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Combas Architectes: ‘It has to be a matter of bringing the same care to building a church as to a prison’

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Bringing together expertise in urbanism, structural design and interiors, Combas Architectes’ detention centre in Marseilles is an oasis for its inhabitants

At a time when judicial and penitentiary policies focus more on repression and oppression than prevention, Combas Architectes – a small French practice based in the Mediterranean cities of Nice and Nîmes – doesn’t allow an obsession with security to compromise spatial quality. ‘It has to be a matter of bringing the same care and the same energy to building a church as to building a prison’, agree the founders of Combas. And that is precisely what they have done in the juvenile detention facility in Marseille, inaugurated a year ago.

After meeting while working at CAB Architectes, also based in Nice, Sophie Delage, Pierre le Quer and Mathieu Grenier founded Combas Architectes in 2011. Coming from three different backgrounds – earthquake-resistant structural design, interior design and urbanism, and development respectively – each brings a particular field of knowledge to their projects, while observing a common ethos, based on a triptych that characterises their work: the relation to the ground, the relation to the sky, and the material qualities. ‘The sun and the shade inspire us to integrate our architecture into the landscape’, they claim.

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Classroom corridor at Combas Architectes’ detention centre in Marseilles

In Marseille, the detention building opens to the south onto the front courtyard and sports field overlooking the northern districts of the city, its fences fading into the horizon. As a counterpoint to these places of isolation, for Combas, architecture should be ‘a strong oasis that cares for the human. That’s why we tried to open such an enclosed facility to the landscape’. 

This openness in relating the building to its surroundings contrasts with the robust character of enclosure provided by the massiveness of its materiality, an imposed requirement to help it stand the test of time despite the possibly destructive behaviour of its young inmates. Closed juvenile education centres such as this require the highest level of security for minors, which constrained the architects in terms of the design, such as the need for it to be a single-storey building and the need for it to avoid both escapes and external intrusions.

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A light-filled meeting room at the detention centre

From this need for robustness and the architects’ desire to work with a material that is simultaneously related to the surrounding territory and can ‘sustainably face the Mediterranean climate’, came the decision to work with local Estaillades stone for the exterior finish of the structure. The interior walls are untreated concrete panels, affording a sober and uniform character to the interior spaces.

The manipulation of natural light plays a central role defining the character of the different interior spaces, which include the administration rooms, the logistics area, several classrooms and the 14 bedrooms for the inmates, each with a unique lighting quality. Light filters in along the roof of the corridors, almost imperceptibly illuminating movement around the building, while the backlight in the bedroom corridor provides young inmates with a more intimate space. ‘We are convinced that what we retain first from architecture is the softness of the light, the backlight, the rhythm of movement it suggests’, state the architects, emphasising the direct relationship between light and the way people move around a space.

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1507s 0609b

The bedroom corridor has exposed beams allowing soft sunlight through the rooflights

In addition to the landscape relationship and the treatment of materials, the work of Combas Architectes embraces the handcraft dimension of architecture. ‘We like all design tools except for those that kill craftsmanship, and prefer to work with materials that last long and acquire a patina.’ This attention to materiality and traditional architecture can be appreciated in their subtle restoration of a mountain hut in the Cévennes – a range of mountains in south-central France – whose traditional construction materials and techniques  merge with its natural surroundings.

‘We don’t know what tomorrow will bring … so we are inspired by the permanence of architecture.’ And even though they affirm that some of their ideal projects would be ‘an eco-friendly satellite’ (for Sophie), ‘a stadium or an airport’ (in the case of Pierre), or ‘a building with some furniture to conceive – a library, a church or a tribunal’ (according to Mathieu), the three agree they would like to be remembered ‘for beautiful spaces and beautiful light. And if all that became beautiful ruins one day, we would be happy’.

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.