Dietmar Feichtinger – Strictly Elegant

6 August 2006 (Last Updated August 6th, 2006 18:30)

Dietmar Feichtinger is the architect of the 37th bridge across the River Seine in Paris. Robert Such looks at how his work marries material transparency and structural efficiency. Whether designing a bridge or a museum, his particular contextual approach to delivering an architectural response to the brief and to the site has resulted in some discreet, yet often visually elegant, works.

Dietmar Feichtinger – Strictly Elegant

Born in Austria, the now 40-something Feichtinger studied architecture at the Technical University of Graz, yet architecture wasn't "something I wanted to do from an early age," he says, "although I loved drawing."

While his family's ties to the construction industry date back to his grandfathers, and the idea of becoming an architect was already in the air, it was meeting quite a good architect of modern New England houses on a one-year exchange program in the
US that confirmed the interest.

He subsequently worked in three architect's offices in Graz, and spent five hectic years "living with architecture," burning the midnight oil on competition proposals.

EARLY INFLUENCES

"Feichtinger began working on lightweight, suspended structures early on in his career."

During that period, French architectural ideas, communicated by the French architecture and design press, were having a great influence on contemporary thinking in Graz.

So, following a short period of work in Switzerland, Feichtinger started looking
for work in the French capital, attracted by the city's vibrant architectural scene.

Fortunately, his limited French didn't prevent Chaix & Morel from offering him a job. Feichtinger worked on the firm's entry in the national French library competition – which Dominique Perrault eventually won – and the French
engineering school, the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Marne-la-Vallée outside Paris.

Even at that stage in his career, Feichtinger was working on lightweight, suspended structures. It is something that he continues to work on today. "It is interesting to find a very efficient and clear way to work on how buildings can stand up," he
says.

Five years after arriving in the capital, he opened his own office. "It always was my goal to run my own practice," he says. "Very early, I did competitions on my own. I got prizes, honourable mentions. [It's] what kept me going."

Winning the competition to build a new footbridge across the Seine convinced him to remain in the city. When Feichtinger began to secure more commissions in Austria, he opened a second office in Vienna in 2002.

COMPLETED PROJECTS

Late last year he completed a university campus in Krems. Earlier in the spring, he had already handed over a town art centre to the local authorities in Weiz.

A civic centre, comprising an art centre and ground floor retail space, the Kunsthaus Weiz project demonstrates Feichtinger's interest in inserting a building comfortably into the existing site.

Located in the town centre of Weiz, a small town in south east Austria, the centre's auditorium is a pre-oxidised copper-clad box embedded in a glass building, which wraps around it on three sides.

"Following a short period of work in Switzerland, Feichtinger started looking for work in the architectural arena of Paris."

The multipurpose auditorium is a simple, rectangular volume. "A building doesn't need to be very complex," explains Feichtinger. He believes that complex forms don't necessarily produce comfortable interiors.

Taking into account the height difference between the existing buildings on either side of the Kunsthaus, Feichtinger created a swooped rooftop, dropping in height from 14.2m to 7.9m along its length.

The £4.9m (€7.2m) project also included the construction of a low-rise glass office building, L-shaped in plan view, and separated from the Kunsthaus by a narrow road.

DESIGNING WITH CONTEXTUAL CUES

Feichtinger is critical of buildings whose underlying structure is disguised, and which are given a form for form's sake. "Buildings to me are much more the outcome of questions I ask myself," he explains. "They're much more a result. They're quite
different because the location is different, the problem is different."

A further example of Feichtinger's ability to shape a building according to the contextual cues offered by the site is an administration building for the shipping container business in the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers.

Resembling a stack of containers, the building incorporates a pivoting, vertical louver system in its corrugated anodised aluminium exterior, which filters the light entering the four-storey workplace.

When developing a structure "efficiency, lightness, transparency are key issues", he says. Of less interest to Feichtinger is the desire to make look-at-me buildings and 'blobitecture'.

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR BRIDGE

He owes his keen interest in structural engineering, and a wish to make "the forces visible and to make them understandable", to his architectural education in Austria, which places great emphasis on that particular area of study.

"The bones of a building or a bridge are very important to me," he says. Speaking about the design of a 70m-long footbridge in the Parisian business quarter La Défense, he refers to the two cantilevered decks, made up of steel sheet box
girders, as the 'spine'; the girders that support them as the 'vertebrae'; and the interconnecting elements as pre-stressed 'tendons'.

The backbone of the Feichtinger's new Simone de Beauvoir pedestrian bridge, linking the François Mitterrand National Library to Bercy Park, is composed of a slender arch, balanced by a catenary underneath.

"Feichtinger is critical of buildings whose underlying structure is disguised."

Originally, the bridge was scheduled to open in 2001, yet the start of construction was delayed by a changeover in local government and rigorous studies into the future bridge's structural dynamics following the Millennium Bridge's wobbly opening. This meant that the project over-ran by five years.

The gracefully curvaceous, wave-like bridge ties together the lower and upper quayside levels on each side of the river.

Together, arch and catenary form a symmetrical lens shape in the mid-section of the bridge, providing a potential public meeting
place for picnics, for bookstalls and for art installations.

It is also a spot where people might pause and appreciate anew the value of the river in the life of the city.

FUTURE PROJECTS

Currently, Feichtinger is busy with several projects, including a 1km-long replacement footbridge for the causeway extending out to Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.

Towards the end of this year a hospital in Klagenfurt goes on site. "I'm very excited by the work I'm doing in the moment," he says. As for the future, there are "project opportunities with interesting themes, nothing spectacular, but looking for
creating a positive environment for living."