Barrie Evans asks whether the results of Lucien Kroll’s work are truly a reflection of participation
Lucien Kroll and his Atelier have for years struggled with the problems of trying to make industrialised building technology serve directly the needs of individuals and communities. The effort continues in the Atelier’s latest work in France-discussed here by Barrie Evans, who asks how far the results are truly a reflection of participation and how far they express the architects’ stylistic preferences.
Buildings by Atelier Kroll are very individualistic, yet their inhabitants are involved in their generation through extensive participation. So what is happening? Is it, as some critics have suggested, ‘that the users are being used, to create architectural effects? Is there a necessary incompatibility between Kroll the architect pursuing an architectural vision and Kroll the servant of participants who wish to pursue their own ends?
Kroll is interesting because he personifies the dilemma of many architects attempting participation. It is a dilemma Kroll is well aware of, to which he offers no ready, universal resolution. Of critics who said Atelier Kroll manipulated inhabitants he writes: ‘They were evidently right, but forgot that in exchange the inhabitants manipulated us also. They were certainly wrong to imagine that if we had been mute photocopiers the inhabitants would have designed houses (at Cergy-Pontoise) in the shape of Mickey Mouse or boots. Not there. They projected their own myths: the real inhabitants showed themselves more responsible and more careful (we often regretted it). We often received angry letters with a list recommending urgent modifications: for the most part 10cm here, moving back the furniture there, don’t budge the corrected, they felt at home. And then, without vigorous architects they would simply have repeated the immediate models and bleak alignments of lots which are believed inevitable. He also writes, ‘To order is a military act: to motivate is to be responsive and responsible.’
‘Kroll personifies the dilemma of many architects attempting participation.’
The ‘vigorous’, ‘motivating’ architect has an ambivalent role. In part, this must be a response to circumstances. In Kroll’s projects there is usually only one brief chance for inhabitants to be involved. Often this is within the normal project timescale. In that period, inhabitants have to learn possibilities of built form and understand, indeed develop, the new politics-participation. The architect provides a framework and this cannot be value-free. For him there must always be some element of self-interest. The most selfless community architect cannot be immune from this. Why is he there?
A major visual touchstone for Atelier Kroll is the largely unselfconcious accretion of buildings and part buildings over long periods that results in a dense urban texture. Can Atelier Kroll do more than attempt to recreate the effect of this complex order/disorder? Are users being used just to create surface variety?
1. Radical reconstruction: montage of an exercise in remodeling large concrete residential slab blocks to refurbish the fabric and lift up the heart. This has been built as a prototype by Atelier Kroll at Perseigne, a suburb of Alencon in Normandy. The aim was to take all block on the estate, 3, ans transform them, 2. The collage effect was to be produced partly by occupants’ choice of external refurbishments to their individual flats.
Kroll’s vision of an anarchic Utopia is not solely visual. It is an ideal of society that builds up a ‘collective texture rather than a collage of personal preferences’. Part of the vision is the process by which it occurs. Participation by the Utopians-inhabitants, builders and others expressing themselves-is an essential part of the vision. This does not redeem the architect’s role from ambivalence, but it does make participation more central to what Atelier Kroll is doing and trying to achieve. There are still limits to participation. Why do Atelier Kroll’s new town housing scheme designs look so alike? If participation were organized in a more communal, less individual way would the result sometimes be more visually coherent, more architectonic, less in the image of Kroll’s Utopia.?
Kroll’s vision of an anarchic Utopia is an ideal of society that builds up a ‘collective texture rather than a collage of personal preferences’.
Three recent projects give insights into Kroll’s stance. All are housing schemes in France, which is significant to reading them. To readers outside France, their appearance may be their most radical aspect. But for the clients in France the diffusion of power through participation appears to have been more radical, even threatening.
