Misfits’ Guide to PARIS

1902

rue Franklin Apartments
Auguste Perret
rue Benjamin Franklin, Paris

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We all know about the concrete frame, its concealment and subsequent re-expression of its presence but the reason for the shape of this frontage tends to be neglected.

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Modernist space maybe, “inspired by statutory light courts” perhaps, but why would someone want to do that? The shortest distance between two points isn’t a good thing when many rooms are needing windows. Perret managed to give windows to five, as well as to the kitchen off to the left and outside the formal organization of the building but following the social class prejudices of the time and the functional prejudices of ours. Don’t believe me? Compare the functionally sanitized plan from our architecture books with the original plan. We learn that the sculleries have side windows and so the gas cooker probably had a degree of cross ventilation in the kitchen. The bed was rather awkwardly placed in the bedroom. The frontmost room on the left is the smoking room and the one with the alternate means of escape is the boudoir.

These are rather nice one-bedroom flats, suggesting their owners had houses in the country and used these apartments as what we call in English pied-a-terres.

Only the week before last did I belatedly learn there’s some quite nice gardens across the road. The six windows of the upper apartments must have impressive views of the entire Trocadero Gardens as well as of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the lower apartments can’t be unlike this view from the Hotel Eiffel five doors up, on the corner.

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I know of no book, architecture or otherwise, that has ever mentioned this. In 1904 when these apartments were completed, The Eiffel Tower had already been a feature of the Paris skyline for 15 years but it was still uncertain if it would be a permanent one. We forget not everyone was keen on having it around forever.

The upper levels of the building are very special and I have hiddenarchitecture.net to thank for these images.

This image is probably as close as you and I are ever going to get to seeing a view of anything from one of the rue Franklin apartments.

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I used to think the lengthened facade was simply about getting daylight and ventilation to six rooms. I now suspect view was another factor. There’s also something else. The non-linear frontage creates a vertical column of space shared by three of the five habitable rooms. This void is physically unuseable space but it’s a building amenity of sorts for, without compromising privacy, it provides an awareness of people in other rooms of the same apartment and, to a lesser degree and without compromising privacy, of activity in the apartments above and below.

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Everyone not only gets a view of the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Gardens, but also gets a warm feeling of bonhomie for sharing that view. It’s a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath, on a lesser scale.

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Anyway, the rest is history but, as a footnote to history, I believe Perret set out to achieve much more than a reinforced concrete frame for us to learn about in architecture school.

1903

7 rue de Trétaigne
Henri Sauvaage and Charls Sarazin

7 rue de Trétaigne, Paris

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I’m unsure how much bonhomie was felt at the time by the many Parisiens sharing a shaft of airspace on sites less central and less spectacular. With his 7 rue de Trétaigne low-rent apartments, Henri Sauvage tried to do his best for these people.

The tidy configuration has six apartments per floor accessed from an approx. 4m² landing – it simply can’t be any less. Area saved is diverted to make the lightwells as large as possible for the single aspect apartments facing them. We think of Henri Sauvage as the Art Nouveau guy good at tendril ornament but he had a proto-Modernist sensitivity to how quantity of light benefits well-being. I say that because one third of the 29 apartments are the three-room apartments responsible for the unevenly sized light wells. Placing them on the south of the trapezoidal site would have equalized the lightwell areas somewhat but since rue de Trétaigne runs approximately north-south, the northern light well is larger because windows opening onto it receive less direct sunlight. Note also how openings between rooms are next to the window wall, allowing light to be borrowed from adjacent rooms.

1912

Housing rue Vavin
Henri Sauvage
rue Vavin, Paris

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This building is also T-shaped with paired apartments left, right and rear, but has a larger footprint and height. With this, Henri Sauvage introduced the terraced apartment typology pre-empting Antonio San’t Elia (who, in 1914, sketched some terraced apartments). However, only the front to rue Vavin is terraced and not the rear facades that could better benefit. The main advantage of terracing apartments is that everyone gets a vertical slice of the sky in addition to whatever view there is. The architectural price paid is a large and largely unlit space below that needs to be justified. Sauvage did so by moving his office and studio into at least part of what is quite a substantial length of building.

I’ve no idea of this building’s history of repair and nor can I tell, but it’s looking good for 105. Glazed ceramic tiles are the perfect cladding.

