Page C1.2 . 21 September 2005                     
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    Fire Station in Toulouse


    Debeaux conceived a self-stabilizing, continuous horizontal surface through the juxtaposition of special tensegrity-type cells. He joined the beams in pairs at the top and in fours at the bottom, avoiding any sort of triangulation, but introducing flexion in these beams through tie rods linking the upper nodules to an intermediary point on these variable inert beams.

    In the words of Roger Krebs: "Pierre's approach to the Jacques Vion Firehouse roof was absolutely original. Until this moment, classic three-dimensional structures (developed by Le Ricolais or Buckminster Fuller) had integrated compression and tension, but never flexion, which seemed incompatible with horizontal and regular space-frame structures.

    However, by introducing flexion, Debeaux gave himself the liberty to develop stable structures of infinite formal possibilities, and therein lies his genius to bring out a whole family of new forms by playing freely with the difference between beams.

    Placed symbolically in full view at the corner of the administration building on the Charles de Fitte allées, is the "tool-box" of the harmoncian-architect. Within the sculptural ensign, it features a golden rectangle, an Egyptian set square, and a projecting volute. The mastery of optical illusions is also manifest in the fresco on the concrete facework covering the gable of the neighboring building to correct the unfortunate effect of its siting, off the perpendicular alignment to Debeaux's facade.

    Sculpted Structure

    Aside from the garage, this program gave rise to other remarkably original creations. The hose-and-drill tower is in itself an architectural, artistic, and technical feat whose conception demonstrates a rare mastery of spatial views. This pentagonal tower is distributed, by a series of helicoidal staircases linking the landings, also pentagonal, through shifting one segment at each level according to a pentagrammic distribution in which staircases 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 cantilever outside the tower.

    In addition to its beauty and a design (like the reception hall) worthy of historic record, it serves not only to dry the hoses, its primary function, but to conduct drills descending the chute or scaling the facades. Even the gas pump itself, near the tower, is a gem of elegance and functional simplicity.

    For all this virtuosity, these formal speculations might appear manneristic and obsessional if there were not everywhere, and in the very relations established in this ensemble, the evidence of an absolutely exceptional artistic sensibility, of which the hitherto mentioned aspects are merely demonstrative epiphenomena.

    Attesting to this claim are the rear elevation of the garage, a masterpiece of post-war architecture, that of the gymnasium, the reception hall which dominates the courtyard (like the watch on a ship dominates the deck), with its bell hanging from a piece of traditional ironwork such as that found on Languedoc chapels.

    Attesting again is the reception hall, which offers a light-filled, serene environment in which the pillars, round at their ground-floor base, change to square at their junction with the vaulted, ruled surface ceilings, lined with their magnificent wood coffering left in place. Here Debeaux creates a space full of simplicity and magnificent elegance.

    It is this exceptional artistic value (images convey only the most limited impression), that justifies our admiration. This artistry alone is enough to make us conscious of the urgency in acknowledging and protecting this work, absolutely unique in France and throughout the world.

    Composition of the Grand Hall

    For the hall housing the large firefighting vehicles, Debeaux was obliged to design a vast, entirely clear space, opening from one end to the other onto the street and interior court. He opted for a double-curved, reinforced, thin concrete shell structure which permitted major spans, without deformation.

    Against all odds, he started with a rotating hyperboloid, the upper portion of which is deformed to the general proportions of the volume. Thus deployed over the entire footprint, the hyperboloid determines, by its intersection with the rectangular roof plan, the magnificent general profile of the cantilevered roof edges.

    The hyperboloid is then indented and connected to a series of hyperbolic paraboloids through their common directrices, thereby leading the ensemble toward the four load-bearing points to the ground. This extraordinary composition of regular surfaces thus opens wide, deep vaults on the facades while pulling the roof load toward the angles of the hall to form a perfect, dynamic, and plastic continuity between the interior and the exterior.

    The upper windows are connected to the shells through their various directrices, forming a movement, like the facets of a diamond, without breaking the continuity. Finally, to close the hyperboloid core, a central rectangular clerestory, made up of a three-dimensional structure based on an original design, is fitted between the counter braces raised on the roof, introducing a soft light onto the powerful cornice profile moldings of the reinforced concrete portal frames.

    It is through this extraordinarily ingenious design that Pierre Debeaux intentionally partakes in the great tradition of structural inventions conceived by Achaemenian, Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance architects, at the same time proving himself to be a precursor of organic architecture presently generated by new, computer-based design techniques.

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    Stéphane Gruet is an architect, philosopher, and director of l'AERA (Actions, Studies and Research around Architecture) in Toulouse, France.

    This article is excerpted from Pierre Debeaux: The Artist and the Geometer, copyright © 2004, available from Editions Poiesis-Aera.



    ArchWeek Image

    Hose-and-drill tower of the Jacques Vion Firehouse, designed by Pierre Debeaux.
    Photo: Stéphane Gruet

    ArchWeek Image

    Geometry in concrete.
    Photo: Pierre-Etienne Faure

    ArchWeek Image

    North elevation.
    Image: Pierre Debeaux

    ArchWeek Image

    West elevation.
    Image: Pierre Debeaux

    ArchWeek Image

    Gymnasium wall.
    Photo: Stéphane Gruet

    ArchWeek Image

    Photo: Stéphane Gruet

    ArchWeek Image

    Projecting volute.
    Photo: Stéphane Gruet

    ArchWeek Image

    Pierre Debeaux: The Artist and the Geometer.
    Image: Editions Poiesis-Aera, photo by Christian Cros


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