The architecture of this young practice answers Paris’s pressing social housing need as well as conversing in its distinctive architectural language
In May this year, Christelle Avenier joined architects from across Europe at the RIBA in London to discuss the recent reincarnation of contemporary social housing in Europe – not least in the context of acute shortage – and presenting their own exceptional examples. ‘Always faster, better, cheaper’, Avenier and Cornejo say of the demands of the profession in Paris today, ‘so we fight for quality and sustainability.’
Since the practice was founded by Christelle Avenier and Miguel Cornejo in 2008, an active and ambitious public sector which encouraged and patronised young architects in Paris has been in decline, conceding to a housing market characterised by ZACs (Zones d’Aménagement Concerté or ‘development zones’) and public-private partnerships with cautious and architecturally unadventurous private developers.
Established relationships with social landlords and housing associations have enabled Avenier Cornejo to continue to build a significant majority of their work in the sector of social housing: projects have slowly grown in scale from 10 units at their first social housing project on Rue Legendre completed in 2012, to their most recent project in the Batignolles district comprising 145 homes including 62 at controlled rents. Their generous and collaborative approach to design – citing ‘drawing, listening, speaking and smiling’ as their favoured design tools – has contributed to their persevering success, allowing them to design simple but elegant architecture in an increasingly commercially cut-throat market. Leaving a light environmental impression and moving gradually towards a zero carbon architecture is also a priority for the pair: a feat in an urban context that is constantly demanding more for less and more quickly.
00 avecor legendre©stéphane chalmeau ld
Their practice is not only shaped by Paris’s pressing social and environmental context: Avenier Cornejo’s architecture is heavily influenced by local urban fabric, finding joy in the recapitulation of distinctly Parisian facades. Their first housing project on the Rue Legendre sits like a blackened effigy of the typical townhouses on either side. A facade of dark, perforated metal shutters – a polite nod to the traditional shutters adorning its neighbours – that open and close like gills, presents a new public face to the city each day.
‘We cherish material,’ Avenier explains. ‘The more we learn, the more we can express and restore its nobility.’ They have refined an architectural language that finds its expression in perforated metal, enjoying the ‘graphical creativity’ it allows. At their project in the elbow of Rue Bonnet on the northern periphery of Paris, completed last year, facades alternate between dark red protruding diaper brickwork, inspired by brick patterns found nearby, and metal-clad facades punched with perforated diamond patterns. Winter gardens are concealed behind gauzy shutters like Arabian mashrabiyat.
©takujishimmura lq 056
©takujishimmura lq 028
Open the front door of this social housing project and lift lobbies are encased in striking monochrome vegetal patterns that bring nature inside. The duo places as much importance on the design of the interiors of their buildings as the finely detailed exteriors, lavishing love on typically neglected spaces and creating bold and unexpected interiors that excite and surprise. The Crèche des Orteaux, completed in 2014, provides a magical environment ‘which both reassures and helps children to grow’. The fine-spun lacy metal facade which folds around the tight little urban plot ‘protects as well as exposes’, allowing freckled swirls of light in while still offering privacy and security to the children within: a delicate protective doily by day and a mystical Moroccan lantern by night.
Avenier and Cornejo explain that it is a symbiosis between different cultures – she was born in the French Alps, he is originally from Santiago in Chile – and disciplines which informs their practice, generating inspiration from ‘what we experience, whether through travel or through our interactions with other disciplines’. Macro lots – bigger projects in Paris which often specify a partnership between small practices – have been a recent opportunity for them to collaborate with foreign architects to expose their practice to diverse influences and conversations. For example, their most recent project in Batignolles was designed in association with Gausa + Raveau Actarquitectura, a young practice from Barcelona.
The pair describe a desire to work abroad more in the future, ‘broadening our vision and extending the limits of what architecture can achieve by exchanging with and meeting new cultures’. They will continue to strive for an architecture that is skilfully simple, joyful and generous.