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2006 November: Housing, Louviers, France by Édouard François

Snakeskin-booted Édouard François first shot across the bows of the AR around six years ago, with his remarkable Sprouting Building in Montpellier (AR May 2000), an apartment block that uninhibitedly celebrated materials and nature.The most radical aspect of the scheme was the treatment of the building exterior as a massive rock face made from gabion cages filled with stones and implanted with seeds that would eventually bloom into a spectacular vertical garden.

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This (literally) fertile reciprocity between architecture and planting was further explored in the Flower Tower (AR September 2004), a Parisian apartment block, where pots of mature bamboo set into perimeter balconies form a luxuriant screen around the building, like a shaggy green overcoat.

Yet beyond the playfulness, posturing and greenery, there is clearly a very serious mind at work, preoccupied with creating architecture that has a clear social, economic and environmental agenda.François makes the most of unpromising programmes for such workaday things as social housing blocks and car parks, and his madcap imagination invigorates urban life.

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This latest project for social housing in Louviers, a small Normandy town to the northwest of Paris, adds a further twist to an already piquant mix. Here another type of unorthodox external skin is employed as a means of enclosure, device for veiling and general generator of aesthetic and sensory pleasure.

Rough hewn chestnut palings held together with wire form a horizontally ribbed, rustic rainscreen that gives the assemblage of volumes an arresting, folkloric quality. Though not a living, evolving facade in the manner of previous projects, the thin timber poles continue François’ penchant for the reinvention and subversion of cheap or disregarded materials.

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He first used timber palings to enclose balconies on the Montpellier project, so it only required a slight shift of an already vivid imagination to transmute them into cladding. Here the lengths of wire-linked paling are supported by timber uprights fixed to masonry walls behind.

The brief was for 18 apartments of varying sizes (two and three bedrooms) for an orchard site studded with ancient pear trees. To avoid cutting down the trees, the complex is divided into a trio of three-storey blocks each containing six flats.

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To maximize the volume of the flats, vertical circulation is separated off into two smaller, tapering volumes that connect with the residential parts by a series of open loggias and walkways. Screened from sun and wind by the veil of paling, the loggias become intermediate foyer or terrace spaces.

Thick walls of terracotta (exposed on the apartment interiors) and tiled roofs give the structures a high thermal mass and also riff on local building materials and traditions.But it is the untraditional timber skin, a cross between rainscreen and mashrabiya, with its rough, pungent appeal to eye, hand and even smell, that elevates the project beyond the ordinary.

Project: Housing (Mixed)
Architect: Édouard François
Location: Louviers, France
Year: 2006

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