Franklin Azzi, architect

Paris, June 2021

Franklin Azzi is an architect whose work is inspired by the relationships between different approaches and disciplines. The continual interaction between architecture, interior architecture, design and contemporary art (supported by a dedicated Endowment Fund) promoted at his agency, has led him to develop a design and construction technique that can be applied to spaces of any size and type. We met him at his home in the heart of Paris’s Rive Gauche, before heading towards the Sentier quarter in the Rive Droite for a private visit of the practice he set up in 2006.

Could you start by introducing yourself?

I’m Franklin Azzi and I work as an architect. I created my architectural practice 15 years ago. The practice offers a combination of urban planning, architecture, interior architecture, design and street furniture.

In 2019, I set up the Franklin Azzi Endowment Fund to promote contemporary art, and have been running it for three years.  We organise group or solo exhibitions twice a year and we also support artists during the production phase of their artworks.

What does that support actually consist of?

We take on the role of engineering consultants if you like. Some artists’ projects come up against technical issues, such as foundations, size, water tightness, resistance, materials. They are sometimes complex issues that we are used to dealing with in architecture. We provided support for renowned French artist Tatiana Trouvé, for example, who received a public commission to produce a piece for Central Park in New York. It was a very large sculpture, almost architectural in nature.

When did your passion for art begin?

I’ve always loved art, but it became a real passion when I was studying in the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. Similarly to the Bauhaus, it’s a school that boasts every discipline: industrial car design, fashion design, pottery, sculpture, cabinetmaking and so on. That’s where I discovered what it meant to work with craftspeople and artists. As I discovered one workshop and then another, I realised that they had different skills to offer. It taught me to look at things from another angle. The school also gave me a taste for working with materials, soft materials, fabrics.

Did your taste for interior architecture come from here?

Yes, I really enjoy interior architecture. For me, it’s as important as any of the other disciplines. At our agency, our architectural designs can be quite strict. Interior architecture allows me to create a bridge between worlds and add a softer human touch, in more ways than one. For me, you can’t have one without the other.

In fact, if you look back to the 50s and 60s, architects like Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier worked with others but kept a hand on the overall outcome of the place they were creating – from the furnishings right down to the door handles sometimes! That’s what we have been trying to do at the agency for a few years now, with what we like to call “comprehensive architecture”: we incorporate interior architecture into the main architectural project, with dedicated teams.

How do you envisage the future for architects?

When we look at the architects from the 80s who put France on the map, they were more like artist-architects. What I mean is that they drew projects very freely, and then engineers would step in to help them make their project a reality. Today, we’re at the crossroads of all kinds of crises: economic, health-related, environmental. Our profession has become focused on technical aspects. We can’t just draw free-form, we have to justify our choices. We have to be able to draw on a wide variety of knowledge with a very large scope.

Today, the gap between craft and profession has widened in architecture. What I mean is that young architects learn a craft in the noble and ultra-creative sense of the word, whereby they are asked to let go and express themselves freely. However, when they enter the world of work, reality bites, as architects actually spend 90% of their time solving really complex issues. Yet, this problem-solving also leads to a creative pathway that is quite unique, where each individual can add their personal touch.

How would you describe the Franklin Azzi signature?

I’m rather like a minimalist artist who likes working on materials, industrial processes, a streamlined project. I have peers who like to get creative before getting technical, but personally, I think that plenty of creativity can stem from working on technical aspects. It leads to a form of creativity that is quite bold and pure. That’s what I encourage in my practice.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I have many sources of inspiration but the main one is my collection of old architectural magazines. I constantly add to my collection dating from the 50s, 60s and 70s, and although it doesn’t provide a new perspective, it helps me understand what was happening at the time and gives me the freedom to draw what I want. You end up realising that architecture is like any other discipline – past trends invariably resurface time and again. I’m from a generation that enjoys sampling, like in music and design. We soak up lots of historical information and after a while, it comes out reformulated as a kind of architectural exquisite corpse. There have been many different periods – functionalist, decorative, minimalist, constructivist... but in the end, I feel that the truth can only be found in sampling, rather than in any of these major trends individually.

