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From industrial ruin to design laboratory: the Magasin Électrique, where Atelier LUMA has its new workspace in Arles in the south of France, is a commitment to “bioregional design practices”. What has been developed from the conditions of the region should also be adaptable in other regions and initiate sustainable change. At the same time, Jan Boelen’s team also uses this approach to evaluate current developments in bio-based materials with a critical eye.

By Karianne Fogelberg

Facade of Le Magasin Électrique, LUMA Arles, France. It opened its doors in May after three years of renovations with the collaboration of Belgian architects BC architects & studies and the London-based collective Assemble. © Adrian Deweerdt

In the southern French region around Arles, the sunflower fields reach to the horizon. The area is shaped on the one hand by salt production in the Camargue and traditional farming by sheep in the gravel plain of the Crau, and on the other hand by its location in the hinterland of the industrial city of Marseille and the fashionable holiday resorts on the Côte d’Azur, by industrial structural change and the increasingly hot and dry climate. It is precisely such overlapping conditions and resources that inspire bioregional design practices. These were applied to the renovation of Atelier LUMAs new location, the Magasin Électrique. Where the SNCF once serviced its trains, a research laboratory, production sites, resource centre and visitor centre now span 2,000 square metres, with an exhibition on the renovation and the practices used here for the first time on this scale until further notice.

A New Home for Atelier LUMA

For the Magasin Électrique is more than the latest addition to the LUMA Arles cultural complex, part of the Swiss-based LUMA Foundation. With its newly installed walls made from local excavated soil, acoustic panels made from sunflower fibres and rice straw, a terrazzo floor made from old roof tiles that rhythmise it with their characteristic wave pattern, door fittings and switches made from bioplastics and a new mezzanine floor made from wooden beams dyed with algae and indigo, the former industrial building serves as a prototype for the methods and approaches that Atelier LUMA has been developing in individual studies and projects since 2016.

The fact that Atelier LUMA is interested in renewable resources and circular practices is programmatic. For years, interdisciplinary teams here have been researching microalgae and agricultural by-products, the natural process of salt crystallisation or traditional weaving techniques with regard to possible applications in design and architecture. The work of the Algae Platform was shown at the Milan Design Week as well as at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The first material innovations such as tiles made of salt crystals have already been used in Frank Gehrys LUMA Tower in 2021. What is new, however, is the term “bioregional design practices”. Time to ask Jan Boelen, the artistic director of Atelier LUMA, what this is all about.

Wall of Salt project by Atelier LUMA, Salins de Giraud, France. © Adrian Deweerdt

Counter-Draft to the Industrial Mindset

In an interview with ndion, Jan Boelen compares the bioregional design practices to recipes: “We are like a big kitchen. The materials and findings which we are developing for one region, can then like recipes be taken to another region and be adapted to what we find locally.” Rather than copy-and-paste supposedly standard solutions, the aim is to work with local stakeholders and take into account local material and knowledge resources to create socially and environmentally sustainable practices that help the region adapt to changing social, economic and environmental conditions and become more resilient in the age of climate change and industrial transformation.

The approach is based on the realisation that sustainable development cannot lie in developing “one-size-fits-all” solutions for others and “transporting materials and machines around the world”: “We are not interested in replicating Atelier Luma but we focus on local production units of biomaterials because materials are heavy and should stay local, while ideas are light and should travel.”

In this context, Boelen is critical of the current development of biobased resources such as algae and fungal mycelium, which are the current hopefuls of the materials industry. Both materials are primarily developed into standardised products according to industrial ways of thinking. This makes them relatively easy to integrate into existing industrial processes, but the structural flaws in our production system and consumption habits remain unaffected – or are even reinforced: “The industry is focusing at this moment on 3 types of algae. If it goes on and everybody starts to use algae, only three algae types of the currently 100.000 algae will be left”, Boelen warns. According to him, it is not enough to replace problematic materials with those made from renewable resources if at the same time the focus on monocultures or disposable products is not also questioned: “When we are dealing with living materials, a strategy is really needed as otherwise you create again some multinational consumer materials, another ecological disaster, and we have to be very careful in enhancing that.”

Added Value through Design

From Atelier LUMA’s point of view, designers have an important role to play here. They can identify existing resources and knowledge and relate them in a new way, and they create networks of experts, sketch out initial application scenarios and put them up for discussion. The research on salt crystals in the Camargue, for example, was done in close cooperation with the salt farmers, whom Boelen describes as the real experts: “They understand how crystal grows faster and slower and more into that or that direction. The dialogue is for us super-important.” The designers in Henna Burney’s team then scaled these processes and transferred them into application.

Building site of Le Magasin Électrique, LUMA Arles, France.

The fact that people appropriate and design with existing resources is basically nothing new. Buildings made of clay and hemp lime or dyeing with local plant dyes have always existed. “Many things we are doing is not rocket science, you could do it yourself and try things out, and we publish and share it. But what we can, we can professionalize it, we can bring it to a level that is needed to work for instance with industries, or with certain technologies, or to adapt to certain security norms or other expectations of thermal and acoustic isolation.”

From Arles into the World

Arles is everywhere. Other regions also face the task of strengthening local economies and communities, promoting resilience and initiative, and actively shaping the challenges of industrial change, energy transition and climate change. The small-scale, decentralised solutions that Atelier LUMA develops cannot be transferred one-to-one, but can be adapted to guide transition processes elsewhere and set socially and environmentally sustainable practices in motion. Atelier LUMA is already working with different actors and organisations in other regions. These include the Middle East Crafts Council Irthi, whose projects support women in their economic independence. This commitment will be expanded in the future. Collaborations with companies are also in the works. One can be curious.

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