Describing their practice as a set of ideas rather than an appellation, the Paris-based studio Septembre Architecture is determined to protect themselves from being inserted into a box, whether with a caption of urbanism, architecture or interior design. Putting their names behind Septembre, five creatives – Lina, Memia, Dounia, Sami and Emilia – joined forces in order to design wisely. Despite having their headquarter in the capital of France, they have networked worldwide since 2010. This is not surprising, since the team is formed of two Swedes, two Tunisians and a Moroccan, offering a great model of celebrating cultural diversity. To dive into their doings in-depth, we sat down with Septembre’s Lina Lagerström and Sami Aloulou and talked about their versatile practice, as well as the present-day state of architecture.
How did you gather and start working together, finally establishing Septembre Architecture? Was the l’Ecole d’Architecture de Paris La Villette, where you were studying, a starting point for your common practice?
Sami: Yes, it was a starting point. Four of us five met at La Villette on the actual day of enrollment. We come from different backgrounds: Memia and I from Tunisia, Lina and Emilia from Sweden, and Dounia from Morocco. We studied in our homelands and then came to Paris for an Erasmus exchange.
Lina: We met in the queue in the corridor of Paris La Villette’s administration and immediately got acquainted. Emilia and I are Swedish, so we were wondering why everything was taking so long. In Sweden, we usually have well-organised meetings in this kind of situation; we don’t have to sign anything. For Sami and Memia, the whole process seemed surprisingly quick (laugh). It was fun. This very first meeting immediately turned into a friendship.
Back then at the university, were you already starting to work on common projects?
S: Emilia and Lina did their diploma together. Memia and I also worked together and did our MA jointly. But the five of us never really worked together at school. However, we were working at the same atelier, so we were inevitably observing each others work.
L: After we finished our studies, all of us did other stuff. I went to Japan, Emilia went to China, we were developing our skills worldwide. Then at one point, we came back to Paris and said, why don’t we do something together?! That was in 2010, when the five of us really started working on Septembre.
Despite gaining an architectural education in Paris, you must have a strong connection to your places of origin. This is all contained in Septembre’s logo, so I suppose this is a value for you. Is this merger of different cultures in stimulating for your work?
L: First of all, we are very impressed that you understood the flag. You are the first one to figure it out (laugh). However, going back to the question, what is stimulating is that we all have a different approach. We come from various cultures and thus have very different views on how to live and how to build a city. This is due to climate, history and social factors. We have very disparate experiences. Therefore, we do not approach a thing with any common consensus. We never do anything just out of habit. We attempt to teach and explain to each other how the project can work through constant questioning.
S: Also, we all come from different countries and we chose to work in a foreign country, France. We are not used to the local indigenous habits. There is also a confrontation with the local context, which was originally not ours.
L: It’s always a bit of a surprise, but it makes it so interesting and inspiring. We always have to negotiate with this other context and try to understand where it comes from historically. For me, it’s an advantage.
While browsing your diverse portfolio, it seems to me that you like design challenges.
L: The danger in architecture is that once you have realised one type of building, you are asked to do the same thing. It’s very easy to be put in this kind of a box. If you want to run an efficient business model for your office, this is probably the best way. You have a specialisation and you stick to that.
S: We are not that clever (laugh). Now, we are working on a restaurant. This is a kind of space that we have never done before. Our team was in a competition with three other offices and we worked hard to get it because we wanted to do something new. I hope that we will preserve this philosophy – this way of working. It’s strongly linked to our personalities. We constantly aim to have new areas to explore.
This variety of outcomes is also expressed in a wide range of locations. What are some of the biggest challenges of running projects in rural and urban areas, in Paris and abroad?
L: For Septembre it is very important not to do the same architecture everywhere. It is crucial to understand the context, not just the visual aspect but the actual history in a logical sense of the country. Of course, it takes more time, because you need to do thorough research.
S: We spend a lot of time understanding the context. Looking at local building materials like stone, for instance. Why is it assembled this way, why use this kind of detail? This is a way to respect the spirit of the place. Architecture is more like a revelation for us. We aim to reveal and renew the quality that we see in a place, not to create something out of nowhere.
Speaking of the importance of context, tell us something about the Dar Mim project completed in Tunisia. Building in a totally different climate zone and social structure demands thorough knowledge. Was it hard for the rest of the team to switch to a different way of thinking?