France is also one of the last Western countries to continue building housing with large concrete panel systems-hard edged modernism without the style. This dull, repetitive concrete is not popular (nor populist in the sense that such an approach might be grudgingly accepted as inevitable in a poorer country with a massive housing crisis). For inhabitants, Kroll’s approach is doubtless not the ideal antidote to brute concrete (could there be only one?). But there is no doubt that what he has to offer strikes a sympathetic chord. And that there are not a host of users left feeling only that they have been used.
BANAL FACADES OF PERSEIGNE
At Perseigne, a suburb of Alencon in Normandy, there is an estate of some 2000 dwellings. System-built of large concrete panels, the housing is mainly five-storey slab blocks with a few towers.
To English eyes ranks of maturing trees and the lack of vandalism or graffiti are surprising. Even so it is unpopular. In parts it is 50 per cent unlet despite a significant population of immigrant workers who have few options to move elsewhere. And the buildings are deficient, for example sound and thermal insulation are poor, windows decay, tile cladding is falling away.
The prototype to show remodeling possibilities at Perseigne. New construction is rendered timber framing.
Atelier Kroll was brought in to refurbish and to breathe life into the estate. They began with the housing and its apparent immutability. If change was to come about through inhabitants participating, how could they know what was possible, how could they want what they could not imagine? Atelier Kroll built a prototype of possibilities. They took the end of one slab block and transformed it inside and out. They removed the top floors and superimposed a timber structure, and added two-storey lean-tos to front and side. Lower floors became social service offices with flats above. Basic construction was improved. Balconies were added. The new render at the back changed on a haphazard dividing line into grey asbestos cement tiles, interspersed with dark red. Externally earth mounding and planting suggested landscaping possibilities.
Ground floor transformed into offices for local government social services. Areas 2 and 7 are lean-to structures added to front and side.
Two new flats on the roof.
The project progressed to a social survey: individual and group (stair) meetings were held for the inhabitants of flats around one square to find how they lived and to involve them in the refurbishment. Families were all allocated the same budget and offered a set of priced options to choose from-sound insulation, external balconies and basics such as bathroom tiling.
Front (south) and side elevations of the prototype.
Choices were more individual than communal, an approach likely to promote the appearance of external collage. The choices made by each family did not lead at this design stage to complaints from their neighbours (the semi-detached observers). But by now the housing association (a large private company) had become alarmed by the prospect of dealing with so many individuals and building in such diversity. Local government support waned following local elections (the authority also manages some of the flats at Perseigne). Kroll, uncompromising, was dismissed.
Rear view with various add-on structures to change the former simplistic form. Over the rear access to the flats is glazed canopy typical on the entrances to older housing in the area.
Apart from the building and landscape prototypes, and one factory on a proposed industrial estate, the main built legacy is a school-the College Louise Michel. Based on Atelier Kroll’s accepted proposals, it was designed by local architect Juillard. It resembles a small, close-knit village around winding streets. In places it abuts the slab blocks, but does not address them. Apparently this school is well liked by teachers and works well educationally, though the success of so compartmentalised a school must owe a lot to the compartmentalised nature of French education.
College Louise Michel discovered among the slabs and towers. Though newly built its village-like planning suggest it might have been there first. But does this contrast, this implied criticism of the existing buildings, help create dissatisfaction without being able offer a ramedy?
LOOKING FOR PARTICIPANTS AT MARNE-LA-VALLEE
Marne-la-Vallee new town, east of Paris, called in Atelier Kroll to explore both participation and component building. The focus for this was a housing scheme of 110 dwellings, 80 public terraced houses and 30 private detached. They chose a local concrete panel building system (Ministry approved), in part because ‘its technicians seemed open minded, more than the system itself’. Above two storeys Atelier Kroll have superimposed timber structures which allow much more flexibility of internal layout and openings, within the budget. More than 30 families of prospective buyers for the 30 houses were involved in 20 meetings to develop their ideas for dwellings and site layout. The architects translated these intentions into three-dimensional forms, details, prices and construction times.
Prototypical ideas at Marne-la-Vallee for transforming a two-storey concrete panel system by adding timber superstructure and mixed cladding.
