by Devanshi ShahSep 16, 2021
On the banks of river Ire in France's Lake Annecy region, Collectif Exercice has built La Charbonnière, as part of an annual international architectural competition: Le Festival des Cabanes or 'Hut Festival’, that aimed to educate stakeholders and local residents on humanity's relationship with the environment. This objective materialised in the form of a dozen unique huts across 12 different locations, in proximity to the various municipalities of Lake Annecy. All these temporary installations endeavoured to present an alternative view of how humans could live in respectful harmony with the land and its resources. Such depictions are particularly relevant given our species' current destructive, wasteful, and exploitative behaviour towards the natural world.
La Charbonnière was one among these installations within the locality. Gracing the shore of the river Ire in Chevaline - one of the region's communes - it punctuated an extensive pathway that ran throughout the competition's grounds and had been open to hikers and passers-by between June and November 2020. A precariously poised primeval-looking shelter, the structure consisted of rows of logs tied together to form an irregular cone-shaped mound.
Founded in 2016, 'Exercice' is a collective of three architects: Vincent Vergain, Nicolas Vallée, and Nicolas Bien, who together sought to investigate and harmonise the realms of nature and the built environment. They attempt to provide focused, inventive solutions to the problems they encounter, utilising a mixture of traditional architectural practices alongside art installation methods to achieve these aims. With the aid of the local wood industry, the collective designed and constructed the installation in full.
To prepare the wood for the installation, the collective worked in conjunction with local lumberjacks and a nearby sawmill. The shelter's structure was composed of coniferous rafters - that were evenly treated using Japanese wood burning techniques with torches and then stacked in an open beam construction system, bound together with screws. A layer of logs referred to as the 'charbonnettes’, wrapped around this framework in five rows of diminishing diameter. Consisting of wood species that vary from birch to ash and beech, the logs reflected the surrounding forest's rich diversity of vegetation. A series of hooks and wires completed the assembly and fastened them to the larger framework.
On approaching La Charbonnière along the pathway, that ran through thickets of trees and vegetation, visitors were greeted by a slender, lopsided, conical structure composed of upright logs, stacked to envelop a framework with a spiral layout. Gradually, while moving around the structure, an entryway revealed itself on one side of this figurative wooden 'cloak' - leading to a dark gallery within. With walls made of soot-blackened timber, the shed's 'hearth' at its centre could be accessed through a short, winding route that culminated in a striking view of the heavens above through the structure's open chimney. Small openings within the framework here permitted diffused light to filter into the space.
The design drew heavily from the Ire Valley region's long history of charcoal production. During the 18th century, the area's forested slopes served as a major fuel source for local blast furnaces, aiding the growth of the flourishing charcoal industry. At the time, colliers (coal makers) in Chevaline, France used to chop and collect young oak and beech trees to construct traditional charcoal piles.
These structures were composed of metre-long logs arranged in concentric circles around a triangular chimney, covered with moss, leaves, and soil to form a mound. Under the supervision of charcoal burners, the process of converting wood to charcoal within the piles usually lasted several days. Usually located in the vicinity of a water source, the structures were once littered all around the Ire river's shores.
La Charbonnière's design echoed this age-old practice - but presented a more ecologically friendly and constructive interpretation of the valley's charcoal-producing traditions. This premise aligned with Collectif Exercice's other creative endeavours that often had conceptual origins deeply rooted within their regional historical contexts. The shelter strove to forge a dialogue with its environment, through its rustic rugged materiality, and historical references, depicting a time when the human inhabitants of a region were more respectful and in tune with nature.
Name: La Charbonnière
Location: Chevaline, Haute Savoie, France
Year of Completion: 2020
Architects: Collectif Exercice (Vincent Vergain, Nicolas Vallée, Nicolas Bien)
Competition: Le Festival des Cabanes 2020