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2009 February: In The Open Air

To transform a century-old warehouse into a new cultural centre for Paris, Jakob + Macfarlane took circulation outside with a radical tubular-steel grid

Just over century ago, if you had been standing on the Pont d’Austerlitz bridge in Paris looking up river to the east, your eye might have been drawn to a new warehouse being constructed on the Left Bank. You might have marvelled at the sheer scale of the thing, with its curious reinforced concrete structure that seemed to go on for ever, beating a steady rhythm 280m along the river frontage.

Completed in 1907, the Docks de Paris, as the building came to be known, was a gigantic repository for bulk goods shipped up and down the River Seine by barge. Heroically looking to the future, this functional monolith symbolised the industrial progress and efficiency of a new century. It was the first building in Paris to employ a reinforced concrete structure and according to Brendan MacFarlane, one of the architects of the recent remodelling, Le Corbusier was said to be fascinated by it.

The view from the Pont d’Austerlitz has changed hugely since 1907, yet there is still a palpable sense of things on the move. Now the reborn Docks de Paris has come to represent a different kind of progress, as the area around it is transformed in a massive urban regeneration project funded by the Port Autonome de Paris (PAP). Yet in the hands of MacFarlane and his partner Dominique Jakob, this radical building has rediscovered its formal and programmatic edge. Where once battalions of cranes disgorged their cargoes along the dockside, a warped tubular-steel grid infilled with panels of moiré-patterned glazing cranks and creeps along the long, low facade. Painted a coruscating shade of tropical lime, it snakes and twists like a virulent green parasite feeding off the carcass of the original building.

This compelling interplay of old and new is an apt expression of an area still in a state of intense flux. Over the last decade or so, this formerly disregarded quarter of eastern Paris has been energetically transformed from a grungy industrial backwater into an upscale neighbourhood. A pioneering precursor was Dominique Perrault’s French National Library (AR June 1998), whose gleaming quartet of glass towers lies just upstream.

Under the auspices of a Zone d’ Aménagement Concerté (ZAC), a special planning and development status that gives added impetus to the processes of urban regeneration, new developments continue to reform the post-industrial landscape. In 2004, the Ville de Paris launched a tender to design a new cultural centre on the riverside site of the Docks de Paris. Despite its historical significance, it was not a binding condition that the building be retained. Instead, competition participants were given the option to demolish or preserve it, or a combination of both. But such ambivalence was perhaps understandable, as once the docks closed, the building did not fare especially well. Prior to its recent remodelling, it endured 20 years as a carpet warehouse.

When it comes to coaxing new life into challenging structures, Paris-based Jakob + MacFarlane has an admirable track record. Project such as the old Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt (AR July 2005) and a new restaurant for the Pompidou Centre (AR July 2000) speak of a sensitivity to history, but also manifest a boldness of approach.

The brief proposed relocating the Institut Français de la Mode, Paris’ leading fashion school, from its staid premises in the 17th arrondissement, and combining it with a major new public exhibition space and an array of shops and cafes for the casual flâneur. The newly transplanted fashion students are the building’s energising spirits; whether making clothes or attending lectures, their activities are consciously and constantly on public display through fish tank-like glass walls.

The shops and cafés are yet to arrive (though leases have been signed), but however enthralling the architecture, the project’s success will ultimately depend on how it works as a commercial and social organism. In terms of commerce, the French government has invested around 40 million euros (£35 million) in the venture and formed a 50-year partnership with the PAP and Ville de Paris. A separate property company will manage the building, collect rents and pay an annual license fee to the PAP.

In terms of conjuring a sense of social dynamism, the remodelling aims to draw people in and channel them around the new spaces, so that the building becomes active in the life of the wider urban realm. Originally a monolithic barrier blocking the river, the building is now a permeable, welcoming structure. Part of its midsection (next to the newly refurbished part) has been demolished, opening up routes and views to and along the river. This encourages casual exploration and connects it more intimately with its surroundings.

A continuous public route extends up from the riverfront to the roof deck and down again, so people can either stroll through it or stop off to investigate the various spaces. Crucial to this strategy is the notion of what Brendan MacFarlane describes as the ‘plug-over’, the warped steel parasite containing a network of stairs that transport visitors from a waterfront arcade of shops and cafes to an active, habitable roofscape, via the intermediate exhibition space. Four storeys above the river, restaurants, pergolas, gardens and Parisian panoramas now await in what the architects conceive of as ‘a square in the sky’ and a new focal point for the neighbourhood.

The idea of slinging circulation up the side of a building like a set of saddlebags has an obvious precedent in the Pompidou Centre’s famous external escalators, which used to be the greatest free ride in Paris. Here, the experience is like walking through a big, fractured greenhouse, with views of the Seine filtered through the delicate veil of moire patterning.

Strips of French oak are soft underfoot, so it also feels like the promenade deck of a great ship. And there’s that green. Jakob + MacFarlane’s lurid colour scheme clearly owes a debt to high-tech colour coding and leaves no doubt as to the distinction between old and new. Why green? ‘Because the Seine is a green river,’ says MacFarlane, but don’t be fooled by such gnomic pronouncements. The plug-over is piece of highly inventive engineering and construction, its form arrived at by the systematic deformation of the concrete grid.

The original structure was based on a rhythm of four 7.5m-wide bays followed by a larger 10m-wide fifth bay, and the new implant riffs on this regular beat, simultaneously subverting and enriching the original geometry through the process of digital distortion. The complex tubular steel was fabricated by descendents of Gustaf Eiffel, who are still in the business of making challenging structural concepts a built reality, and each of the 644 double-glazed panels is unique.

Trudging across the deserted, snow-covered roof in a winter dusk makes it slightly hard to imagine the building as the vibrant experience its backers and designers envisage. But Paris has a vigorous en plein air culture, and no doubt such a creative architectural cannibalisation will draw the crowds. Fast forward to the summer and things should be very different.

Architect Jakob + Macfarlane, Paris
Structural engineer RFR
Photographs Paul Raftery/VIEW except no. 11 by Nicolas Borel

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