CLIENT                USI
YEAR                   2021
LOCATION           Firminy, France
NOMINATION     USI-Master Prize 2022
TAGS                   Architecture, Medium, Image, Drawing

- Machine fabricating fantasy. -

The machine is the engine of the project embracing a high level of performance for the production of goods as for the production of desires to change. It is showroom that cleanses, conditions and celebrates the generosity of energy. With no front or back of house, it is everything in between, where served and serving spaces, production and leisure merge into new moments of experiencing energy and where technology becomes commonplace. Built or unbuilt, real or surreal, it is an image of a thought that ought to make you think. An image giving form to a complexity of core issues of contemporary life, turning the negative connotation of energy, into a positive again.

Once there was a town named Firminy where energy was celebrated by the masses, yet what announced a new era decades ago, became a relic of the Anthropocene today. The habitants, deprived from the coal decline, lost their relationship to the source and began their escape to the suburbs. Energy became a distant memory, coal an abstraction and mines left as scars in the landscape. The Firminians decided its time for change to regain their proudness and celebrate its soil again within the climate goals of the future. A shift having many advantages from job creation to lower energy bills and stopping the depletion of unrenewable resources that have otherwise disastrous consequences.

Vers une architecture énergétique
But how exactly does Firminy achieve these desires for change in energy production and consumption? Perhaps an answer lays in the the idea of making it tangible in their daily lives again, so they can be aware what it is, how they use it and where it comes from. With this in mind, they began a quest to discover its most suitable clean source. In this future Europe where its borders are defined by renewable resources, the town seems to sit in Enhanced Geothermalia. Also a closer geographical look also indicates this presence of hot rocks hidden deep underground, as the similar case study town of Mendrisio which also showed geothermal potential where their first prototype was tested. Full of enthusiasm and excitement, Firminy thus proposes to Re-use its energetic legacy by Re-mining its landscape with the earths free irresistible hidden heat as the source.

Geothermal energy
Geothermal energy is the natural heat generated within the rocks and fluids of the Earth. It has been used for generations for bathing, cooking, heating through hot springs and geysers and recently for the creation of electricity. The small spatial impact above ground for this creation is remarkable compared to other renewables, yet its underground impact is of a much larger size. The Enhanced Geothermal System that tries to tame these forces of nature in Firminy, is a 30 MW plant drilling up to 180°C hot rocks, 4,5 km underground. It injects a cold brine where the fluid rapidly heats up and shoots back up to the surface. Here, the brine enters a closed loop system where it can be directly used for district heating and creating electricity. To cope with the fluctuating demands, heat can be stored partially in the plant as in some of the abandoned mines. This plant is placed in the densest part of city to cut costs and energy losses which on its turn stops de-densification of Firminy’s shrinking core. The whole Valley already has other existing renewable systems yet this geothermal plant in the centre of Firminy would cover over 90% of its total energy consumption. It can easily be attached to the existing heat infrastructure and its positioning allows an extension for new industries. Here, sandwiched between Firminy’s centre, its industrial zone and directly accessible from the rail- and highway, lands an Ark whose location alone maximizes exposure and identity, too relating to the surrounding scale of the industrial factories as the solitary Modernist objects. Together with this existing plant, the town’s demand could be completely covered by clean energy and even create a surplus for new investors. These energy thirsty programs can profit from the 24/7 energy input while making the plant much more viable since it is a rather expensive and longterm investment.

A geothermal atlas
Firminy’s geothermal station is a heat hub thats produces energy for the city, stores it in its gigantic boiler and consuming this waste heat directly inside. The plant becomes a catalogue where its programs are organized according to a cascading system dividing each one along their different working temperature. So to valorize this waste heat the most, it passes first through the largest energy demanding program and then trinkels down to one to a slightly cooler one. This Ark-like project assembles thus a number of splintered existing typologies all related and fed by geothermal waste heat in such a way that while their particular needs are respected, their coexistence insures maximum mutual influence. The main programs for the plant in Firminy are a mineral extraction system that extracts precious silica from the brine that can be sold or used by the skin care facility for the production of bathing products, cremes, salts and oils. It also contains a mushroom factory where the gourmet products can be directly used in the restaurant above working on geothermal steam, as a medical substance and to clean up toxic soil since Firminy’s region up to Lyon is one of the most polluted ones in France due to its industrial past. This highly productive and efficient program is in symbiosis with a highly hedonistic sanatorium that as many cultures through history before used geothermal springs as places to relax, meet and be cleaned. The facility is thus working with nature, giving back to nature and bringing back people to nature.


