Mathieu Lucas, architect and landscape designer, on his participation in the project "Learning from Old Dhaka"

My approach starts from the invisible and from movement.

At the end of 2023, Mathieu Lucas participated in a six-day mission in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, as part of the cooperation project "Learning from Old Dhaka," led by the Institut français and the Alliance Française in Bangladesh. Together with other experts, he began a new phase of the project by exploring the relationship between the Buriganga River, which runs through the metropolis, and the old city. With a second mission potentially taking place in 2024, Mathieu Lucas discusses Dhaka, its exponential growth, its omnipresent river, and his approach with Studio Mathieu Lucas, which involves working in harmony with the unique dynamics of each territory. 

Updated on 29/05/2024

10 min

Could you tell us about your background and introduce Studio Mathieu Lucas? 

I am an architect by training, graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Versailles. I later discovered the field of landscape architecture while working for Bas Smets in Brussels and then BASE in Paris. Upon returning from a residency at the Villa Medici in Rome, I founded Studio Mathieu Lucas in 2019. We are now a team of five collaborators working on diverse projects ranging from gardens to large territories, both in France and abroad. 

As long as we continue to distinguish between the natural and the urban, the wild and the built, the gray and the green, we cannot have an integrated approach and imagine other pathways.

Could you also tell us about your approach? 

In the face of climate change, we must profoundly rethink our ways of inhabiting the world, reconsider the place of living organisms, bioclimatic comfort in our cities, soil fertility, and redefine all our development methods. As long as we continue to distinguish between the natural and the urban, the wild and the built, the gray and the green, we cannot have an integrated approach and imagine alternative pathways.

What interests me are what I call the “connectors,” the components of the environment that allow us to think of architecture and landscape, sky and earth, the inert and the living together. When starting from movement, there are only cumulative effects induced by spaces with different properties. Regardless of the project's scale, my approach thus begins with the invisible and movement: water, thermal breezes, shade… That is, from a condition already present on the territory but not yet revealed. Each project site is a dynamic system in perpetual evolution with effects on temperature, soil fertility, our perception, etc. On each site, we try to integrate into the existing dynamics to strengthen them and identify unique transformation tools, avoiding a formal approach.

For example, in coastal cities, the sea breeze is not felt the same way in the city depending on the orientation and height of the streets, the type of vegetation, and the shadows cast. This vision allows the development of new alliances between built systems and dynamic systems to initiate the landscape project. To achieve this, we take the time to explore the site and its geography precisely, regardless of the scale, which is crucial for understanding how movements and dynamics are initiated.

The modern era we are emerging from has developed without really considering these aspects. On issues of temperature or the increase of extreme weather events, all these fragile movements become absolutely crucial. For example, for water, we need to reconsider all watersheds, including the smallest streams from the heights to the river mouths in their capacity to help us regulate excess or lack of water, from open spaces to the dense city center.

On the issue of temperatures, it is the small thermal breezes and local microclimates that become paramount. A fine understanding of thermodynamics becomes essential to associate them with shade or humidity.

In 2018-2019, during your residency at the Villa Medici, you were interested in the Ponentino, a sea breeze that has disappeared from the center of Rome, while in 2035 the city will experience temperatures as high as Tunis. What solution do you see in the face of this climate change and would this conclusion be valid for other places? 

The Ponentino, the "little breeze from the West," blows every summer day when cool air layers from the sea are drawn towards the warm lands. It is the wind of the dolce vita, the unique and foundational breeze of Rome: the Villa Medici has turrets to catch the wind in the late afternoon, the palaces of Castel Gandolfo and Frascati are oriented towards the Ponentino to offer a summer refuge, the Villa Adriana is built so that the breeze cools over its basin before rushing into the dining room, and so on. 

Today, urban expansion has been so massive since the 1950s between the city and the sea that a heat dome now rises over Rome during the summer. Every day the Ponentino blows from the sea, but carried by the heat dome, it can no longer descend into the center, while temperatures rise rapidly. A legend even tells that humanity stopped the wind since the construction of the Corviale, a long residential block one kilometer long in the 1970s. 

Thus, in Rome, I sought to reveal and represent the aerial dynamics of the Metropolis to produce other forms of landscape and renew the dialogue between developments and the sea breeze. 

My work involved moving away from the center to understand, with the help of scientists, how each landscape influences the passage of the breeze. In the pine forests by the sea, the wind slows down or even stops if the forest is dense enough, and the air layers mix above the canopies. Conversely, over agricultural plains, it accelerates and gains humidity during field irrigation. It is also channeled by the Tiber, which remains the only gateway for the breeze to reach the city center. By following the wind, we can imagine ways to reinvent how we inhabit the territory, to construct landscapes and cities together from a light but precious movement. The feeling we have at any given time depends on the land development up to fifty kilometers around. A form of territorial solidarity carried by the wind, capable of overturning the classic vision of a city center and its periphery. 

I also rediscovered Renaissance gardens as a succession of climatic systems anchored in their geography, which the American professor and author Chip Sullivan described very well in "Garden and Climate". The cascades in the Tivoli Gardens cool the wind before it arrives in an open loggia, the dense holm oak groves protect the villas from northern winds, while the pine groves open to the west offer ventilated and shaded areas. These are ultimately very simple but absolutely contemporary arrangements. 

