© Adagp photographe Noelle Hoeppe
Inaugurated by French President Nicholas Sarkozy in late 2011, the 20,000 sq m French embassy is the culmination of eight years of work. It serves as the chancellery, consulate, diplomatic residence and private apartments of the ambassador. This diverse range of functions is met with an intriguing interplay between the indoor and outdoor environments, as architect Alain Sarfati’s took a particularly holistic bioclimatic approach to the design of the New French Embassy.
In describing his design process, the Moroccan born architect stated that he wanted to look beyond standard contemporary energy-saving measures, and so “we let the sun, wind, sand and dust be our guides. [W]e looked to local materials to satisfy our building needs. We paid particular attention to all the woodwork and window treatment to ensure optimal airtightness and solar protection. Orientation not only influenced esthetic choices but governed location choices from the very start.”
This site-specific design provides for both energy-efficiency and peaceful indoor and outdoor spaces. With the entire structure built around a central garden oasis, all of the building’s structural components were designed to have a corresponding outdoor space, ensuring that natural light is available to set the tone of a room, while the suns rays can naturally warm the space. The southern side of the building is home to its residential facilities, with the south and western windows equipped with adjustable shades to block intense sunlight when necessary. The northern facade boasts the extraordinary silk-screened facades, which are said glow with the rising sun and reflect the tones of the sky throughout the day.
The building’s interior is, like its exterior, comprised of clean lines and minimal, carefully placed elements constructed of the local materials Safati referred to — largely wood, stone and rubber. The materials provide a depth of tone and texture to enhance the clean lines of the interior layout. Dividing structures through public areas are constructed from slatted wooden screens, maintaining the peaceful light and air-filled spaces. Behind the unique silk-screened panes are walls which provide for further natural ventilation during summer, which can then be closed for insulation during winter. Private meeting rooms, which often remain windowless and withdrawn are provided here with natural illumination through chimney-like “light wells.”
While the natural environments integrate with the building’s interior, inhabitants of and visitors to the Embassy are encouraged to enjoy carefully composed, versatile outdoor areas. One side of the Embassy is devoted to greenhouses, exhibition spaces and winter gardens which can be enjoyed as appropriate to the season. An outdoor granite forecourt cuts a striking contrast alongside grassed pathways and a shallow moat. The garden’s greenhouses, meanwhile, include a Trombe wall of black shale which captures the warmth of the sunlight during the day, and releases it during the colder hours of the night. Tall trees planted nearby provide further shade to cool the building and allow for peaceful enjoyment of the space.
The distinct design of the New French Embassy makes for a highly unique presence in amongst its surrounding architecture — but the architects maintain that it is modest in scale, and that the golden silk-screened panes serve to disguise often present office-building silhouetted floor lines. As a whole, the building works to integrate elements of two very separate cultures, histories and architectural styles to create something which achieves modern sustainability aims by remaining rooted in tradition, while creating something that is thoroughly of its own.