1922

Grandin Building
Henri Sauvage
10 rue des Amiraux, Paris

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A decade later, Sauvage was to again explore terraced apartments but this time on three sides of a building. This created a much larger space that needed filling but this time he was fortunate to have it accommodated by a municipal swimming pool.

Despite this building being a better example of the advantages of the terraced typology, it’s simply not possible for all buildings to have a swimming pool inside. I don’t know why. I’d been looking forward to a 3€ swim but, when I visited the week before last, the pool was closed for major restoration.

This is what I’d been hoping to see and experience.

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1958

Le Cité de L’Abreuvoir
Émile Aillaud with Edouard Vaillant
1 Rue de Téhéran, 93000 Bobigny, France

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This post-war housing project is sixty years old and its original surface has been overclad and is probably good for another sixty. The site layout still works. Eleven-storey tower blocks are surrounded by a curvilinear four-storey perimeter buildings with apartments accessed by stairs from the outer side. Local residents and apartment occupants alike use the existing streets to enter and use the open space to access the market and buses along the main road running through the site. The open space is open to everybody to use as a thoroughfare but only the apartments of the development have a direct view of this open space as a visual amenity.

The tower blocks add incident – a Victorian concept of the picturesque. It’s when something is made to happen when it would be dull for something not to. This isn’t a meaningless gesture however, for the tower blocks increase density and allow the enclosed open space to feel open. In some cities high-rise housing is a more efficient way of using land but here it’s just an different way of using land.

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1968

EDF Housing
Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge (Jean Renaudie, P. Riboulet, G. Thurnauer, J.-L. Véret) 1968

4 bd du Colonel Fabien, rue des Péniches, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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This corner of Paris is all about electricity – EDF’s in particular. In English, this project is known as EDF Housing. I’ve yet to find plans and work out how these buildings are configured, but it looks like what you’d get if took a two-storey, interlocking, L-shaped module not unlike this,


and rotated it 90° four times, elevating it two storeys each time. As with the towers of the previous project, these have no preferred orientation because different rooms within the apartments face different directions anyway. This is a useful characteristic. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment]

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1969

Jean-Baptiste Clément Housing
Jean Renaudie
rue Jean-Baptiste Clément, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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Jean Renaudie again, but this time sans Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge. It’s impossible to find a single location from which to photograph this development because it wasn’t designed for the sake of a photograph. Its complex geometric plan is based on triangles overlaid in three dimensions and produces courtyard spaces and a vertical gradation of activity as one progresses up from street level through the internal shopping arcade and up to the residential levels.

All apartments have private terraced outdoor areas

and the levels overlap and sequentially recede according to some logic sensed but never comprehended.

Whatever its rules of organization are, they can be infinitely extended and varied to account for local conditions yet still produce an identifiable whole. It’s not very often you’ll see anyone attempt designing a three-dimensional amorphous matrix for mixed-use living.

1977

Les Tours Aillaud
Emile Aillaud
Cité Pablo Picasso, Nanterre, Paris

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I’ll stick my neck out and disagree with Robert Hughes on this. Where he sees concrete I see mosaic tile, and no boxiness either. The rooms aren’t large but who’s to know how many or how large they might well have been? The floor layouts are sensibly designed with right angles where furniture needs to be placed and curved external walls where it is less necessary.

The buildings’ shape, their surface pattern and the shape(s) of their windows could be what Hughes meant by gimmicky. The shape we can discount as it looks like an early attempt at a rigid tube structure [such as 432 Park Ave’s]. It probably produced some engineering advantage and consequent construction and materials savings. This hypothesis is supported by the relatively small window openings. If laid properly, glazed ceramic tile is a perfect cladding but there’s no justification for the pattern of this cladding or for the three shapes of window, particularly the teardrop-shaped ones. These features are what English-speaking commentators writing about French architecture are keen to disparagingly label “gesture”. Gesture is assumed to be a bad thing and, if it’s no more than an architectural gesture for our amusement, then I agree.

However, consider this next recently completed project for runaway/homeless kids in Perth, Western Australia. Many of the elements we see in this image – the angled columns, the cantilever, the different finishes and materials, the bright colours, overlapping planes are all architectural gestures of some sort and none is particularly expensive to make.

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They’re all architectural gestures that could be seen as gimmicky but in this context they are all human gestures showing somebody cared enough about the users of this space to make it a little bit more than it could easily have otherwise been. 

