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Gens: ‘finding a challenge is always the starting point’

Traditional and contemporary architecture co-exist at this French barn converted into mixed housing for the elderly

French practice Gens was established after the architects first came together to deliver a joint project for REHA – an initiative to promote innovation in private and public housing organised by the French government. Starting off with small regional projects, Gens gradually embraced a wider range of scales and typologies, from public to private, cultural, agricultural and social housing projects. 

With Sylvain Parent based in Paris but the other three team members – Guillaume Eckly, Barbara Fischer and Mathias Roustang – based in Nancy, tasks are divided pragmatically; nevertheless, they make decisions as a whole. Eckly claims that their ‘different sensibilities complement each other’ and that each architect is involved in all aspects of design – be it drawings or images, they need to be fully aware and engaged. 

The team has an admirably logical and straightforward approach when embarking on a project: they begin by identifying the requirements and the specific difficulty or challenge of the brief. Although each project has its particular characteristics, finding a challenge is always the starting point. Whatever this may be, it catalyses the eventual solution. 

When the municipal council of Velle-sur-Moselle granted Gens permission to convert an old French barn into mixed housing with some provision for the elderly, the team started with a simple observation: there was a distinct lack of light. Struck by the barn’s deep plan and dark interior, the architects sought an efficient way of illuminating the entire volume without destroying its historic relationship with the surrounding village. In a bold move they cut out a strip of external wall to create a new facade. Though not immediately obvious from the public realm, the facade is now a big window. Emblematic of the project’s new identity, the window admits more light and enhances the experiential quality of the housing interiors. 

Eckly stresses the importance and responsibility of such design decisions, and shared the experience of one of the elderly people who opted to rent a unit in the barn: ‘She said that she cried when she first visited it’, and he quoted her: ‘I didn’t imagine I would find something like this … so modern.’ To the practice, such smart design decisions clearly matter. Determined solely by the architect, they have a direct impact and emotional value to the user. 

The choice and combination of materials also enhances the barn’s presence. Gens says the selection was a natural result of the relationship between the barn and the village it sits in. The architects claim they like to ‘concentrate on the essence of the project; less is more’, aiming to build economically without sacrificing the quality of the spaces. Nonetheless, they carefully decide where to spend more, employing materials found in the project’s rural environs, such as the wood used for the barn’s distinctive ornamental carvings, whereas aluminium was chosen for its reflective qualities. The aim is to synthesise forms and materials, making them ‘almost invisible, because they belong to the place where they are being used’. Contemporary interior details, such as the plan of the village overlaid on psychedelic flowers, infuse the predominatly white, tranquil ambience of the units with evocative flashes of colour and exuberance.Traditional and contemporary architecture sensitively co-exist.

The Gens team believes architecture is not just an aesthetic contribution to the everyday. To them, it is the tool that can turn the quotidian routine of a shower, a nap, or a meal into a memorable experience. Good architecture enhances these ordinary moments. Gens consider themselves to be people before they are architects, hence their practice name, gens, French for ‘people’. They also acknowledge how much they have learned from the provincial context of Nancy and their suburban clients, and how this has shaped the way they work. Putting the user at the heart of their architecture, they aim to transform the lives of the people who will inhabit the spaces they create.