Interview with Alia Bengana a Paris-based architect
We’re going to keep this intro short and short so you can get straight to reading this interview with Alia Bengana, an architect from Paris.Born in Algiers and educated in Paris, it’s often said that her talent comes from their family.
Please share your background with us where are you from?
I was born in Algeria and moved to Paris when I was fifteen. I finished high school in Paris and then started my architecture studies.Moving from Algeria was a great change in my teens, but French was already my mother tongue so I never felt I had to adapt to another culture since French language was already part of my culture. I really started to feel comfortable in Paris at architecture school, surrounded by very open minded students and teachers. During my studies I spent one year in Rome and had my first work in Barcelona. Today I have both citizenships,French and Algerian, and I really feel European with a strong North African heritage.
How did you get into this field? When did you know you wanted to be an architect?
I had the chance to grow up in a house designed by a very talented French architect, Fernand Pouillon, who was working in Algeria in the 70’s. He was a friend of my parents, and helped them to turn an old north African traditional farm they had inherited into a contemporary house, keeping at the same time the spirit of the old construction. Furthermore my parents were great art and architecture lovers,even though they were both lawyers. So I believe I was sensitive to that field since I was a child, and when I had to choose a university after high school I didn’t hesitate.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My inspiration comes mainly from my travels, I travel quite often both for work and leisure. I love art, photography and cinema that are sources of inspiration too. I spend time in bookstores buying or consulting new books, and I read each month architecture magazine as every architect I guess. I started a couple of years ago consulting blogs too. Inspiration comes from many sources hopefully!
Can describe a bit your first project ?
My first architecture project was a family house in Algeria that I started to design in 2003, at the time I was working for an architecture office in Paris and I wasn’t planning yet to open my own practice. It was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss so I was designing the house after work and during weekends.
I was really inspired by Souto de Moura Portuguese houses, as well as Algier’s traditional medina houses. The house is constructed on a terraced orange grove dotted with some hundred year old palm trees. The house rests on a base of yellow stones, in an existing continuity of terraces. The building in white concrete gives the impression of being developed only at the stage, thus reducing its impact on the terrain.The house has been designed to preserve the existing greenery as much aspossible: thus the main entrance located along a stone wall which penetrates inside a double-height space, is carried out by climbing stairs directly inline with a palm tree which is viewed in its entirety through a glass wall.
All the openings of the houses have been designed aspaintings open to the surrounding nature, framed by palm trees, orange trees oryuccas.
Specific attention has been given to the environmental impact: the rainwater is collected on the roof to the north and joins the garden irrigation system, while the terrace waters are redirected to the southern side and flow through gargoyles in old tiles salvaged in Algiers country side. The flow of water from the terrace thus serves to irrigate the bougainvillea planted along the base. The wall of the base, very thick, insulates the ground floor rooms from the heat in summer, while the concrete floor is transversely ventilated.
I noticed that you change the office. Can please talk about the new location and design.(a picture for this).
I just moved to a new office close to place de la République and Canal Saint Martin in Paris. In Paris, architects often share spaces. This is a 250spm loft, and we are 4 offices. I love to work with other architects even though everyone have it’s own works. In this way we can share experiences and sometimes do competitions or works together.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job as a designer? And the most rewarding one?
The two most frustrating aspects are not getting along with a client and dealing with non professional construction companies or craftsmen.
For the clients, fortunately it really rarely happened to me, but not being able to communicate, or having your design not understood is really frustrating. Another tough aspects in the psychology, when you design a house you touch to intimacy, and sometimes you have to be both a diplomat and psychologist in order to deal with your client, and we are not trained to that!
The most rewarding one is to have a happy client, and working with a great craftsmen who are able to realize your designs and be part of the design process offering technical solution you wouldn’t have think of.
I believe that a good project is a good design combined with a goodrelationship and exchange with a client as well as with the craftsmen.
You have completed many apartment renovations through out the world. How you work with small spaces?
For small spaces I try to design as much custom made furniture as possible when the budget permits it in order not to have to buy any closets. I try toget rid of circulation or corridors in order to gain as much space as possible.I always pay a great attention to doors, I try to have them custom made not at the standard dimensions, thinner and taller, or sometimes floor to ceiling doors as if they were opening or sliding walls. The trick is to try to give the impression that the space is bigger than what it really is.
What are your plans for the future?
I did a training in CRATERRE, the earth architecture institute in Grenoble about a year ago, and I am about to start to design a house in earth bricks in an Oasis in Algeria. I hope I can extend my knowledge in earth architecture. I would like to answer to some public competition with a friend of mine in Paris in order to access to bigger projects. I would like to keep on doing interior design too that I love too, but I would like it to be about 50% of my activity.
Tell us something unusual that happened in your career.
3 years ago I was asked by a client to design a house, when we started the works the client asked me to choose the furniture, and at the end to buy decoration objects, linen, dishes as well as paintings and photographs on the walls. I chose the furniture in china, designed part of it, I had to travel to the factory in Hong kong for quality control and to deal with exportation companies. It was really fun to think of everything, from concrete walls till teaspoons, and I am not sure such an experience is going to happen sometimes soon again. We completed the house in april 2011, and the client seems quite happy with it.
What is your favorite book/magazine on design? How about your favorite site?
My favorite magazine is DETAILS . I like too, some French architecture magazine such as ECOLOGIK, MAISON A VIVRE, LE MONITEUR.When I travel to Italy I always buy ABITARE. To have some ideas on colors and new decoration trends I read sometimes ELLE DECO.
What you recommend for this year ?
I was recently at Milan furniture fair and discovered a very talented and already well known young Japanese designer OKI SATO, his company is called NENDO.I was really impressed by the lightness and pureness of his designs and objects.I would really recommend discovering his work.
What advice do you have for young designers or architects reading this interview?
I would advice to travel and to work as much as possible abroad to open their mind to other culture, way of working, and languages.
If you had to describe your work in three words, what would these words be?
Patience, psychology, diplomacy!
In the end, tell us how you’d like to change the world if you wanted it to be a better place.
Many great architects tried to change the world thanks to utopic cities and design. I am a great fan of RURAL studio for example who developed houses called “earth ships” in the 70’s completely ofgrid, I believe he is one of the pioneer of the increasing interest ofsustainable architecture today.
Making the world better is not a matter of big things;everyone can change things at their scales. Building more sustainably at my little scale may contribute to that, even though I believe that sustainability has always existed, it is a matter of observing traditional ways of building through out the world.