Meghan Edwards | November 01, 2013
Picturing the monumental angles of an abandoned 1948 grain silo as the ideal frame for art requires a particularly inspired vision. And Jean-Philippe and Françoise Billarant have it. Longtime patrons of conceptual and minimalist work, they'd acquired a collection vastly too large for their Paris apartment when they commissioned the up-and-coming architect Xavier Prédine-Hug to convert the building into Le Silo, a 26,000-square-foot private gallery showcasing the likes of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, and Daniel Buren.
A rare find just an hour's drive northwest of Paris, in the town of Marines, the silo was notable for its stacked oblongs, instead of cylinders. The surrounding Picardy region faces the dual threats of urban encroachment and rural exodus, with most farm buildings abandoned, and the silo had been covered in graffiti and inhabited by pigeons for over 10 years. To rehabilitate it, the Billarants initially turned to a design powerhouse, Dominique Perrault—a close friend since Dominique Perrault Architecture built a factory with a rippling facade of woven steel for Jean-Philippe Billarant's Aplix Group, which got its start in Velcro and now makes any number of fasteners.
Perrault obtained the building permits for Le Silo and established that it should have two levels of exhibition space. But then he suggested that the couple seek out a younger eye. In 2008, he helped organize a competition among four emerging architects. Fresh from six years of designing hotels and yachts for Interior Design Hall of Fame member Philippe Starck, Prédine-Hug was hungry for a project to launch his namesake firm. He won out for his dedication to balancing the preservation of the silo's utilitarian past with the exhibition requirements of contemporary art. Le Silo definitely isn't another generic white-cube gallery.
Having the building remain true to its former life meant that, after cleaning and sanding the windowless concrete facade, reinventing the interior was a process of controlled elimination. "We kept as much of the structure as we could, so it was very delicate work," Prédine-Hug begins. A sequence of concrete walls originally partitioned the cavernous, 34-foot-high main space into 14 parallel compartments used to sort the grain according to its stages of drying. By removing roughly the central two thirds of each wall, then making additional cutouts in what remained, he created interconnected side bays flanking a large open area. The wall fragments display art or get out of its way, depending on your perspective. While he says he drew on geometry for certain alignments, including the placement of skylights, nothing is formulaic.
Subtractions facilitated the major addition, the second gallery level recommended by Perrault. To insert it without any visible support system, Prédine-Hug drilled holes 16 feet up the silo's walls, installed steel bars, and poured a concrete slab, its weight borne only by the embedded steel. At the rear, an aperture in the slab allows for a switchback stairway to connect the two gallery levels. At the front, another staircase rises from the galleries to a mezzanine and a slender tower. The latter, once equipment storage, has become a studio apartment ringed by bands of vertical slit windows. Artists in residence live there.
Le Silo welcomes the public by appointment, usually two groups of 30 to 100 visitors a week. What they see is intentionally challenging. "We're interested in art that resists an immediate understanding in order to reveal itself over time," Jean-Philippe Billarant says. It's also art that resists conventional illumination techniques. Prédine-Hug used fluorescent tubes to achieve a diffuse "cloud of light," as he describes it. "Spots wouldn't work, because these are conceptual, minimal works that have a direct relationship with the architecture." Indeed, he admits a special affinity for the eight site-specific pieces commissioned by the Billarants, for instance a projection that mirrors the shape of the window on the opposing wall. Prédine-Hug insists that neither art nor architecture is the "leader" at Le Silo: "The collection and the building are in dialogue." Let the conversation continue.
BTP Consultants: Acoustical Consultant. Becip Buhot Études Conseil Ingénierie Picardie: Structural, Mechanical Engineer. Bleuze Métal: Metalwork. Menuiserie du Moulin: Woodwork. Quintana: General Contractor.