When the winners of the 2014 Albums des jeunes architectes et paysagistes came together in a collective, they had no idea that they would take part in the Venice International Architecture Biennial two years later. Back on a flawless course with Lucie Niney, NeM Niney and Marca Architectes.

The «New Riches» project representing France at the Venice International Architecture Biennial brings together the Obras agency, around Frédéric Bonnet, and the AJAP14 collective. CHow did you get here?

The collective was born just after the announcement of the winners that distinguished us as individuals. We immediately found ourselves faced with a number of values and commitments, but also with the idea that together, our field of competence would be broader. The theme "New Riches", which gives its name to the exhibition we are presenting in Venice, appeared very early in our reflection: we are outside the monetary economy and we are questioning the solutions provided by architecture in a financially constrained context. To bring this theme to Venice, we had to partner, it was at that time that we met Frédéric Bonnet who participated, like us, in the low carbon competition 2015 in Lille, a project of complete revitalization of a district, the competition he won and for which we received a special mention. The points of convergence between our approaches were obvious and the idea of an association immediately seduced Frédéric Bonnet. Our partnership was sealed and the project took on a much more territorial and extensive dimension.

The projects that we present in Venice are keys of entry on the peri-urban, the collective housing, the tourism, the small buildings at the edge of the roads, the landscaping

Before Venice, the competitions were therefore a test for the collective.

The «Reinvent Paris» competition was decisive in this regard: it was a project of 300 cooperative housing including workshops of artisans. Within the group, we found the right pace of expertise and took advice from an economist, lawyers, design firms… In reality, all skills have found their place in this horizontal work. We were also proposing a new way of financing the construction of the city based on the idea that you don’t have to do “all-private” when the public community is short of money. Unfortunately, after the first step, our adventure ended there. We were disappointed, especially since a bank was following us, but the experience was rich, and right after that, the low-carbon competition gave us the opportunity to work on the same issues. Each time, we organize ourselves differently. On this last project, we were all together, but we also won competitions in small groups, we are very happy to be able to work with variable geometry.

The project you are presenting in Venice is, we often hear, “committed”, a term that comes up frequently when presenting your generation of architects.

Within the collective, we all carry this idea that architecture has a social role. The living environment by definition affects everyone and architecture, which uses other skills, must be a driving force to improve it. The scarcity of public money does not prevent us from paying attention to the public space. We must fight against this infernal spiral of financialized things. But let us be clear: we do not advocate for self-construction in pallets. In the projects that are presented in Venice, some are approached from the point of view of the team: on the one hand, we have a committed commission, a master architect who is at the same time guarantor of the synthesis of the project; on the other, a master builder perfectly in his role. What funding, what land, what ambition, what programme, upstream, but also what uses, what maintenance, what future modification for the building? The architect must help the client to reflect on all these questions. Architecture, which calls upon many skills and questions our societies, is a discipline committed in itself.

AJAP are themselves in a logic of decompartmentalization since they bring together architects and landscapers.

In addition to the act of creation itself, we must regain awareness of the global chain. A building to be well built must be well designed and have a controlled budget, but it will never come out of the ground without a good construction company. We want to upgrade the many French know-how, this includes both constructive techniques and the meaning given to each person’s work. The final quality of the building depends on all this. It is important to put this overall cohesion into perspective. As young architects, we often work on rehabilitation projects, the whole challenge is to raise the bar a little higher starting from the existing.

Is it not an architecture fundamentally derived from the conditions of the environment that you defend?

In the past, attention has focused on major projects, government orders. However, most of the construction, which meets the same quality standards, concerns daily achievements: the built environment built without an architect, individual houses, city entrances, subdivisions, peri-urban... all this environment, which is sometimes a bit loose and yet very populated. It must be the subject of the same attention. In reality, we need to rethink a whole culture. The challenge is to reconnect with the real territory and to rediscover a common culture with all our fellow citizens in order to appreciate the importance of what has already been built. A building is there for several decades but this is often also true for a road or parking development.

How did you choose the projects you present in Venice?

