Narnia awaits in Normandy.


I woke up this morning to a thick blanket of snow. It rarely snows in Normandy, so this morning I eagerly dragged my snow boots out from their hiding place and went to explore our quarter, enjoying the crunching sounds underfoot, and the silence of the deserted streets.

Narnia’s lamppost was standing in the middle of someone’s garden behind large iron gates, unfairly out of reach of anyone desperately searching the wardrobe and their way home!

So I set off again to enjoy my neighborhood from its new perspective.

The church of St Andre beckoned from the end of the allée of soft snow.

It was clinging on, even on the nobbles of the freshly pollarded trees. These strikingly architectural forms are so resolutely french and I love their shapes both in the height summer as in the coldest of winters.

When winter beckons we call our local wood merchant for our annual delivery of logs. Three stères of wood will get us through the average winter with the fire burning merrily most days. I like the fact that the french have their own particular measurement for a cubic meter of wood, and that it comes readily chopped to the right dimensions after the wood merchant has come to the fireplace to measure the hearth. Often he tells me which trees he’s lopped, and precisely where my stères have come from. One year the pollarded trees of the main boulevard in the city, another, from a sustainable forest several kilometers away.

Our local architecture is so quintessentially french.

A bus had tried to make it through, and broken down, leaving only a narrow space for a passing truck. They were making heavy weather of the manœuvre so I left them to it!

There was nothing moving at the square by the church.

And I hurried on, now and then pulling out my camera.

Despite being close to the centre of the city, our quarter has a country feel with narrow lanes and steep slopes. Here and there are some lovely houses tucked away behind their imposing gates.

And the odd bijou one as well!

But looking forward to a warm fire and a cup of hot chocolate I turned for home taking a few last pictures on the way.

Have a lovely day!

The Great French House Hunt – The perfect House!


We called the first estate agent that we ever had the fortune to do business with ‘Monsieur Moustache’ on account of his formidably waxed and curled whiskers. I will never remember his real name despite the fact that he very nearly succeeded to sell us our first French house. The most recent, last week’s agent presented himself in tight black leather trousers, a black shiny jacket and open shirt, before offering me a lift in his black open-roofed convertible! He was Mr ‘Smoooth’,  … Monsieur Lisse.

If you have never experienced French house buying, here’s the nub. French Estate agents charge astronomic commissions on house sales. Something in the region of 8% and so they never, never let you know the address of the property, but whisk you there under a cloak of mystery and ensure that you sign a slip of paper after the visit acknowledging that ‘They’ were the ones who made the introduction.

Monsieur Lisse had two houses to show me and he did a very convincing job of trying to sell at least one to me. “Which, in my opinion” he asked” was the forerunner? It was fairly hard to be enthusiastic about either. It couldn’t compete with one i’d seen a few weeks earlier and which wasn’t on his books. When I advised him that the first house had a pleasant interior, but it’s exterior left a lot, and I emphasise ‘a lot’ to be desired he said..

“Ahh, mais Madame, on ne vit pas à l’exterieur, on vit à l’interieur. L’exterieur est sans importance…”

otherwise said..

“Ahh, Madam, one doesn’t live outside, one lives inside. The exterior has no importance..”

There I couldn’t disagree more.

I’ve always been somewhat of the opinion that the facade of a building is its face. Some wide eyed and open, others closed and sleepy, some sharp and mean, others friendly and welcoming. Its windows as its eyes, its door as its mouth. How can one choose a house based on its interior alone. A house is a reflection of its owner, it has presence; it frowns or it smiles, it forbids or it welcomes, it cocoons or it energises.

Normandy has a rich architectural history. Beautiful buildings in stone;  in red and golden brick with silex infil (a kind of stone cobble and mortar) and in colombage. Each style can be found in town and in country and each have their own particular style and beauty.

silex to be broken to form wall infil 

Here are just a few examples of what can be found:

Houses in stone:

classic and imperious,

Stylish but moody,

Classic but austere,

open and friendly,

grand and imposing,

reclusive and protective,

intimate.

and houses in colombage:

neighbourly and reticent,

charming and restful,

friendly and welcoming,

sleepy and protective.

or houses in brick and silex:

formal and quiet,

informal and friendly,

neighbourly and perky,

charming but secretive,

 restful.

or perhaps a mix:

It’s not just a question of location and view but how a house will interpret and reflect one’s mood.

So what am I looking for in a house?

