October 7, 2015
by Sarah Fletcher
INTERVIEWED BY Sarah Fletcher
Maxime-Alexis Frappier’s tie falls askew over his button-up shirt. He speaks with a surfeit of gestures, every sentence simmering with energy. Seated across from me in his office at ACDF architecture, his demeanour is business-like, yet evokes his barely contained passion.
Frappier co-founded ACDF in 2006 after working at a large firm for the better part of a decade. Now, ACDF has almost 40 employees and is getting international exposure. We talk about some of his watershed moments, how the experimental strategy of the company evolved, and the “bling-bling” style he tries to avoid.
St-Germain Égouts et Aqueducs in St-Hubert, Quebec.
So how did you start off with ACDF?
Almost the first project I did as lead designer of the firm was a project called St-Germain Égouts et Aqueducs in the South of Montreal. We won a Governor General’s Award for that building. It was a third generation family-owned business, and they were struggling. They were not able to hire really good salesmen because nobody wanted to stand in the space five minutes.
Entrance to St-Germain Égouts et Aqueducs.
Interior of St-Germain Égouts et Aqueducs, which won a Governor General’s Medal.
I said to them, “You know what? I’m going to change the course of your business.” One or two months after construction started, we were facing problems and they wanted to put cheap lighting in and change stuff here and there. I said, “You know guys, I tell you— if you follow me and listen to what I have to say, we are going to win a Governor General’s award.” They started to laugh…
A competition entry for the new terminal at Keelung Port, Taipai, Taiwan.
How did you start working in the international arena?
We got invited by partners in Vietnam to do a proposal for a very big competition in Taipei: a huge harbour terminal, with a budget of 300 or 400 million. It was enormous…!
We said, “Well, we don’t have a chance, but it will be therapeutic.” We needed to have fun. So we decided to do it rapidly and put in a very strong statement. The Taiwanese were asking for an iconic building, you know, Asian. We said “NO!” [bangs fist on the table]. “We reject everything that’s been done in Asia for the past 25 years, all the iconic approaches. We think it’s time to come back to simple shapes. “
Well, we got shortlisted with Asymptote, Mecanoo, and PAR, a young talented firm from Los Angeles and Europe. I was on vacation with my wife and my kids, and the Canadian embassy called me: “We heard that you have just been selected; how can we help you?” So we entered the second phase and when we arrived over there, we presented the project and I saw all the models by the big stars. I told my team, “We are on the fourth line, but we are in the NHL. We can compete on the same ice as these guys. Let’s go and chase the puck.”
[Frappier jumps up and grabs a pen].
Because you know, our practice comes from two types of dynamics. The standard, regular type project here [he draws a straight line], where we just try to do our best. Then we have here what I call the R&D line [he draws a second straight line on top of the first]: teaching, doing a lot of manifestos, pronouncing ourselves on some items in the city, proposing solutions, lots of research, competitions like the one in Taiwan…
Every time we worked on those things, we were learning or it was providing us with ideas and energy for our real projects here [he gestures at his original line], where we’re able to generate a little bit of money. We’re very much investing in that, to make sure that this bottom line is going to merge with this top one. And once the lines merge, then we’re going to start with another at the top just to have something a little more extreme.
Night view of the competition entry.
So you’re constantly pushing the envelope farther out?
What proportion of projects is the top line?
15% or 20%. You have to understand that it’s a huge investment. We were just having so much fun, and the fun we were having was helping us improve our practice because of the research. We know that this is very important to keep your mind fresh.
Rendering of an arts centre in Repintigny, recently completed by ACDF.
Who is your favorite architect?
Álvaro Siza. I’ve seen only one project of Siza’s in Portugal, the national pavilion for the Universal Exhibition. And I was very, very impressed. The quality of it was above everything. Honestly, it’s one of the best projects I have seen in the world. The control of the shape; it’s minimal, it’s simple, but it integrates the curves well. It’s subtle.
Sometimes we fall in the trap of trying to do something more bling-bling, because we’re still exploring, but what really drives me is quiet elegance and simplicity. The shape and the materiality, this is where I want to go. Siza, for me, is the one that I respect the most.
Is that your favourite building then?
Another one that I have a really strong emotion for is the Prada store in Tokyo, by Herzog and de Meuron. Every time I travel in Asia, I always try to have a transfer in either Tokyo or Hong Kong. And if I’m transferring in Tokyo, I have eight hours to go downtown to the fashion district.
You have so many nice buildings, but the materiality of this one, the way that’s it’s positioned in the city, the way that it creates an urban space around it—this is one of the best that I have seen. It’s really a question of the emotion, when you see a building.
Sarah Fletcher is a Montreal-based writer.