S: It was a challenge for the whole team, even for Memia and me, who were born there. We are used to working in the local context of France. If you talk about architecture itself, the most significant thing is that here in France, we are always looking for the sun, to let it into a space. In Tunisia, because of the climate, we are searching for the shadows.
L: Also there is a different relationship between the private and public spaces. The facades are not open to the streets – they are closed off with small windows. Everything is happening behind that wall and the house is turned around the patio. In France, in Sweden or in other Western European countries, there is a more established relationship with the street. However, I would say that the actual design phase of the project was quite easy. The difficulty was more in its realisation - the actual construction phase.
After that experience, would you like to go back there and take on another architectural challenge?
L: Definitely. Actually, we are working on two new projects in Tunisia. We would like to go back and try to get into it again. This is because of what happened with the political change, which reflects on the society massively. We feel that there is a need to invent a new Tunisian civic architecture: public buildings, city planning, and all those elements linked to political power. Thus, it’s an exceptionally interesting context.
Backtracking to the subject of Paris, the historic architecture here is eminently present. How do you find Paris as an area of creative possibilities?
S: We would describe Paris as a modern, active and intense metropolis. It is an old city, but it is totally adapted to present-day life. Look, we are sitting here in our office, in a building that used to be a tile factory, but it entirely meets our contemporary needs.
L: Our approach is that the past is also the future. The interesting thing is how we analyse history through knowledge and adapt it to modern times. We are not aiming to do something that has never been done before. Take an iconic building. It’s so fixed in its function and its author. Its concept and image are extremely expressive and thus you can not change the use of it. It will always stay that way. However, in Paris, the eighteenth-century buildings are a mass that you can fill with any use you need. It inspires us to design contemporary, flexible and creative projects. For me, an architectural challenge means asking how we can use this knowledge and heritage, not making a historical pastiche. The trap is that you take history and end up just copying it. The challenge is to understand how it was built and why.
I think this approach can be seen in the Belleville projects. You designed a modern space, based on a historic Parisian tenement house. Also, the project was nominated for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award 2017.
S: It is striking that the simple daily architecture for Belleville was nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award alongside a big iconic building - the philharmonic of Jean Nouvelle in Paris. It's uplifting that people can observe and appreciate these little buildings, also considering it good architecture.
L: We hope that the fascination with these iconic, million-euro projects is coming to an end. Now, the focus could be switched to simpler architecture, adapted to a more human scale and dedicated to every-day concerns. When I began studying architecture, we were fed by this kind of iconic building – the new museums, sports stadiums etc. Being an architect was equal to designing an opera house or a new museum of modern art. This is totally absurd.
S: I feel that we are now changing the paradigm a little. We are starting to understand the issues of lack of housing, the problem of immigration, the fact that people can’t live properly. These are the most engaging matters. We are a long way from the eighties and nineties, when a lot of money was spent on dazzling constructions. I think we have reached the limit of this kind of architecture.
L: The modernist architecture came into a place because of huge social changes that was triggered by the industrialisation. An important amount of people came to live in the cities, so the architecture needed to change. Nowadays, as we again face this kind of social change, this also should be felt in the architecture. I think of our generation as the one where the architects who ’sign their buildings’ – the big names, the starchitects – are part of the past. One person doesn’t stand behind the whole project. This individual architect, who signs buildings, can exist but he can no longer dominate. He can’t be the only reference. We have to find a more collaborative regard.
S: We are not criticising these architects. It’s just that the focus has been so mono-oriented on this kind of architecture. In the nineties, communism ended and society was starting to explore capitalism. Every city aimed to have its own iconic building. The starchitects were representing those years of high economic growth, and they did a good job. But now, that period has ended.
It’s been seven years since you established Septembre. What would you say is your biggest success of all?
S: I think our pride is that our totally informal meeting years ago became real and turned into friendship, and then into partnership. Now we have ’our baby’ Septembre and we are very proud of it.
L: On a personal level, it is also very interesting. We like to say that there is a projects’ practice and running an office is also a project. It’s actually the biggest project of all. It evolves all the time. It’s about how we work together, how we make sure everyone feels stimulated, comfortable and has equal importance. It is very important to feel satisfied with what you do every day. If you leave all that behind, you can’t do good architecture.
Septembre is a Paris-based design practice dealing with architecture, urban planning, urban programming and interior design founded in 2010 by five associates.