In the city I would like one with presence. I like to have a beautiful front door on which I can hang my holly wreath at Christmas, and ideally with a front garden to protect it from passing revellers, perhaps a balcony and a space for hanging baskets in the summer. I would prefer stone with beautiful large original windows to throw light into the deepest recesses. It must be welcoming yet classic, friendly but demure.

In the country I would like a grassy drive so that my kids can hang out of the sunroof as they do every summer holiday, and practice driving the last few metres home. The house must be friendly but a refuge, capable of being opened up on the hottest summer days and battened down on cold wet wintery nights with a large chimney promising a roaring fire within.

So here is my choice for my great French house hunt:

My town house – this..

or this…

and my summer retreat – this, with a mountain or sea view!

or this…

So when Monsieur Lisse presented me with this:

and despite the fact that it had exactly the same internal layout as it’s neighbour..

..it was clear that it had been very badly manhandled.

What Monsieur Lisse hadn’t understood is that buying a house isn’t just about finding a house in the right location, nor is it about finding a house with a functioning interior, it’s about that feeling of pleasure as one rounds the corner, sees a beautiful piece of architecture  and thinks to oneself,

“….at last,  i’m home!”

Introducing Atelier M.


Some of you may have noticed that a new menu button has appeared at the top of the page.

For a while now it has been clearly necessary to modernise myself and get all my projects and artwork digitised and on-line . If there has been a certain level of silence for a while it is because I have been sweating away with an uphill battle to do exactly that.

All architects in France have an online ‘book’ as a graphic representation of their work, so without any further delay I am presenting mine.

Last night at at a little after midnight  – or was that this morning in the early hours…whichever, I was tired when I finally hit – GO LIVE.

introducing…

ATELIER M   

Please take a look! Click on the name!

La Vie ‘en Bureau’


It’s official – All architects wear black – or taupe, which is the new black! All architects also come to the office in jeans – black ones of course, or maybe grey as long as they’re teamed up with a  pair of bold  framed black-rimmed glasses. Well I can’t speak for the whole of Europe of course – but in France and England ‘black casual’ is synonymous with ‘architect’. Need I have been concerned about dress code? –  Well I have the jeans but I’ll have to nip out and invest in the glasses!

Now down to business:

One of the delights of working with architects is being among people with the ability to plan, which is heaven after being in rather close company with my family (bless them for their careless ways – and ‘husband à l’etranger excluded) whose prime skill in planning is the ability to organise as much time as possible to spend on an Xbox but not a lot else!  In architectural heaven, these fabulous people spend their morning planning everything with a minutiae attention  to detail, and before the morning is out have also planned where we are going to be eating lunch, who will be eating lunch,  booked the table and arrived on time!

So as all the blackly (or taupely) clad architects gather round the table  it is interesting to see how the french architects take to their menu of choice.

Today we have headed off for a Chinese buffet. For a midday, the Chinese restaurant is doing well for a small town. Chinese, it appears is a popular choice with the French. Inspecting the buffet it doesn’t take long to notice that Battered Frog’s Legs in Sweet and Sour sauce are included on the menu and the conversation inevitably turns to food.

Having spent the morning studying the ‘Plan Cadastre’ (Land Regisistry map) we find ourselves analysing how geographic location influences taste. We determine that those from the  marshlands and damper regions of France – ie the Marais de Poitevin, have an affinity for ‘grenouilles’ (frog’s legs), even though they are increasingly difficult to find these days in France, and tend to be imported nowadays from the Far East.  Those with an ancestry which lurks in the more Southern regions of France have a preference for Escargots (snails). Snails being introduced to the Mediterranean regions by the marauding Romans.  Only R (Armenian) and I, both of whom are ‘imported architects’  have of course tried and like both and we were placed firmly in the category of ‘foreigners will try and like anything’.

P  raises the question –  ‘why do the English refer to the French as ‘froggies’ and I feign incomprehension and quickly slip away from the table to refill my plate.

It was A who went on to discuss how escargots cooked in Garlic and butter in their shell were infinitely nicer than those cooked without their shell. Several fell into the trap of suggesting that this was for the most part probably because the shell retained the garlic butter, leaving them juicy and delicious, before A went on to reveal that he was actually talking about ‘Limaces’. It took a little more translation before I cottoned onto the fact he was actually referring to slugs!