We proceeded in a collegial manner, we collected individual projects and, after a long discussion, we selected some. In reality, our projects are keys to the urban periphery, collective housing, tourism, small buildings by the roads, landscaping… We have associated to our approach the houses of architecture, the Councils of architecture, the town planning and the environment and the schools. Their role was crucial, we were able to measure how much energy was available. The projects we have chosen are not isolated cases, it is another reason for satisfaction.

As for the French Pavilion, if our proposal makes it possible to become aware of the territory as a whole, the bet will be won. We hope that the visibility given to these emerging projects will strengthen the daily attention of everyone.

How does participation in the collective change your professional practice?

We all had experience of working together on a smaller scale, architecture agencies often work with each other and we also frequently work with art history specialists or artists. But we did not expect the collective to create such a dynamic. The work in common was perfectly organized. For Venice, we started by working together on general themes, then small cells were set up to work on specific aspects, the catalogue, the scenography, etc. We also realized that by being united under this collective banner, our word had a much greater impact. Finally, in a more pragmatic way, this experience shows us that it is probably possible to find a kind of flexibility in the structure of the agencies depending on the projects.

What do you expect from the Biennale?

Through the theme of this edition, «News from the Front», the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, commissioner general of this Biennale, defends a fighting architecture. We look forward to the solutions. We expect very different proposals from country to country. We also look forward to learning about some of the agencies that were not expected to be in this niche. As for the French Pavilion, if our proposal makes it possible to become aware of the territory as a whole, the bet will be won. We have deliberately chosen not to focus on metropolises already engaged in sustained development or classified heritage villages, and instead to focus on projects outside of classified areas and areas where land is expensive. We show quality projects that spread throughout the territory. We hope that the visibility given to these emerging projects will strengthen the daily attention of everyone. I also hope that this exhibition will lead to a renewed dialogue with the general public. We are delighted, honoured and, quite frankly, surprised to have the chance to represent France at this Biennale. In our mind, it was a bit of an end-of-career consecration! This is an event that closes our two years as a laureate of the Albums des jeunes architectes et paysagistes.

This is very encouraging, because it is well known that young architects often have difficulty accessing the order...

The AJAP gave us a visibility that the collective has further increased. The project presented in Venice is the best illustration of this. But before that, our generation has practically learned to generate the order itself by doing consultancy, feasibility studies, organizing workshops in the schools.... Because we had very little access to public procurement, we got around that by diversifying. Now, it is easier indeed, which proves that access to the control is very difficult without these levels. AJAP has definitely helped us.

“It is often said that the democratic capacity to share is in crisis, these projects show the contrary”

Grand Prix de l'urbanisme 2014, the architect Frédéric Bonnet is, with the agency Obras and the collective AJAP14, the other thinking head of the exhibition «New riches». He explains the philosophy for us.

Choosing the title "New riches" to talk about ordinary places, it seems like an oxymoron but we wanted to show that apart from emblematic situations, it exists throughout the territory through multiple manifestations, smaller architectural projects that bring collective wealth, that wealth, in other words, is not necessarily where we expect it. The commissioner general of the Biennale, Alejandro Aravena defends the idea that architecture has a political dimension and a social responsibility, that it can help situations to unravel, it has a vision multiplied. We have somewhat narrowed the field: we have chosen projects that are representative of what is happening in France by choosing to immediately exclude projects involving metropolitan areas or major public and private projects. We looked at the territories that are not talked about, where the majority of the population lives, the gaps, the periurban areas, the rural areas. We had many projects but we chose to select only twelve in order to show them clearly. We went there to meet with elected officials, professionals and residents. Each time, they are beautiful stories, there is passion, skills, a collective composition, a meeting. We often say that the democratic capacity to share is in crisis, these projects show the opposite, these stories make strong things that people share. The exhibition is organized around four rooms. In the room "territories" are installed eleven billboards on which turn successively three images: on the first, we see an unfinished place, on the other two, the same place but this time with an architecture that shifts the perception. In the room "story", the visitor is immersed in an atmosphere, we hear direct testimonies, sound. The "know-how" room focuses on building techniques and materials. Finally, the "terreau" room welcomes the commitment of all actors, and in particular that of the schools that are on the front lines today and which are addressing the issue of rural and suburban areas.