Within the ring road of Paris lies a groundscraper that transcends the city’s boundaries
Entrepôt Macdonald’s 617 metres in length grant it the status of longest building in Paris, making it a unique development opportunity within the boundaries of the Périphérique, the ring road that encloses the French capital. Home to the city’s car pound and mail sorting centre until 2010, the warehouse, now quite a few floors taller and inhabited by 3,000 residents, has become the centrepiece within the wider urban transformation of north-east Paris.
With a thoroughfare to the north, a canal to the east and rail tracks to the south, the warehouse sits on a complex site of the 19th arrondissement’s unresolved post-industrial urban landscape – the slightly more unknown side of Paris, certainly a context that contrasts with the popular perception of the city. It was crucial to avoid creating a floating enclave, to instead relate the scheme to its surroundings and create connections in this already fragmented territory. Entrepôt Macdonald stands as an alternative to the decontextualised megastructures of the grands ensembles built in the 1960s by blurring the boundaries between architecture and urban design.
This impressive operation of densification is literally about building a piece of city atop an existing piece of city. Aptly nicknamed ‘double mac’ and coordinated by OMA, winner of an invited competition for the masterplan of the warehouse’s conversion in 2008, the project accommodates parking and retail spaces, cafés and restaurants, offices, a business incubator and amenities – a nursery, primary and secondary schools, a gymnasium and a community centre – as well as more than 1,100 residential units, over half of which are social housing, including accommodation for workers and students.
Site plan entrepot macdonald copy
‘The warehouse has become the centrepiece within the wider urban transformation of north-east Paris’
Its programmes juxtaposed rather than superimposed, this groundscraper consists of two built strips surrounding a central void. Radically different treatments are applied to the scheme’s two long elevations, as each facade attempts to become a part of the context it faces. To the north, looking out onto the ring road and the suburbs, the project maintains the warehouse’s monumental language. The flatness of the continuous horizontal lines spanning the length of the facade is only interrupted by extruded volumes cantilevering out above the pavement, at the points of entrance of the original structure. To the south, it is a dynamic and porous juxtaposition of volumes overlooking a large public space.
A 25-metre-wide cut slices the building in two on the ground floor to allow for the tram’s passage – the insertion of a public transport route, decided before the start of OMA’s intervention, was certainly a main driving force behind the project’s speedy delivery. In 2012, while the Entrepôt was still a colossal construction site, the first tram drove through it.
After winning the competition, Flemish architects Floris Alkemade and Xaveer de Geyter (FAA+XDGA, both ex-OMA) took on the role of project coordinator. Alkemade explains the initial intention was to give the project to a single architectural practice, but allocating units to distinct property developers proved to be financially more viable: each investor was given its chunk, each chunk was to fulfil a specific programme requirement, and each was to be designed by a different architect. Fourteen of them were commissioned directly, while the 15th – Kengo Kuma – was appointed to design the secondary school and gymnasium on the far east of the warehouse after winning the international competition for it. His intervention is particularly convincing, as he playfully integrates the original concrete structure into his interiors.
The biggest challenge of the project relies on defining the right set of rules, to create an overall homogeneous entity while giving enough creative freedom to each designer involved. As Koolhaas writes in his first theorem of Bigness: ‘Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a BIG building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a singular architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. The impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, which is different from fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.’ In order to define this ‘whole’, the coordinators organised workshops with the architects and put together a ‘bible’. Evolving alongside the project’s development, this document defines the rules, from floor heights and material palette to railing specification.
‘For central Paris, both the scale of intervention and the architectural language adopted in this project are new and daring’
The 74,300m2 of apartments in the megastructure’s western half allow for a rich mix of housing typologies, all sharing the internal communal garden designed by Michel Desvigne. The architects integrated terraces and balconies as well as a large collection of shutter systems – perhaps to mitigate the balance between light and privacy in this extra-dense complex. While the duplex spaces in Mi Hägg’s Habiter Autrement scheme were judged slightly daunting by some – for being too high, apparently – a few architecture students at the nearby Paris-Belleville architecture school have turned them into flatshares, and started a blog on their experience of living in the old warehouse. To the much-less porous eastern side, nearer the rail tracks and occupied mainly by offices, the plan is simplified and surfaces are optimised, with facades laid out around central courtyards.
The initial grand projet de renouvellement urbain of 2002 actually forecast Entrepôt’s demolition – considered the obvious first step to rehabilitating the area. Ironically, the preservation of the old industrial structure is not only ‘the most sustainable form of urbanism’, as pointed out by Alkemade, but also the only way to give Paris so much of what it is crucially lacking: housing – and social housing at that. Indeed, a tabula rasa approach would have forced, according to the Plan Local d’Urbanisme, the creation of a Zone d’Aménagement Concerté, which has a strict set of rules and regulations. The level of density achieved would never have been possible. Conveniently, when first commissioned to design and build the warehouse in the 1960s, Marcel Forest’s brief from the Ville de Paris specified the need for the structure to allow for a change of use – its concrete columns and beams were therefore designed to carry loads of some two tons per square metre. Back in the day, the building was already imagined as a plinth onto which the future city could be built.
‘The biggest challenge of the project relies on defining the right set of rules, to create an overall homogeneous entity while giving enough creative freedom to each designer involved’
Industrial relics and infrastructural networks are too often understood as urban dividers, considered anti-city, incompatible with the creation of a neighbourhood because their monumentality is associated with an inability to relate to the human scale. Yet in many ways, it is the scale of these elements that renders them an asset, the city’s best bet at addressing equally large-scale issues. The French capital has for some time now been trying to tackle its biggest problem: softening the hard edge of the Périphérique to integrate its banlieues. But more than 10 years after the 2005 riots, it is still struggling to establish a real sense of connection with its periphery and create a harmonious Grand Paris. The monumental scale of the Entrepôt Macdonald, combined with its strategic location, starts to suggest elements of response. A strong ability to separate can be turned into an equally strong potential to connect.
‘Through size alone, such buildings enter an amoral domain, beyond good and bad. Their impact is independent of their quality,’ states Koolhaas. And their power seems proportional to their size. For central Paris, both the scale of intervention and the architectural language adopted in this project are new and daring. The industrial relic becomes a brilliant excuse to justify the reinvention of the French capital without looking like it does on postcards – ironically, Entrepôt Macdonald’s subtext seems to be quite the opposite of ‘fuck context’. Borne out of the site’s very own industrial history, the new addition proudly sits on top of its historical plinth, defining a contemporary heteroclite identity elevating itself to speak and reach out to the Parisian periphery, welcoming residents from a wide demographic range to shape this new neighbourhood.
Masterplan: OMA (2007–2008) Floris Alkemade
Photographs: Philippe Guignard/Air Images, Stefan Tuchila, Cyrille Weiner, Julien Lanoo, Ronan Lacroix