We do not know what the future will hold, but we can already say that the way we build today is undergoing a complete reinvention. Digital technology, precise data collection, and digital tools are predominant, while at the same time, we see a return to very simple ways of inhabiting the world. Rediscovering all the vernacular ways of living becomes a valuable tool for rethinking our developments. In this regard, the Mediterranean city is at the center of attention because it has been dealing with issues for centuries that are now becoming widespread, such as high summer temperatures, fine water resource management, and violent climatic events, offering many models to rediscover. 

From the country "floating on water," Bangladesh has become the land of dying rivers.

At the end of last year, you traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, as part of the cooperation project "Learning from Old Dhaka" led by the Institut français and the Alliance française of Bangladesh. Can you tell us more about this project?

Indeed, I was invited, along with Marc Barani, by the Institut français to participate in a mission to Dhaka. This follows the very rich work carried out by the students of the École d’Architecture de la Villette, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), and the Trivandrum-India School of Architecture, Bharati Vidyapeeth College of Architecture - [BVCOA] Navi Mumbai. We were hosted by the Alliance Française of Bangladesh to initiate a second phase focusing on the relationship between the Buriganga River, which flows through the metropolis, and the old city.

Dhaka is experiencing a major transition in an extremely short period. With nearly 20 million additional inhabitants in 30 years, the city is undergoing an unprecedented transformation almost unknown elsewhere in the world. It is a historic moment of great change in response to the urgent need for infrastructure: highways are taking shape over existing roads, the metro covers the railway, and dozens of towers are springing up. At the same time, it is a territory extremely vulnerable to climate change. Approximately 2,000 climate refugees, particularly from the deltas, arrive in Dhaka each year.

The Buriganga is the economic artery of the city and supports all its industrial activities, especially textiles. The river serves as a water resource, the main transportation route for people and goods from other regions, and a discharge site for wastewater and waste, although many efforts are underway to reclaim buried tributaries and limit water pollution. Thus, there are fundamental usage links between the river and the city, unlike in Paris, where the Seine is almost entirely heritage-oriented. The Buriganga is a living river in terms of economy and usage, but a river at risk of dying. From the country "floating on water," Bangladesh has become the land of dying rivers. This has an enormous influence on ecosystems.

The discussions about the river were very rich with all the local partners: architecture professors, students, hydrology experts, and researchers. Personally, I was very interested in the water cycle and its presence in the city, which raises very interesting questions. Even though it is very polluted, the river still serves, in part, as a source of drinking water. In a country subjected to monsoons, there is also an age-old experience and an extraordinary tradition of water management in all its forms within every component of the city. Dhaka is at a pivotal moment, between a cultural connection and fundamental practices shaped by the water cycle and an imperative modernity transforming the city at a staggering pace.

How can we ensure the absolutely necessary urban and economic growth while inventing a new relationship with the river? How can we rethink the connection between the banks and nearby neighborhoods while developing alluvial infrastructure? How can we jointly address drought and floods, climate comfort, and economic activities in a dense city?

These issues also exist in Europe and Paris, and in general, there are many bridges between the challenges faced by Dhaka and our cities. From a close dialogue on different cultural and urban approaches, new forms of coexistence with rivers could be deployed, both here and there.

Several issues have been identified for the future of the city of Dhaka, and French expertise, such as yours, could be mobilized. How do you envision the future? 

Indeed, this trip has initiated relationships that could lead to cultural, educational, and research projects with students, involving "Research by Design" to test solutions and imagine other possibilities for development and urban planning, potentially leading to collaboration opportunities. The primary goal of the mission was to initiate a dialogue, but certainly not to impose solutions. Meetings between stakeholders from each country, focusing on water, the river, and urban planning, could also be organized to build a common foundation of shared experiences and guide towards pilot collaboration projects. 

The stay in Dhaka lasted only eight days. It was extremely enriching but also too short to do more than open doors. We are planning a second mission to Dhaka, with the idea of visiting downstream areas of the city, in the Delta region, to try to understand the connection between the river and other less urbanized territories. It is essential not only to work locally but also to step out of the center to understand the broader environment in which Dhaka is situated, along with the entire hydrographic logic and practices associated with waterways. 

To conclude, what are your plans for this year, particularly with your Studio? 

Our Roman research continues to inform the practice of the Studio at all scales, with around twenty ongoing projects ranging from gardens to large territories. 

On a large scale, we are currently working on the city of Annecy, following a prospective vision project for the territory looking towards 2050. This area faces some of the highest temperatures in France and a scarcity of water resources. We are particularly interested in the aerial dynamics initiated by the lake, urban comfort, the construction of park systems along waterways, and the transformation of industrial zones to envision a more resilient future for the city. Additionally, in Belgium, we are working on the railway axis between Ghent and Antwerp, attempting to identify different transformation scenarios that integrate mobility, geography, and urban forms. 

We are also transforming mineral spaces, such as in Gennevilliers, where we are designing a largely vegetated public space. Our goal is to deploy reused materials from nearby demolitions in the public space and maximize soil permeability. 

I would also like to mention a small project at Lausanne Jardin, where we are attempting to directly reuse water from Lake Geneva to create an ephemeral garden. The objective is to pump the water to create a pavilion where the lake breezes will become visible as they pass through a water veil, establishing a new dialogue between the city and its lake. 

L'institut français, LAB