In a communist suburb of Paris, Edouard François’s social housing cunningly conflates archetypes of individualist and collective living
‘I was asked to bring in beauty and I refused. Wanting to create it at that particular spot could only have made things more chaotic and incoherent. Beauty would have been stupid, selfish, forsaken, as though it had accidentally dropped there bang in the middle of the crossroads − it would have said “Merde!” to everything around it.’
Such was Edouard François’s sentiment regarding the Cité des Mordacs, a 1960s Modernist housing estate in the Parisian banlieue which, thanks to its morphology of utilitarian towers and slabs disposed along wide avenues, is frequently described as ‘Stalinesque’. Surrounding the estate is mediocre suburban sprawl, while the town centre of Champigny-sur-Marne, two kilometres away, displays traditional party-wall urbanism.
Declared a Zone Urbaine Sensible (‘sensitive urban zone’) in 1997, Les Mordacs is currently the object of a four-year, €73-million regeneration programme, which includes the complete renovation of a quarter of its housing stock, as well as the demolition of two buildings (a tower and a slab, 104 flats) and their replacement with 114 new dwellings. It is these that Edouard François’s firm completed, to much media attention, last year.
The reason François’s scheme garnered so much press was its frankly freakish form and dress: sited at a T-junction, two of the buildings display what appear to be townhouses at the lowest level, on top of which a 1960s housing bar has been casually dropped, while the skyline is marked by bungalows that seem to have landed there, Wizard-of-Oz style, in a hurricane; on the other side of the avenue, the third building mixes the same elements in a different, and at first glance even more chaotic, combination.
Viewed in isolation the gesture can appear gratuitous, but for François it was all about the context. How do you bring a sense of place to somewhere that is in a sense no place? And how do you respond to a context of dreary slabs and towers without appearing to judge that context? François’s answer was to bring to the site the three housing typologies that characterise Champigny’s fabric and pile them up in a confrontational dialogue.
While isms and their ilk clearly bore François, his intervention at Champigny owes an obvious debt to the games played by the Postmodernists 30 years ago. We find the same irreverent reverence for history, the same ironic humour (funny to some, impertinent to others), the same flirtation with kitsch, the same use of collage, the same desire to speak to popular taste, and a similar Pop sensibility.
Indeed François describes his intervention at Champigny as a work of art, a giant installation à la Rachel Whiteread intended to make us consider the Cité des Mordacs in a new light. This is not the first time he has attempted such a manoeuvre: his Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière just off the Champs-Elysées (AR November 2007), with its black-concrete casts of Haussmann-era facades through which modern fenestration pokes seemingly at random, was also intended as a mirror held up to its surroundings.
Where François’s work differs from that of his PoMo forebears is in its eschewal of their shiny Legoland aesthetic in favour of something materially more subtle and interesting; at Champigny the articulation of the blocks is beautifully realised so that the illusion of a piling up of archetypes is thoroughly convincing (hats off to the concrete engineers), and is reinforced by the various finishes and details, which include tile, zinc, render and shutters.
Despite initial appearances, there is a functional logic to the scheme’s organisation. Bringing a sense of place to Les Mordacs has here been interpreted as injecting a chunk of traditional, street-line-respecting urbanism into the heart of the Ville Radieuse, and it is therefore the townhouses that are in the front line. They set the rhythm − a simulacrum of division into traditional plots − and are formally and materially the most rich (François subscribes to the belief that most people are only fully aware of materials up to five metres above street level − beyond that you can be less soigné).
The irony of sticking suburban bungalows (the average Frenchman’s dream dwelling according to polls) on top of a Corbusian roof terrace was clearly an opportunity not to be missed (hyper-collective versus hyper-individual, as François put it), and so dictated the rest of the stacking order, as well as, according to the architects, providing accommodation for families with young children in a manner that allows the little ones space to play without bothering other inhabitants. Traditional urbanity also means street-level shops, and one of François’s buildings duly contains four ground-floor retail spaces − Les Mordacs’s original introverted indoor shopping centre, which had reached a state of terminal decline, is currently being demolished and replaced by scattered retail pockets.
The reality of the internal organisation of François’s buildings becomes clear at their rears: here we find massive wooden walkways at every level (except for the roof terrace) providing individualised access to each flat, and you consequently realise that the ‘townhouses’ are in fact nothing of the sort, their urban dress hiding an internal division into apartments. Ranging from two to seven rooms, all the dwellings in François’s buildings enjoy a front-and-back double aspect, which is why the walkways were needed, in order to avoid a proliferation of stairwells.
Set away from the rear walls to maintain privacy, the walkways are connected to each dwelling by 12m² private terraces, each of which is intended as a little ‘garden’. The idea is attractive, but the manner in which the terraces are stacked up on top of each other results in unpleasantly dark and dingy spaces on the lower levels. Lifts and fire escapes are internal − reached via communal entrance halls where the letterboxes are located − and provide access to the rooftop bungalows, whose generous terraces command sweeping views.
When building on a restricted budget, certain choices have to be made − if we spend on this we have less for that. The choice made at Les Mordacs − and it was the client’s, not François’s − was to invest money in the external appearance of buildings that contain rather poky, Existenzminimum apartments (66m² for a three-room flat) with little or no storage and bedrooms in which it would be hard to squeeze a wardrobe.
Other architects hired by client Paris Habitat-OPH (most notably Frédéric Druot and Lacaton & Vassal, AR January 2012) have tried to challenge this, but François opted to stick to the cahier des charges. He did, however, persuade the mayor of Champigny to change the planning regulations for this sector of the commune so that he could build up to the street line and rise to 21 metres instead of the original limitation of 15 metres.
To a Modernist diehard, this project would presumably come across as a slightly retrograde, conventional building type that has been given an unnecessary and kitsch wrapping. A less-stringent functionalist might concede that François’s formal manipulations disguise the bulk of what would otherwise be rather forbidding seven-storey blocks. But if you subscribe to the Postmodernist viewpoint that style and content are inextricably linked, François’s Champigny buildings send out a clear message of intent. The estate that surrounds it proclaims, with its identical blocks of identical apartments, the socialist ideal of egalitarianism − everyone is housed in the same way because no one is better than anyone else; relentless anonymity as the great social leveller.
Champigny was and still is a communist municipality, but the ideological expression no longer follows Soviet models: here we have three French housing archetypes − the individualist (but today often subdivided) townhouse; the highly individualist bungalow with garden; and the old collective social-housing model − that are piled up together on an equal footing, in a project that attempts to reconcile, through its form and organisation, the individualised and the collective. Paradoxically it aims for consensus through shock tactics; but once the initial surprise has dissipated, it seems as if, collided together in this manner, these three beautifully simulated styles cancel each other out to become no style − which is one way of responding to the problem of dealing with no place.
Architect: Edouard François
Photographs: Paul Raftery