On that note we all fell into a pensive mood and busied ourselves by taking a ‘slug’ of our preferred beverage to cleanse the palate. The truth then, about the French drinking at lunch. The inebriated frenchman sloshing his way back to the office tanked up with red wine? A fallacy, i’m afraid. In all my lunchtime sorties with this crazy bunch of architects, not one has touched a drop of alcohol at lunchtime. The truth is that generally the  bottle of wine downed by the average Englishman at a business lunch would be shared between the entire table for a French lunch. The same goes at a French dinner party. So the truth about drinking –  quality but not quantity, and quite often none.

And the quality of the architecture in the afternoon? As detailed as the morning of course….

but a bit more garlicy!

Linguistically Challenged Architect – A Totally French Project.


When this linguistically challenged architect advertised for a ‘benevolent bureau’ I don’t think there was any expectation of finding such a ‘winning’ office, let alone a totally ‘French’ project to work on.

I couldn’t have planned the total immersion experience into French architecture better.

Now that I have got to grips with the computers in this state of the art office, I find myself today, on my day off, wishing I was back at my desk to put some ideas together. I went to bed last night with my head buzzing, and solutions pinging at regular intervals from somewhere deep in my ‘cerveau’ (brain).

My benevolent bureau has me designing an extension to a Chaumière. And for those none the wiser, this is one..

Image

A Chaumière is a typical thatch building. What makes this one typically Normand is the timber frame structure.

And what makes this project typically teasing is that I have never worked on a thatch building, let alone on an ancient timber frame. Although it looks like this isn’t going to be a project where I can demonstrate vast levels of experience and ‘know how’, I am actually delighted because I am working on something so typically French, rather than a ubiquitous factory or retail park.

To add to the experience, enough weeks have passed for my french counterparts to start ‘upping’ my challenge.

Yesterday, having already put me through my paces last week with a site survey, fellow project architect requested I phone the client for the phone number of the enterprise who had done the existing hatch. Phone numbers! Dimensions! Tape measures! Have I already told you about my mastery of French numbers – lets say I am pretty cool just to number 70, after that it all goes a little awry. I am sure that soixante dix (70) followed by soixante onze (71) is a tongue twister, quatre vingt seize to quatre-vingt-dix sept don’t come across as obvious bed-fellows. And who was the joker at Darty Telecom who gave me my phone number with 76 75 and 77 in it, but of course not in the right order so that I would learn them in a consecutive fashion. So you can imagine the basic confusion on site as fellow architect read out the dimensions and I carefully noted them on the plan. The client was wondering how a 40 year old didn’t know her numbers yet, and fellow architect resorted to repeating herself with individual digits. Oh and did I mention how the French use centimetres for designing and the British use millimetres. It’s not such a hard conversion to make, though a little bewildering, having drawn out the plans on Autocad in millimetres to come into work after a day off to find fellow architect has re-scaled it in one’s absence!

There was a definite quietening down of the hubub in the office once ‘fellow architect’ had requested I make THE phonecall. I was very aware that it was a test! A number test! Luckily for me then that I had the good fortune to get the answer phone. I confess to smirking a little!

Not content with my escape, an hour or so later my phone did ring and I was launched into a particularly confusing conversation with more twists and turns than the Seine itself regarding a missing ‘ordonance’ (prescription). I wasn’t sure what prescriptions had to do with Architecture. The office was amazingly quiet, a kind of bated hush had descended over the place as my counterparts listened with interest to how I made out…

…to their BLAGUE (practical joke)….

Thanks guys! Love working here!

Eureka Eureka, Je l’ai Trouvé!


The last time I used AutoCad was 11 years ago!

There’s alot of change in 11 years!

What irony that my on first day back into the working world I was handed a paperprint and asked to transfer the housing plan onto the computer.  The imagery was just a little too symbolic of archaic meets future for my liking. A kind of personal modernisation programme!

The last time I was in an architects office, the work-surfaces were covered with paper plans, sprawled in every direction, the scale-rule more often than not lost underneath hundreds of layers, the drafting pens blobbing or blocked as they started to run out of ink, and razor blades lurking on the ‘parallel motion’ in readiness to correct errors. Yesterday, there was not a paper print to be seen, (well except for my one), the worktables gleamed impeccably white, not a speck of ‘out of placeness’ , the computers state of the art and each job file uniformly blue neatly placed on tidy white shelves. Worse of all – everybody knew what they were doing!

My internal laughter was a little hysterical.

