Since 2016, the artists, designers and researchers of Atelier Luma, the research arm of the art institution Luma Arles, have been mining the potential of bioregional materials. They have been primarily focused on the Camargue coastal area surrounding Arles, exploring the soil, salt, algae and sunflowers – and other natural resources and agricultural waste endemic to the place – for possible use in bio-based pigments and construction materials.
Though the atelier has been locally focused on what it describes as a “cartographic approach to the territory and a thorough investigation into the region’s know-how and undervalued resources,” the methods it has innovated are meant to be shared and adapted around the world.
Indeed, these methods have borne fascinating fruit over the years: bioplastic tiles infused with the natural hues of algae, biolaminate panels made from mussel shells, and a collection of bioplastic stools, incorporating micro-algae as well as plant-based additives and dyes, that were shown in an exhibit dedicated to Atelier Luma at the 2023 edition of the Milan behemoth Alcova.
A few years ago, Atelier Luma outgrew its facilities in the Parc des Ateliers, the collection of 19th-century industrial buildings that serve as satellite venues for Luma Arles, which is perhaps still best known for Frank Gehry’s tower of shimmering steel. (Atelier Luma’s contribution to that building’s interiors, however, might be more interesting than its look-at-me facade: wall panels made of salt, bioplastic tiles made with algae-based dyes, and a wall coating, in the café, based on sunflower pith).
The move to a new location on the same site – the 2,000-square-metre Magasin Électrique – presented an opportunity to dig deeper into material innovation than any of the atelier’s previous endeavours. In fact, the architectural project would constitute a three-year experiment in interior construction that would result in a stupendous new laboratory, featuring a biolab and wood, ceramics and textile workshops; office spaces; a dye house; a materials testing lab, a plant garden; and public program spaces.
To reimagine the building, Atelier Luma collaborated with BC architects & studies and Assemble – two firms known for making beautiful aesthetic statements with non-extractive materials. The trio would incorporate many of the prototypes that Atelier Luma had been testing since its inception.
They began by gutting the building, then constructing timber frame structures for the three zones: a long and linear workshop with a mezzanine structure tinged by indigo and blue algae, and a more capacious “agora” – split into two spaces for fluctuating programmatic needs, from events to exhibits, featuring its own mezzanines. In this double-sided hall, a terrazzo floor featuring an almost calligraphic motif – made of the profiles of salvaged roof tiles – melds elegantly with the rammed earth walls.
Throughout, every detail – from those rammed earth walls and the sunflower-fibre and rice-straw acoustic panels to the natural-stained finishes and bioplastic furnishings – corresponds to Atelier Luma’s ethos and delivers a beautiful result. The finishes might be experimental but the materials are employed with a measured refinement, a serene palette of earthy tones coalesces into a striking aesthetic. Atelier Luma’s home in the Magasin Électrique should serve as both a proof of concept for biobased architecture and interiors and for good design, period.
With its new home at Luma Arles, the research collective and its collaborators – BC architects & studies and Assemble – employ a compelling palette of natural and waste materials.