by Ron Bernthal
MEETT, Toulouse’s new Exhibition and Convention Centre, is located in the innovation zone north of Toulouse. The project’s design firm, OMA, founded in the Netherlands, led by partners Chris van Duijn, Ellen van Loon and Rem Koolhaas, say that “MEETT is not only about architecture, but also about infrastructure, urbanism, landscape and public space. Both monumental in its scale and subtle in its overall impact, it will be a new gateway to Toulouse.” French practices PPA Architectures and Taillandier Architectes Associés were associated designers.
The 1.6 million square-foot exhibition and convention center is located between the countryside and the city, connecting the agricultural landscape to the north with the urbanized areas just to the south of MEETT, often called the city’s “innovation zone.” With many Toulouse comanies involved in aeronautics (Airbus Group has its operating headquarters here), high tech, artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous vehicles, Toulouse has become an important European hub for these advanced technologies, especially within the growing innovation zone.
This somewhat rural area around MEETT is still close to the center of Toulouse, and well connected to highways and public transport. OMA’s stark design uses the massive scale and diverse architecture of MEETT as an antidote to the sprawl of a standard exposition park, in order to preserve the historic Aquitania look of the southern French countryside.
MEETT is conceived as an active strip, what the French call ‘une bande active’, a horizontal and compact project, divided in three parallel “bandes”…. a row of modular exhibition halls to the north; a convention center and multi-function event hall to the south; and a reception area to the center, featuring a car park for 3,000 vehicles.
Instead of banishing underground parking, or pushing it to the periphery of the project’s site, where it has no relationship with the surrounding landscape, OMA placed the parking silo at the center of the project, covering the area where amenities and access to the main convention hall are located.
By combining interior and exterior spaces, and establishing connections with the infrastructure – tramway, roads, airport – and surrounding countryside, a typically introvert typology, the expo, is transformed into an extrovert one.
Northern strip – Exhibitions
The exhibition building at the northern strip is impressive in scale as it can be enjoyed as a single, nearly 2,300 foot-long space. The building is composed as a series of black boxes (both on the ground and elevated in the air), white-colored steel profiles for the structure, and a polycarbonate skin for the facade. Together they form a regular composition which emphasizes the giant scale of the building but also creates a bright and pleasant environment for the exhibition spaces.
The Exhibition Hall provides a total of 430,000 squae-feet of presentation area, which can function either as one major exhibition space or be separated into seven modular halls, separated by a mechanized curtain. Two elevated mezzanines at either end of the hall provide space for a reception or VIP program, while overlooking the main spaces. MEETT is a project about the relationship between interior-exterior, and the Exhibition Hall is no exception, as the translucent façade provides the giant hall with generous daylight.
The entire masterplan, including all buildings, is based on a 10-foot grid, following the standard expo distribution, which permits to dissect the building in 10×10 foot cells, like a Tetris board game, providing endless possibilities to split the use of the ground but also forming an underlying system for all architectural components.
Central strip – Reception area
At the center of the project, a 344,000 square-foot reception area on the ground floor welcomes visitors into the exhibition halls, the exterior expo and the convention center. This is called the Rue Centrale, and functions somewhat like a public street, a central circulation area with an information center and public space. Fully pedestrian, it can house lots of amenities, from ticket offices to food stands.
Elevated above the Rue Centrale, and directly accessible from it, is the car park, a four-story elevated silo that sits right in the middle of the project. The silo building functions as an entrance directly into the heart of MEETT, connected to all the exhibition areas. It is an open building, to maximize the use of natural light and allow views into the expos from the parking spots.
Southern strip – Events
The southern strip of MEETT consists of a multi-function Event Hall and a Convention Center combined into a single building, directly accessible from the Rue Centrale. The entire building can also be transformed into additional exhibition spaces on two levels.
The Event Hall and Convention Center building is designed as a machine, with a system of movable vertical shutters and horizontal partitions allowing it to transform itself in few minutes into a large number of configurations, from small meeting rooms on the upper floors of the Convention Center to an open plan layout bathed in natural light on the ground floor.
Navigation around MEETT is simple, the routes are intuitive, which combined with clear information signs throughout the complex makes it easy for visitors to find their way. In addition, the compactness of the expo reduces the distances that the public need to cover during their visit. The entire area is accessible to heavy vehicles, with a separate entry and exit point, and an internal road surrounding the north, west and south facades facilitates distribution and venue management.
MEETT also features a transportation hub with a tram station, a bus station, a taxi stop and a reception area for cyclists. This hub on the Eastern side of the expo has the potential to accommodate more infrastructure, anticipating the further urbanization of the area. Directly in front of the transportation hub, a 600 foot-long plaza spans towards the MEETT, and provides one single entrance route to MEETT, and also functioning as an open public area.
The MEETT Toulouse Exhibition & Convention Center is located nine miles north of Toulouse (20-30 minutes by car), and just just five miles to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport (8 minutes by car).
The project is on the shortlist for the “Wallpaper* Magazine Design Award for Best New Public Building 2021” which includes world-leading culture, community and infrastructure spaces.