Magasin Électrique opens in Arles as the home of material pioneer Atelier Luma

The Magasin Électrique at Luma Arles has been expertly redesigned as the home for Atelier Luma, a pioneering material and design laboratory

wide view of atelier luma interior at Magasin Électrique
(Image credit: Joseph Halligan)

‘It was like stepping inside Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,’ says Assemble Studio co-founder James Binning, describing his first visit to Atelier Luma at the arts centre Luma Arles in the south of France. The design laboratory has been concocting material innovations on site since 2016 – culturing algae for natural dyes and turning potato starch into bioplastics. So, when it outgrew its original space on the complex and decided to renovate the nearby Magasin Électrique, it could offer its collaborators, London-based Assemble Studio and Belgian practice BC Architects & Studies, a spread of sustainable materials to choose from.

Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt)

Rice straw, sunflower stems, salt, soil and limestone waste all find their way onto the fabric of the former railway electrical shop, reimagined as thermal and acoustic insulation and rammed earth interior walls, among other things. Almost every raw or recycled material was sourced and processed within 70 km from the site, with the renovation works acting as a prototype of new kind of low-carbon, bioregional architecture that takes cues from ancient practices – an ongoing project dubbed Lot 8. Most materials are made from waste products from other industries – sunflower oil production, limestone quarrying – creating new revenue streams for local communities.

‘Atelier Luma’s work began with a cartography of the different industries and plants in a region and over time, we have used our design projects to connect them,’ explains Caroline Bianco, associate director at the studio. The renovation of the 2,000 sq m Magasin Électrique is the biggest manifestation of this work.

Magasin Electrique interior and material close up

(Image credit: Joseph Halligan)

The Magasin Électrique at Luma Arles

Architects and contractors usually keep themselves at arms length in the construction process, but this is building born from collaboration in the workshop. ‘It was very much a process of “making” a building,’ says Jan Boelen, artistic director of Atelier Luma, who describes the Magasin Électrique as a ‘space of possibilities, a canvas’. Assemble Studio and BC Architects & Studies came to Atelier Luma for a series of three-week residencies over the course of four years, during which they tested recipes, built models, and shared their knowledge with local makers and contractors. A cement contractor retrained in earth building, for example, and materials were mixed on site. 

This unusually close relationship between design and construction gave the architects freedom to experiment – wall treatments could be chosen at a late stage, instead of added to a specification document and passed on to a contractor. Assemble co-founder Joe Halligan estimates that they have used around 20 new material recipes, which had to be tested and certified for use. ‘We have worked with Atelier Luma to apply their research on an architectural scale,’ he says.

inside Magasin Electrique with blue columns

(Image credit: Joseph Halligan)

The making of Atelier Luma’s new home

The team stripped the damaged cement render off the original limestone walls, applying a new layer of lime, mixed with fragments of some of the building’s original terracotta roof tiles that were broken when lifted off during the insulation process. ‘It gives the facade this lovely crunchy texture,’ says Laurens Bekemans of BC Architects & Studies, a specialist in earth construction and bio materials. The terracotta shards also fill in the holes in the stonework.

Rice straw, a byproduct from the Camargue rice industry, is used for thermal and acoustic roof and wall insulation, while sunflower plants from the Crau plains become acoustic insulation panels, and scrap clay from a silica sand quarry in Vallabrix is refashioned as tiles and a fire retardant layer on the wall’s rice straw insulation. 

model of Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt)

Visitors enter into the most public part of the building: an exhibition space with a mezzanine level above offering private study spaces and a glass-fronted lab, where algae can be glimpsed bubbling away in glass flasks. A kitchen and meeting areas on the ground floor are hidden behind internal rammed earth walls, made from earth and limestone waste from a local quarry, which lends it a soft, off-white tone. 

Another narrower volume extending the length of the building acts as a space for ‘messy making’, as Assemble puts it. ‘We took inspiration from Lina Bo Bardi’s Oficina Teatro in São Paulo,’ says co-founder Maria Lisogorskaya, pointing to the two-storey wooden structure down one side of the volume, which demarcates studio spaces, and features a gallery level on the first floor. It gives a platform to the theatre of making – textiles, ceramics, and experimentation with salt and Japanese knotweed – which spill out onto a long open space: a place for creative exchange. Compressed sunflower fibre insulation imbues the space with a rich texture. 

workspace inside Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt)

What results is a building that celebrates the terrain and bio culture of the region. It can literally be read in the strata of rammed earth, which is made without any cement stabiliser and topped with compressed earth bricks. In the building’s third volume, walls have been left exposed and the only partitions are curtains suspended from the original metal framework. It is designed as a flexible volume, to accommodate the atelier’s workshops and conferences – and its changing future needs.

corridor inside Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt)

This idea of sharing its research is fundamental for the studio. ‘Atelier Luma functions not solely as a catalyst for sustainable infrastructure, but as a producer of knowledge,’ says Maja Hoffmann, the founder of Luma Arles. While the material recipes it develops are designed specifically for local use, it shares its findings with networks around the world.

staircase inside Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt)

The Magasin Électrique is a project that will never be finished. Almost every detail is the result of an experiment – from the antibacterial door handles, fitted with replaceable compressed salt cartridges, to the bioplastic plug sockets. As Atelier Luma’s research evolves, so too will this fascinating building.

light pouring inside Magasin Electrique

(Image credit: Adrian Deweerdt) 

Malaika Byng is an editor, writer and consultant covering everything from architecture, design and ecology to art and craft. She was online editor for Wallpaper* magazine for three years and more recently editor of Crafts magazine, until she decided to go freelance in 2022. Based in London, she now writes for the Financial Times, Metropolis, Kinfolk and The Plant, among others.