. The Montparnasse Tower competition was an extraordinary experience for the entire team, both on a human and an intellectual level, and we share its powerful memory. But that does not imply special contractual relations. For example, Nouvelle AOM might compete for projects on a scale that don’t suit those particular consultants. The flexibility of our eco-system is essential.

How do you divide your time between the two practices? What impact does it have on HLB and your team?

CLB Every week the partners spend two half-days on the 44th floor of the Montparnasse Tower, where the practice is installed. What Mathurin said earlier about the intensity of our investment on the Montparnasse project in 2016 and 2017 has had important repercussions within Hardel Le Bihan. Paradoxically, with hindsight the new work rhythm benefitted the team. This investment forced us to restructure our organisation, to refine our strategic position. Without the positive energy, motivation and perseverance of our team, we would never have been able to sustain the ambition and demands of what sometimes resembles a double life.

Pascale Dalix, Franklin Azzi, Mathurin Hardel, Cyrille Le Bihan and Frédéric Chartier, founding partners of Nouvelle AOM ©Alexandre Tabaste. Interview by Clémence Mathieu