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Les Serres et Toiture Accueil, La Villette
Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Parc de la Villette, Avenue Jean Jaurès, Paris, France
Les Serres et Toiture Accueil, La Villette
associated engineer
Peter Rice
date  1982
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  Tb216976
photo  Terri Boake, see Innovation in Steel Connections
RFR engineered the three greenhouses and reception area roof to the Museum of Science & Industry at La Villette park in Paris. The ‘bioclimatic’ greenhouses appear to float over water and offer a transition between the exhibition halls and the outdoors that emphasises the view rather than the structure. They are currently out of use (2012).
Consultant RFR was formed in 1982 by engineer Peter Rice (1935-92), industrial designer Martin Francis and architect Ian Ritchie (b.1947). The company was intended as a design engine in the interface between architecture and engineering. Its first project, and the reason why the company was set up, was les serres et toiture accueil (the greenhouses and reception area roof) at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie (Museum of Science & Industry) north east of central Paris.
The rectangular museum building, in Parc de la Villette, is surrounded by a moat. The greenhouses are three glass boxes attached to its long south east elevation, facing the park. Architect Adrien Fainsilber’s (b.1932) design concept was that the greenhouse façades would provide an almost invisible transparent transition from the museum to the park, showing technology and nature in harmony.
The greenhouses are made of square glass panels. Tops and sides are one panel wide and façades four rows of four panels. The panels are 8m square, making the façades 32m square. However, the maximum manufactured size of the tempered glass that RFR wanted to use was only 2m square. So each panel is made up of a suspended assembly of 16 glass panes, 12mm thick, in four rows of four panes, with individual panes suspended by their corners from the one above.
Glass, though brittle, is extremely strong when loaded in plane and this quality has been exploited here by transferring the loads on the glass through the glass plane using a series of spherical bearings. The bearings ensure that the glass is loaded in a predictable and calculable manner while allowing the façades to flex. The 32mm diameter bearings are located where the corners of four panes meet and have a bearing capacity of approximately 4 tonnes — far in excess of the operating load.
The 16-pane panels are framed in tubular stainless steel. To minimise obstructions to the panoramic views of the park from inside the greenhouses, prestressed stainless steel cable trusses restrain the glass panels instead of solid mullions. The trusses are placed horizontally and the two main cables of each panel's truss cross twice to provide rotational stability.
An H-shaped bracket, or 'spider', frames each bearing with four bolts through the glass and transfers the load through a central rod connected back to the truss cables, four rods on each horizontal panel truss. This arrangement maintains the shape of the truss and prevents the glass from being loaded out of plane. The top of each pane in a panel is suspended from a prestressed spring acting as a shock absorber. If a pane were to break, this would limit propagation of cracks.
The design provides an ingenious mutual structural solution. As Peter Rice said, "We thus had the satisfactory situation where the glass was restrained by the cable truss mullion against wind loading, but the glass itself restrained the truss under load".
The technique developed at la Villette for constructing frameless suspended glass façades using spherical bearings to restrain but not clamp the glass plates was patented by RFR under the name 'La Rotule'. Les Serres were the first buildings to use cable trusses to provide structural stability for large expanses of glazing without mullions. The specialised design transformed the use of glass in buildings and façades. It is now standard practice.
The project cost some 80m French Francs in 1982. The Museum of Science & Industry was inaugurated on 13th March 1986 by French President François Mitterrand (1916-96).
The innovative glass boxes have fallen into slight disrepair and are no longer used. The greenhouses face south and, without any solar shading or plants inside, direct too much heat into the museum. The design only allowed for a 15 degrees C temperature difference between the cables and the main structure.
Architect: Adrien Fainsilber
Contractor: CFEM, Boussois
Research: RK, ECPK
"Aspects of Structural Glass" by Tim Morgan, NSG Group presentation to Institution of Structural Engineers SE Counties Branch, 2010
"The Imaginative Engineer: Peter Rice (1935-1992)" by Lorraine Lin and Bruce Danziger, in Structure Magazine, C3 Ink, Wisconsin, January 2007
"The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Peter Rice" by Andre Brown, Thomas Telford Publishing, London, 2001
reference sources   AEI

Les Serres et Toiture Accueil, La Villette