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THE MIRAGE, 2007. Contemporary art centre and artists residence in Marrakech, Morocco. The main volume rests on a podium of stainless steel meant to suggest a mirage in the desert. Design by Didier Faustino, Mesarchitecture (Mesarchitecture/Mesarchitecture)
THE MIRAGE, 2007. Contemporary art centre and artists residence in Marrakech, Morocco. The main volume rests on a podium of stainless steel meant to suggest a mirage in the desert. Design by Didier Faustino, Mesarchitecture (Mesarchitecture/Mesarchitecture)

French architect a fresh breeze amid convention Add to ...

Generally speaking, the speakers featured in this year’s Bulthaup lecture series at the University of Toronto’s architecture school are professionals on the cutting edge of contemporary design and theory. But not many of them slice larger hunks out of the conventional wisdom about what architects are supposed to be and do than Didier Faustino, who will present his work and tell his story as part of the series on Tuesday evening (Nov. 22).

Born in France and based in Paris, Mr. Faustino actively pursues a career as an architect, while also showing works of visual art. He has engaged in numerous design competitions since finishing school in the late 1990s, but most of his proposals – often beautifully imaginative and daring – have been too provocative to get built. And even the name he has given to his small practice, Bureau des Mésarchitectures, is an irreverent gesture toward his profession: it sounds, in French, like “office of misadventure.”

But if he doesn’t fit any stereotype in either the art scene or the field of architecture, Mr. Faustino blows through both worlds like a fresh breeze. He questions every piety and persistently transgresses boundaries. He has used the occasion of an embassy competition, for example, to criticize the deceit and prevarication involved in much international diplomacy. And, in executing one of his few realized projects, a community meeting place in South Korea, he has backed local resistance to official schemes to bulldoze a squatter settlement in the neighbourhood. University of Toronto students may not learn much about winning big commissions from Mr. Faustino’s lecture, but they will likely get a moral lift from seeing the work of so politically forthright an architect.

“I will really focus on one idea in Toronto,” he told me in a telephone conversation last week. “It’s the fragile membrane between private and public, between the collective and individual. The way we develop a project is to try to make something visible as an object or position or situation, then go to a different symbolic plane, developing something more conceptual, more hidden and dangerous. This danger is really positive, because without it life is really monotonous.”

The strategy comes straight out of the social and cultural vociferousness of the late 1960s and the left-wing conceptual art of the 1970s – though Mr. Faustino, who came into the world in 1968, was too little to take part in the revolution.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I grew up in this period, in a family absolutely not interested in contemporary art or architecture. It came to me a bit later, this spirit of political engagement. The 1980s were cynical, and so were the 1990s. But this spirit is coming back now, in a reboot of engagement, and it seems to me to have a kind of elegance,”

Given his embrace of such attitudes, it’s not surprising that Mr. Faustino gets short shrift from the rich and powerful.

“A commission starts to be unacceptable when I cannot make visible the question of power – when it’s an invitation to camouflage or hide domination. Of course, we didn’t win the embassy competition, but it was really about freedom, a way of thinking about what is really important in art and architecture. We need artists and architects who reveal what is wrong, what is not working out, what is an unacceptable situation. I do it my way. My projects are my weapons.”

If all that makes this designer sound too pugnacious and moralistic ever to land a job, it’s worth noting that he occasionally finds an assignment that satisfies his exacting demands. He’s now at work on a small house in Spain, for example, and he is doing a nightclub in France – the latter being a place of what he calls “seduction and freedom and animality.” (He is French, after all.)

Mr. Faustino’s most incisive and eloquent projects, however, tread the borderline between art and architecture, and do strange things at the interface between public and private spaces. Take, for instance, a recent two-part installation – one version was realized in New York, the other in Los Angeles – in which he transformed the galleries into territories that resembled, in a nutshell, the typical public-private relationship in their respective cities.

To do this, he deployed chain-link fencing, topped with barbed wire, to demarcate the boundary between inside and outside. In New York, this move took the form of a threatening barrier – a visible manifestation of a hard, invisible line that New Yorkers instinctively respect. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the fencing creates an open passageway – a symbol of the more fluid, mobile sense of space in that city.

“I love to play with borders,” he told me. “It pushes my clients and myself and my team to explore the limits of the system. If we don’t stay in full consciousness of what’s around us, and we start to be comfortable, the projects will not be so interesting. It would be better to become a businessman and make money. For me, architecture is political engagement.”

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