August 10, 2009
With real estate prices declining and more unique living spaces becoming available to buyers, it’s an exciting time to be practicing architecture in Paris. I recently chatted with American architect Michael Herrman about the challenges and rewards of working in a city where contemporary design is finding its place amid some of Europe’s most revered historical architecture. Michael brings a fresh point-of-view to this paradox, maintaining that the most inspired architecture arises from the intersection of new and old, classic and modern, existing and imagined. In his recently launched private practice, he will continue to explore these dichotomies as he makes his mark on Paris.
Originally from Miami, Michael studied architecture at Cornell University before earning an M. Arch. from Princeton. He was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study in Spain where he began a PhD that he completed at universities in Seville, Paris, and Rome. Concurrent with his academic pursuits, he worked on projects in Tokyo with famed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, in Rome as the recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize in architecture, and Paris—most recently collaborating with Jean Nouvel on the acclaimed Musée du Quai Branly. For Michael, his academic studies and his “real world” design work were always intertwined. “My PhD in architecture provided a way for me to map out a focus and create a manifesto of sorts for my design work. My instinct from the beginning was to learn from my environment, from the histories of the cities in which I lived, as well as from the great architects for whom I worked, before forging an independent practice in architecture.”
With his PhD completed and his book, Hypercontextuality, off to the printing presses, Michael has seized this opportune moment to open his own practice in the City of Light. We caught up with him to ask a few questions as he prepares to launch this exciting phase of his career.
HiP: Why did you decide to set up your practice in Paris?
MH: Paris is one of those unique cities that both knows how to preserve its wealth of historic architecture and give opportunities to architects to create ambitious contemporary works. It was that rare balance that attracted me to the city. After years of working in Jean Nouvel’s architecture studio, mostly on the Musée du Quai Branly in the center of Paris, I felt it was the right moment to start my own practice. The American Rome Prize in architecture initially provided me with my own studio space. After years of working in Paris, I felt I knew the ins and outs of its complex planning approval and permits processes. I’ve also built a network of excellent contractors and artisans here, and Paris itself provides an incomparably stimulating architectural environment.
HiP: What type of projects do you hope to take on now that you’ve opened your own practice?
MH: For the moment, I am focusing on residential projects as well as continuing with restaurant design. My involvement in the design of Les Ombres, the rooftop restaurant at the Musée du Quai Branly afforded me a familiarity with restaurant design in Paris that I am excited to pursue. Residential projects have always been of particular interest to me because of the level of detail and personalization that can be achieved, especially in Paris, where the vast array of unique apartments offer opportunities to innovate based on what already exists. I’ve also worked in boutique hotel design, which I would like to do more of in the future.
HiP: What is your ideal project? What type of clientele do you most enjoy working with?
MH: Whether an apartment, restaurant, or hotel, I am particularly interested in designing spaces for those who visit Paris. There are so many preconceptions of what Paris is – what we see in cinema, postcards, and famous works of art – that I really enjoy the process of working with and challenging those preconceptions. My book, Hypercontextuality, which was written as a manifesto for architecture, deals in large part with issues of tourism and preconceptions of Paris. The soon to be released City Walks Architecture: Paris guide that I wrote also explains the complexities of Paris architecture to visitors.
HiP: Do you think being an American architect in the Parisian market works to your advantage?
MH: Being fluent in French and English naturally situates me between the two cultures, and this has always been advantageous when I work with English-speaking clients who want to build in Paris. Beyond mere language, there is also a kind of cultural translation that takes place. The space itself must be suited for certain American sensibilities, while at the same time maintaining a particularly Parisian identity. I’m also fluent in Spanish and Italian, after having lived for years in those countries. I look forward to working with a diverse range of clients in the future.
HiP: What kind of renovation projects do you enjoy most?
MH: I particularly enjoy renovations that unite different spaces or completely transform an existing apartment into an unexpectedly vibrant living space. I’ve often found that even renovations that don’t appear particularly interesting at first can, in fact, evolve into something exciting as I delve deeper into the work. The more unique the space or challenging the renovation, the more satisfying it is when the project is complete.
HiP: Is it difficult to find apartments to renovate in Paris?
MH: It can be. This is a particularly good moment to buy in Paris because the state of the economy has made it easier to find good deals, especially on unique spaces. Today, people are selling penthouses or apartments with incredible views that would normally take months or years to find.
HiP: Can you let us in on any current projects?
MH: One project I’m currently working on is a two-story penthouse apartment near Place de la Madeleine. To create the apartment, I joined three different small apartments and the maids’ rooms. The result is a veritable two-story home sitting on the roof of an apartment building. The apartment is designed around an interior private courtyard in which I placed a two-story vertical garden that gives the impression of being in the countryside, while on top of building in the center of the city, and also allows the apartment to have a more environmentally positive footprint. To take advantage of the incredible views, a terrace with a panoramic view will be constructed. The existing stone walls, and wooden structure are carefully preserved and combined with a large amount of glass to give the apartment an openness often hard to come by in 18th century buildings.
For Michael, architecture has always provided a medium through which he could better understand his environment and “engage with the aesthetic, social, and political issues of the world.” Historical context and contemporary reality play a vital role in all of his projects, and we look forward to watching him negotiate these boundaries as his Paris practice takes shape.
To contact Michael about potential projects or to learn more about his practice, visit http://www.michaelherrmanstudio.com
Written by Tory Hoen
After attending Brown University and spending two years in New York, Tory bought a one-way ticket to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming a writer (and of drinking wine at lunch). During her time in the City of Light, she chronicled the euphoric highs and the laughable lows of ex-pat life on her blog, A Moveable Beast. Though she's now based in New York, she travels frequently to Montreal and Brazil, and she'll use just about any excuse to jet to Paris ("I ran out of fleur de sel"). A regular contributor to Hip Paris, Tory also writes for New York Magazine, Time Out New York, and she is a co-author of Gradspot.com's Guide To Life After College.
Website: Tory Hoen
Tags: american architect in paris, architects in paris, architectural design paris, architecture in paris, english-speaking architect, michael herrman, michael herrman architect, paris architecture, parisian architect, tory hoen
Posted in Arts, Parisian Living | 2 Comments »