Now I am not a dunce when it comes to computers, and in my day I trained the young technicians to use AutoCad, but 11 years brings with it change. A considerable amount it would seem! So when I sat down and realised that the mouse was some state of the art invention, with more knobs, dials and buttons than a pilot’s cabin, and that I couldn’t even find the return – I knew I’d had it. (Ok so it wasn’t quite as bad as the one above, but you get the idea!) When my friendly fellow architect came over to show me how to access the drawing menu, it wasn’t the screen I was watching, but her hand – but at least now I have found the return button. I’ll ask her about the drawing files on Monday!

300,50

As I said, I wasn’t bad at AutoCad, but one thing you need to know about the french keyboard is that to obtain a number one has to use the ‘caps lock’, and to use the comma, one has to turn it off again. Surely, surely the French architects don’t spend their time ‘offing’ and ‘onning’ the caps lock to type in one simple line command? Anyway, drawing that first line was the clincher – and the computer wasn’t having any of my commands.. it just kind of sat there motionless and then left me with a stream of HTML just as an embarrassing record of my failure to communicate with the modern age. I thought about turning the screen away to avoid observation. Enough is enough I thought to myself, and frankly in a bit of a internal temper hit return having only added the X coordinate..no comma..no caps lock…. and can you believe it, I had my first line!

Incredible!

– I found the little ruler icon, and checked the line attributes for accuracy. It seemed to be a breakthrough!

By this point I considered myself almost flying. All that’s left for me now is to remember the icon’s (did I mention that they are annotated in French), the shortcuts, the layers and …   …and then of course we have the 3D which didn’t even exist in the old days!

what’s the french for ‘offset’ again?

Watch out Monday computer!

Egg Hunt at Miromesnil and a Souris of Lamb.


What to do with a couple of adolescents on a  damp Easter sunday afternoon? Offer plentiful chocolate  with a ‘catch’ of course.

I had been promising myself a trip out to the Chateau de Miromesnil, near Dieppe since I first came to France. Its potager is legendary; and what better opportunity than an Easter egg hunt to make the visit accessible  and appealing to adults and adolescents alike!

It was disappointing  to wake up to a Normand mist this morning after a week of glorious sunshine.  It was the kind of mist that seeps into every corner and dampens every last bit of undergrowth, plant and flower, and yet sparkles on spiders webs without a drop of rain actually falling.

The Chateau of Miromesnil, near Tourville sur Arques is famous as the birthplace of Guy de Maupassant in 1850. I have just put down ‘Pierre et Jean’, his novel written in 1887, wonderful for his depiction of the values and hardships of society, and his colourful descriptions of  the towns and villages of Normandy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The chateau was built in 1600 in the style of Louis XIII. The generosity of Armand Thomas Hue de Miromesnil, its owner during the 18th century, to the local population allowed the chateau to pass unscathed through the Revolution.

Plan in hand we headed off to decipher the first clue.

Enticed by the knowledge that 2kg of  cacao were used to create the prize draw chocolate egg, the adolescents of the party engaged internet access on their mobiles to determine the exact distance from the chapel to the chateau. ….400m.

The goats were protecting the pink eggs hidden in the undergrowth….and the next clue was hidden behind the woodpile.

The identity of the ‘recolte des tetes blanches en été’ (gathering of white heads in summer) gave us a few problems…. we narrowed it down to mushrooms. Another family asked us for the french translation for dandilion. (Aren’t dandilions yellow?) There was some foot shifting, no-one was quite sure whether to discuss the clues.  The prize egg was, after all, pretty enticing. We were inclined to give them the translation rather than share the mushroom theory.

Google translate and Wikipedia came in very handy in determining the vegetable under the plant genus ‘Alliacé’ ….. onion. We noticed another competitor reach for his mobile.

Over to the younger members of the family to count the  54 shutters on the rear face of the chateau which the butler had had to close daily. Though by the looks of the concentrated expressions, the adolescents were keen to check the numbers.

The spring garden was in full bloom.

and I caught my first glimpse of the potager…

and admired the view back to the park where we’d collected the moss, bark and feather.

We changed our mind about the mushrooms and decided on garlic, before impressing on the staff that we live just down the road and that collection of said egg would not be a problem…..

‘Were we really there two hours’, said the adolescents ‘ we thought it was only one!’

The beauty of a good day out is to arrive home damp but rosy cheeked to find dinner ready and waiting. What better than slow roast ‘Souris d’Agneau’, with tomato and avocado salsa, couscous and mint yoghurt, and a generous glass of wine.

As for pudding, we’re waiting for the phone to ring…

Happy Easter!