I feel something similar happening with Les Tours Aillaud. It’s fifty years old. It’s the only ungated development. It’s not been dynamited. It’s only few stones’ throws away from La Défense. It must still be social housing for rent for, if it weren’t, it’d have been gentrified long ago.

1981

Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac
Ricardo Bofill
Allée Jules Verne, 78180 Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

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This is the first and most photogenic of Ricardo Bofill’s Paris projects and, because of that, a media “classic”. It seeded development of the lake periphery and beyond.

The Les Arcades du Lac component is the lesser photographed. It contains 389 subsidised apartments and, as shown above, has been given a strong controlling geometry recognizable as a French garden with buildings instead of hedges.

Much of the space around Les Arcades du Lac consists of hard landscaping interrupted by occasional trees and views out,

and also by moments of incredible lushness. We simply can’t say if the people who look at these or at the lake all the time have a better appreciation of them than the people who experience them afresh every time they encounter them in the course of going home. I wasn’t aware of any car parking and nor did I think to look for it.

The buildings are in impeccable condition. Its mix of prefabricated concrete panels and terracotta tile cladding is approaching timelessness.

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How well the project as a whole has aged is obvious when compared with surrounding developments that attempt a similar grandness of mass without following through with construction and materials.

The lake is astounding in size and the surrounding parkland well maintained. It must be nice for the majority of the Les Arcades du Lac to know they are close to it even if they can’t see it. Once again, we can’t say if their appreciation of the lake and park is any better or worse. The lake and park are also amenities for the neighbourhood to enjoy. Other than proximity, what makes the occupants of Le Viaduc and Les Arcades du Lac special is that they share a geometry. For the first time I thought such a simple thing as geometry is a very real way of making people feel part of something greater. I began to think of axes and symmetries not as wannabe Versailles but as something that can be used in low-rent housing developments to produce the sense of comfort that comes from knowing one has a place within some grander design. These fundametals of configuration are more visible now the post-modern frisson of surface design has evaporated. It was with this in mind that I viewed the next project.

1982

Les Espaces d’Abraxas
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
1982 pl des Fédérés, Noisy le Grand, Marne la Vallée, Villes Nouvelles, Paris

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Again, there are glimpes of lushness, but fewer and more controlled.

It’s the same things happening again, with even fewer elements working harder but for the same reasons. Here, the shared feature is the amphitheatre – an architectural form in which something happens, even though all that happens is people going to and from their apartments. As with rue Franklin Apartments this space shared both horizontally and vertically unites users and spectators no more or less than with any stadium.

Bofill said it’s more than a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath. And as with Le Viaduct, a number of apartments are made into a focal point for the development – a plot device that, in the absence of players or actors, gives meaning to the space. According to the description on ricardobofill.com “L’Arc”, with its modest dimensions (20 apartments over nine floors), was placed in the center of the interior space. We wanted to render functional a symbol considered non functional throughout its long historical use. Diverted from its usual symbolism, its final aspect will be that of a romantic, rather than a triumphal arc. For all, it is the focal point of the scheme.”

Also, as with the other projects, movement on ground level is made visible wherever possible but, as with Bofill’s 1975 Walden 2, bridges and open staircases are used to make movement on the higher levels more visible.

The usual photograph by which this development is summarized doesn’t do it justice.

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1985

les Échelles du Baroque
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place de Catalogne, Paris

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There are 274 apartments over seven floors. In all respects, this project was so much more than I’d anticipated.

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Again, the same elements are used and with more economy and to the same effect. Bofill’s use of social housing to provide an amenity for the neighbourhood builds upon what Aillaud did in Bobigny three decades earlier.

1986

Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place des Colonnes, Cergy Saint Christophe, Cergy, Cergy-Pontoise, Villes nouvelles, Paris

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By now I knew what to look for but this was more than I anticipated. The central shared object, the amphitheather and the grand axes were all present here and stronger. The approach from the railway station is a major axis culminating at the eponymous column.

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Off to the left from the column is another axis leading out of the development. From here on is known as either l’Axe Majeur de Cergy-Pontoise or as Parc François Mitterand as it’s one of the Grand Projects. And grand it is for, once past the arcade, there’s a path leading to some more columns and a view of Paris in the distance.

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One is drawn towards it between rows of espaliered apple trees.

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Only when you get to the distant columns does the view open up, and magnificently so.

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It’s a trek, but one I’d be very happy to live near to. Whether or not they residents have a view of this, the residents still benefit from an embracing geometry. The people of Cergy can access this space from roads passing across it but the people of Paris accessing it from the centre of town or the station will invariably pass through the space with the column.