The other part of the project, on components, entailed storing dimensions of all concrete and timber components on Atelier Kroll’s computer. For the 30 houses, 30 designs were set up on computer and amendments taken in as they arose-a workload that would have been impossible to cope with manually. People were not brought to the computer screen, which was felt too unfriendly and slow in response. (For the project at Amiens (opposite), where the slab block has a video cable, computer output will be fed through it so that people can approach the new ideas through their own tv screen.)
Meanwhile at Marne, the developer, one of the large private associations operating with government finance, was becoming less enthusiastic about building 30 specific designs for specific people. So the designs are complete but not built. Only the 80 public sector houses, now nearing completion, suggest what might have been.
Informal site layout at Marne, with the private (participatory) housing detailed.
There is something strange about the need to find participants here, and even more so at another earlier new town scheme at Cergy-Pointoise where the effort involved was greater. Since not all prospective purchasers will reach completion of sale for a variety of personal reasons, there is a likelihood of building tight-fit dwellings for people who will never live there. And at Cergy-Pointoise as new prospective purchasers came along, they were given the house designs of those who had left to redesign, rather than being free to start with a clean sheet. A case of building a ‘collective texture rather than a collage of personal preferences’ at high speed. These traces of humanity left in buildings by people’s involvement (as in the anarchic Utopian vision) appear to be valued for themselves, abstractly. This having ‘the people’ participate is not so selfless as helping particular individuals to take part.
REVOLUTION AT AMIENS
With three projects (including Cergy-Pointoise) failing to translate their intentions fully into built form, Atelier Kroll move on in hope to a project just about to start for ‘Banlieu 89’. This is Mitterrand’s plan for revitalising system-built suburbs around major cities to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the revolution in 1989.
At Amiens the project involves a five-storey, 320m long concrete slab block containing 160 families (2m each). And a very large traffic intersection is nearby for which proposals are also wanted. As directing architects Atelier Kroll will involve the town (which is keen), owners, inhabitants, local architects, to carry out the work, and the local chambres de commerce and de métier.
Involving the chambres early is a lesson from Perseigne, where work was the last item to be addressed. This time the proposal is to try building up industry locally early on so as to promote a sense of self-sufficient community rather than just improved dormitory housing. Kroll has thoughts of locating the industrial buildings close to, or in some cases against, the slab block where this can be negotiated with inhabitants.
What might have been. Timber structures by Atelier Kroll added to the concrete for the public housing at Amiens, built without opportunity for inhabitant to participate.
Technically the housing defects are much as at Perseigne, though the block is better built. Some coloured polyester loggias (leaking) had already been added, suggesting a pre-existing sympathy with Kroll’s visual approach. Paul Vallez, sociologist for the Perseigne project, is being employed here too. The first step has been a desire by both owners and some inhabitants for smaller flats-children have left home, some space is unused, and people would like to pay less. So 20 three-bed flats will be converted into 40 smaller ones.
This beginning supports Kroll’s belief that there little risk of repeating the disenchantment that developed at Perseigne. Local politicians from Amiens have been to see the Perseigne prototypes and have had explained the participation process here. They should know what to expect.
Some computer perspectives of built-forms options for transforming the relatively inflexible concrete panel system.
Instead of enquiring into the degree of self-interest of Atelier Kroll in involving inhabitants, we could enquire of architects in general. For if all architects offered a service with participation and had some built projects to show for it, community groups would know what to expect (as the client at least does at Amiens). Providing the architects are honestly explicit about what is on offer, community groups could choose their own architect-and his products, and processes-to suit themselves. This is not totally fanciful. Some of the Liverpool coops were able to do this for a time.
‘If all architects offered a service with participation and had some built projects to show for it, community groups would know what to expect.’
There are limits to responsiveness in all architects. We do need to fight paternalism, the doing good ‘at’ characteristic of, say, centralised state socialism. We need an openness to the architectural iconoclasm of inhabitants. Can we see these in Kroll? The probability is suggested by a photograph of Marx that hangs above his desk. Not Karl, but Groucho.