Ark under pressure
To provoke tension, maximize friction and stimulate blurring, all the programs are incorporated in a single ascetic pill-shaped volume with no corners or orientation representing a centre for the masses and a symbol of health. The assembled steel structure produced in factories nearby, is wrapped in a skin of ETFE cushions, literally creating a box under pressure, preventing any contamination. This translucent shell dematerializes clear boundaries making the object sometimes mysterious, sometimes revealing or sometimes even mute like a cloud in the sky. At most revealing some pockets of human presence exposing its organs and digesting systems.

Thermodynamic laws
The volume is interpreted as a solid block of machinery, a repository of all forms of geothermal production. Floating and squeezed within this machinal wilderniss, one can find the breathing embryos of the sanatorium that too operates as the water cooling device. Its ducts so out of scale, allow humans to migrate in them, who on its turn profit from the waste heat and carry it away. The climatic journey where its spaces are generated by healthy geothermal waste water, is a gradual procession of constructed atmospheres that follow the rules of thermodynamic laws. The trajectory of irresistible temptations thus gradually increases from larger spaces to smaller ones, dry to wet, cold to hot where its program is organized according to their necessity of heat, humidity and pressure. The softness of the membrane and slowness of bathing directly contrasts the highly controlled cartesian wilderness where precise rhythms never clog its veins, everything is at the exact place at the exact time.

Une Machine à Remédier
The Sanatorium is a place where Firminians recover from the contemporary infections like large carbon footprints and learn about the behaviors of a new clean energetic lifestyle. The sanctuary for cleansing stimulates learning by having fun while the experience inside produces a continuous state of delirium for the body and mind. A health factory that effortlessly swallows, entertains and digests the migrating masses, before spitting them out into a new Firminy.


The first visual contact with the building is almost no contact at all. High pressure nozzles on the facade suspend the building permanently into a mystical luminous man-made cloud that during wet sunny days could even produce colorful rainbows. the fine mist becomes thinner or thicker whenever the energy consumption changes in the region. The first encounter is thus by actually smelling the sulphur smells, hearing the buzzing sound of the machines and tasting its clean water vapor by opening one’s mouths. The square in front of the station stretches under the building where a traditional ceiling of vaults and domes is replaced by a belly of machines. Early in the morning visitors impatiently await until the drawbridge emerges down, inviting them to come up and start their journey.
On their arrival on the first floor, they must pass a long narrow tube overgrown with an elaborate network of geothermal ducts creating an acoustic orchestra of machines, putting them literally under technological pressure. The reception area at the end gives them a spectacular welcome with a home-made detoxifying drink to activate their previously undernourished senses. From here, a staircase leads them directly into a perimeter of changing rooms where one fully undresses so -in their most vulnerable state of nudity-, the bodies become exposed to the world of machines.
Next they enter the palestra where they firstly wash themselves to prevent further contamination and then perform a ritual of light forms of exercise to sweat out the bad toxines, get pedi/manicures and waxing treatments. The Firminians transform from spectators to actors where their physical splendor is conducted in front of an artificial audience of machines who’s curved, metal tubes create distorted images of the gymnasts. Once thoroughly cleaned, they migrate towards the other organs of the liquid paradise.
The Frigidarium collects various pools whose permanently resonating milky water surface is agitated by the surrounding vibrating machines, sometimes even leading up to waves making the whole space resonate. Some of the visitors get addicted to the clashing sound of the natural waves confronting the artificial acoustics of machines. These sensational rhythms of the spaces invoke childish dreams and desires to play, ready to be reborn in an energy conscious world. The Tepidarium is a sloping cascade of baths that crosses diagonally through the skin care production. For some a challenge to swim upwards, for other a joy to slide back down. The Caldarium consists of labyrinthian, dizzying hot conditions that unfold in a series of singular sensations. The spaces become smaller, some occupying mineral extraction machines, some hot baths or some steam rooms. The mixture of humidity, heat, sulphur smells and rhythmic sounds can start cause hallucinogenic experiences and mirages, blurring the perception of what is machine and what is leisure.





Making the invisible visible
Finally one arrives in the garden, where the plants are fed by the visitors own human waste of carbon dioxide and minerals produced during their bathing experience that then rose up to the garden, condensed back down and absorbed by the vegetation who turns it into oxygen again, reminding the importance of protecting the very air we breath. During the day, this lung thus gets bigger and bigger to a moment where it is about to pop. To counteract this move and visualize the “bathing schedule”, the excess air is guided out through pressurized tubes that activate on its turn a sheer moment of spectacle: a bursting geyser in the middle of the open air swimming pool whose water level is thus too dependent of the energy consumption of the region. A celebration that is only reachable when enough visitors finish the procession and thus enough become energy conscious. It is said that this event is so loved by the masses that an audience from all over the world wants to contribute to this procession in order to witness its magnificence. The visitor is no visitor no more, their bodies cleaned and their mind’s pregnant with consciousness of energy.

© Studio Narra 2021