This is a very intelligent project. Some of its architectural details are superficially post-modern but the important ones are all very real, physical things that refer to nothing else but what they are. They don’t pretend to give – they actually do. Bofill did something very important with these projects that, though ostensibly Post-Modern, aimed higher and had a rationale beyond.

• • •

Les Espaces d’Abraxas is the most vivid of these four projects but probably the least successful as it’s bounded on three sides by busy roads and, unlike the others, a destination only for the people living there and the occasional Bofill rediscoverer such as myself.

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1995

9-17 rue Émile Durkheim
Francis Soler
9-17 rue Émile Durkheim

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This project is just to the south of Dominique Perrault’s 1994 Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the choice of such a location is already a human gesture to its occupants. The project was much maligned in an Architectural Review review of the time. Reference to French architects’ supposed love of “gesture” displayed the mindset that occupants of social housing aren’t allowed anything unique. The main cause of this ire was the graphics applied to the windows.

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The implication was that occupiers of social housing shouldn’t be gazing at art [but aspiring to fitted units and tile splashbacks with decorative borders?] In 1995 or 6, I scanned this image because I liked the clarity of the design and its priorities.

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The architect’s website explains that the full-height double glazing offered construction and structural savings that freed budget for the window graphics showing details from Giulio Romano’s fresco of the Feast of the Gods, but in the style of Roman Cieslewicz [a Polish photographer and graphic artist notable for, amongst other things, his use of collage].

The intention was to provide a poetic dimension and the necessary intimacy without obstructing daylight. It’s a different way of looking at things. This problem of cross-Channel perception has nothing to do with architectural gesture and everything to do with the concept of a human gesture I mentioned earlier. The UK’s neoliberalist filter for aesthetic perception precludes social housing from ever being beautiful, regardless of whether an effort is made or not.

2016

Social Housing
Antonini Darmon Architectes

Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

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This project featured last year in MARK magazine and much was made of the arches and their shadows and shading. “The modern reinterpretation of Giovanni Guerrini’s 1940 Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome is a welcome addition to the western suburbs.” The apartments are decent enough and the balcony width increases in line with the need for sun control, apparently.

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There was little need for sun control when I visited.

Driven by views and the river promenade as amenities, the area has much new development and is more about to happen. “Each building designed by a different architect” is mentioned as if it were a good thing. Jean Nouvel’s name is mentioned likewise.

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This social housing is within a courtyard development and ostensibly its centrepiece. Opportunities to see into or out of that courtyard are few because as many of the surrounding apartments as possible are attempting views to the west across L’Île Seguin to the hills of Meudon – or at least their living rooms are, leaving many bedrooms facing the courtyard and the building. There’s a slim chance this building has its archy facade as a human gesture to its tenants, but it’s more likely an architectural gesture to those who have a view of it. It could be a case of those arches being a human gesture to one set of occupants and an architectural one to the other, thus extracting maximum value from a human gesture and also somehow missing the point.

The building itself is no doubt there because of some condition of planning permission. On the plus side, at least it’s there and not on some remote site.

• • •

This post didn’t begin as a critique of attitudes to social housing in Paris but, even from these few examples, it’s clear that enthusiasm to build it has waned along with the idea that better housing for everyone is something architects should be concerned with. Even as late as 1985, architects such as Bofill were still trying to house people in ways that nourished not only the occupants but their environs as well. By 1995 the attempts had become smaller in scale but still with a sense of priorities. The era of such brave attempts seems over and the trend is for social housing projects to be even smaller in scale and begrudgingly provided by developers, as has long been the norm in the UK.

Having said that,

misfits’ salutes France, for having kept it going for longer than anywhere else. 

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More:

Jean Renaudie
Atelier de Montrouge
Bofill in France
Émile Aillaud
Cité d’Abreuvoir
Francis Soler
ricardobofill.com – A generous website with much information and many downloadable images. Sketches are a bonus but more plans would be nice. An excellent resource nevertheless.

Many thanks to F. and S.

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One thought on “Misfits’ Guide to PARIS

  1. Samar Ali

    Got to finish this one finally, the highlight for me is that the development of social housing is very illustrative of how society, architecture and politics have developed ( or changed) throughout the past century. Ups and downs and a very stark change of priorities every two decades ( as set by the 1970s and the 1990s examples).

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