How does contemporary art fit into your business activities?

My friends from the art world have always said that they feel torn between exhibiting their work in galleries and the impression of being in a consumerist system in which they are no longer free to express themselves.  At the agency, we have a space where we can exhibit artworks. The Franklin Azzi Endowment Fund has been organising exhibitions for a few years and they are now a regular event. Created in 2019, the objective of the not-for-profit Endowment Fund is to develop, promote and showcase contemporary artistic creation in every shape and form. From exhibitions held at our offices at rue d’Uzès to indoor or outdoor installations, we offer support to young talent fresh out of fine art and applied art schools, and combine them with artists who are already well established and represented.

What I like about USM is that I can tailor my furniture to my needs, which change every year.

When you set up your practice 15 years ago, was it in this building?

No, I started out in a small attic room! Then I got my first gig, a bit like you do in music, and I was able to rent out another space. Eight years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to buy this office space on rue d’Uzès. We are in a building that was built by Boussac for clothing workshops at the end of the 19th century, during the golden age of construction.

We restored the building and still carry out some building work every year to try to return it to its original state. When we bought it, there were false floors and ceilings, and flush-mounted spotlights – it looked awful! And just as well really, because otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it!

Isn’t restoring buildings one of your agency’s fortes?

Yes. Today, half of our projects are restorations but tomorrow, I think the ration will be two thirds restoration and one third new constructions. It makes sense nowadays as restoration is the best solution to the environmental crisis. The time it takes to erect a building really impacts carbon emissions and the depletion of materials such as sand and concrete is an added factor.

Restoration is something I love doing. With modern buildings, there’s always the stress of your mind going blank, whereas with restorations, it’s kind of fun to imagine what a fellow architect may have done 50 or 60 years ago. The idea is to try to understand the essence of the design and not betray it. We also work with historians, which is how we manage to find the right answers with regard to the original designs. We have already restored two buildings by Jean Prouvé, and right now, we’re working on a building by the architect Jacques Lecoeur in the Marais quarter. He was a contemporary of Auguste Perret and part of the generation that was first to build using concrete.

A lot of the furniture at your agency is black, was this an aesthetic choice?

No, it was a purely professional decision. I’m not especially a fan of black. My home is much more colourful! But I’m a bit like an artist in a workshop: I work better in a neutral environment. I don’t like having colours in my office. And anyway, given that we’re about 60 people working here, we need a bit of sobriety.

Do you remember your first piece of USM furniture?

I’m lucky enough to live in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, where people throw out unbelievable things, and that’s how I found my first piece of USM furniture – in the street! It’s an early USM piece, an orange storage element that had been completely covered in vinyl, but I recognized the steel tubes and joints. I restored it and it now lives in my house.

I came across my other USM pieces by being in the right place at the right time. There used to be a once flourishing media group just down the street from our office. Their offices were furnished with USM furniture. When they moved, I was able to buy batches of USM furniture from them. Little by little, I began a collection as such.

What I like about USM is that I can tailor my furniture to my needs, which change every year. I follow very strict rules when it comes to the durability of things – objects that don’t last are not made for me.

That’s why I collect military objects – they require a huge amount of engineering research before seeing the light of day. The army has actually played a driving role in most areas at some point, including in the realm of furniture. I once collected Swiss army furniture, which now lives in my country house. That furniture is design in its purest form, and that’s what I like. I don’t like it when a designer takes precedence over an object, because when you make an object just to sell it, it isn’t durable.

USM furniture, however, is made to last and is timeless. I’ve lived and worked among it for 15 years now and it doesn’t feel outdated. I truly enjoy seeing it every day.

We warmly thank Franklin Azzi for his welcome and our fascinating discussions. You can discover the agency's work on their website or Instagram @franklinazzi.

If you want to purchase a USM Haller piece yourself design it now in our online configurator, or find your local sales partner here.

Photographs: Alexandre Moulard