Jean Michel Wilmotte, The Art of Architecture

In November, I sat down with Jean-Michel Wilmotte in his office in Paris, rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the headquarters of Wilmotte Associés. For more than 40 years, Jean-Michel Wilmotte and his team are leading projects all over the world and are working in 28 countries. Today, WA unites 272 architects, urban planners, designers, museography specialists and interior designers. Recently the firm completed in Paris: Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus, the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center, and the refurbishment of the Hotel Lutetia. Other recent commissions for the practice include the Sciences Po Campus and the Austerlitz Train Station in Paris, the European University of Saint Petersburg in Russia, ArcelorMittal worldwide new headquarters in Luxembourg, Bleu Ciel residential tower in Dallas and the UN headquarters for West Africa in Senegal. Here is my interview.

What could we learn from your exceptional career?

I do like this job in spite of the difficulties because it is my passion! I belong to a generation that expresses itself depending on the geopolitical and human situation. When we live in an era, we the same political, geographical, intellectual, artistic and life elements. When you are a creative person, an architect, all your projects are the results of the combination of those elements that makes who you are.

How could you describe your career?

I would say that my career is very diverse. From the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice to an Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, the headquarters of The United Nations for West Africa in Senegal or a Tower in Dallas, I like the diversity of my work and that makes it very interesting. I think the most important is to be true and not to be influenced by trends and others thoughts. It is not always easy as there are a lot of influences, contingencies and laws. I think we need to be a lot more concerned by human projects. It is also important to work on public spaces and not only on private ones. We have to adapt our knowledges continually. Recently, we have built a very luxurious chalet in Courchevel but we have also worked on an affordable housing project for local people in the ski resort. It’s important to stay in the reality of the world we live in. For example, we have been involved in the urban vision of the Greater Moscow but we have worked on an urban project in a small village near the Enclaves des Papes in France. This diversity of scales is very fascinating. Town planning is interesting but we also need to focus our attention on smaller scale projects. In France, rural spaces are deserted and it is really sad. Last week I was in Champagne Pouilleuse area, I did not see anybody, maybe just one or two cars, and all the stores were closed. We -architects- have to try to bring back life in those areas, and to balance empty and dense areas. I am obviously lucky but I also provoked my luck. Today, we work on different scales projects but when I started, we only did interior design then private furniture projects. Wilmotte Associés is currently an international design practice with a multicultural team and works in 28 countries around the world.

How do you define the architectural grafting?

This issue is really important to me. The architectural grafting is a dialogue between the heritage and a contemporary design. For example, a beautiful but abandoned monastery could be transformed into a museum or a housing but the building is too small. Then, there are two options, one is the pastiche that I hate, and the second is the architectural grafting. The grafting is the result of an elegant marriage between an existing building -whose history we respect- and a contemporary one using new technologies and knowledge.

What is the main mission of your foundation whose gallery is located in Venice?

The main mission is to encourage and raise awareness around the architectural grafting, to give opportunities to students in architecture and young professionals who do not really learn this topic at school. We launch a European competition every two years, the Prix W award, and then support the laureates. We publish a book about their works and we give them a scholarship. Today, we have a network of 6,000 young architects in 400 schools thanks to our award.

You are a member of Académie des Beaux-Arts in France. What does this membership represent for you?

I am really honored to be part of this French official institution. The Academy gathers all the Arts: music, painting, sculpture, engraving, cinema, choreography, photography and architecture. It is so great to be able to meet at the same time a colleague who is an architect, a musician or a great photographer. Together, we reflect and discuss on really interesting topics. It is incredible to have so many creative people in one place.

Since 2010, Wilmotte and Associés has been one of the 100 largest architectural firms, do you still have challenges?

Yes, I have many. Two big challenges. The first one is to work deeply in quality on our projects and the second one which is very important is the transmission of cultural heritage. I am really interested by this topic. One more challenge is to do well all what I have to do now.

Where do you like to travel?

I love travelling in Europe, Reykjavik and Lisbon. France of course. And Italy, Pouilles, Roma, Venezia. I simply love cities. Just wandering around and discovering! Walking in the streets of Roma is my best way to regain strength. I love Venezia because there are no cars and no barriers. You really feel free. I like the fact that we can get lost in Venezia through Le Ghetto, Cannaregio, the Hospital. We can walk without meeting any tourist and this is fabulous. Russia is another country that I appreciate. I love the culture, the people, the cities. I love taking the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Chatting with local people and enjoying the beautiful landscape during winter.

I read your book Dictionnaire Amoureux of Architecture, how did you pick your 200 words?

The selection was so hard. In fact, I took the end part of my agenda with the alphabetical order and during one year I wrote almost a word per day. I got 350 entries and they published 200. This project was very long but very interesting, it took me four years to do it! I discovered outstanding places and it is too bad that there are not in the book! But I’m really proud of having done this Dictionnaire Amoureux.