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Extra Vert

This Parisian public sector housing is an attempt to green the city − both with colour and a facade of stacked terrace ‘gardens’

Thanks to Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party government (1997-2002), the provision of social housing in France is enshrined in law. Since 2000, local authorities in populous areas must aim to ensure that at least 20 per cent of their housing stock is social, or face an annual fine. Some municipalities − most notoriously Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of France’s five richest communes, whose mayor for 19 years was Nicolas Sarkozy − actively resist, preferring to pay to keep the rabble away.

But across the municipal boundary in Paris the situation is very different, for the city has a long tradition of social housing provision and a growing supply, currently totalling some 185,000 dwellings. The principal provider is Paris Habitat-OPH, a public-sector institution founded in 1912 which is now the city’s most active builder and largest landlord. With holdings dating back to the 1920s, the upgrading of ageing stock is a major preoccupation, and proved to be the spur for this new-build scheme recently completed by Hamonic + Masson, winner of the 2007 design competition.

Bounded by the Quai de la Rapée and the Rue Villiot in the 12th arrondissement, this prime riverside site was first developed by Paris Habitat in the 1950s, with a collection of five- and 11-storey bars laid out in chevron patterns parallel to the Seine.

By the 1990s, the estate was showing its age and, rather than refurbish, Paris Habitat decided to demolish entirely and rebuild, thereby permitting a 9.5 per cent increase in the number of dwellings. In 2000, architect and urbanist Jean-Pierre Buffi was called in to draw up a masterplan, which threw out the Ville Radieuse in favour of Baron Haussmann: orthogonal, street line-respecting apartment buildings around the perimeter, sheltering a ‘hidden’ centre where more diverse forms could flourish.

In Buffi’s plan, the latter consisted of two squat towers and a low-rise terrace. To ensure they hold their own against the forbidding office blocks that have flanked the site since the 1970s, the Seine-side buildings rise to 37m (approximately 13 storeys), the maximum allowed in this sector of the city. In addition, the redevelopment was divided up into lots, in order to artificially recreate the variety found in piecemeal-developed streets. Hamonic + Masson’s portion − which comprises the two towers − constitutes the penultimate realisation, Frank Salama’s terraces being due for completion at the end of this year.

Hamonic + Masson was not tender in its appraisal of the redeveloped site. It had reached, the architects declared, ‘a critical mass of ugliness’, and they felt that their project should be the catalyst that would transform the whole. Hence their buildings’ startling visual impact: over the general cacophony of their surroundings they shout louder than anyone − ‘Look at me!’ − and in doing so divert all attention from the ambient mediocrity.

The vocabulary here, deployed with jazzy angularity, is a jolly blast of hard-nosed urban fireworks: shiny stainless steel, both smooth and corrugated, transparent green acrylic, chunky railings, lacquered aluminium, chain-link stainless steel fencing, and massive concrete balconies varnished in a vivid green that Parisians will immediately recognise as the colour of the city’s wheelie bins.

Moreover, the corrugated steel cladding on the taller tower, painted with vertical green bands, deliberately evokes the roadwork barriers seen all over the French capital, which, as municipal regulations stipulate, must be striped in grey and RAL 6018. Such a choice will clearly not be to everyone’s taste, and raises the perennial question of whether one has the right to impose non-consensual aesthetics on social housing tenants who do not get to choose where they live.

With their Villiot-Rapée buildings, Hamonic + Masson is playing a very similar game − however different the aesthetic and typology − to FAT at its Islington Square development in Manchester (2006). There, future residents got to vote for the scheme they liked best; here they did not. On the other hand, French architects feel that it is only in the public sector that risks can be taken and experiments tried out − it is not builders such as Bouygues or Lafarge who will naturally choose to march in the vanguard; private sector speculative housing being innately conservative.

But Hamonic + Masson’s project is more than mere window dressing. Behind the visual pyrotechnics are intelligent ideas. The varied floor slab contours, for example, which twist and turn in relation to each other in what, at first glance, might seem an entirely gratuitous fashion, are in fact the product of the architect’s principal design premise. Recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of the French population dreams ofowning a house with a garden but, as the architects point out, this is something that has long been impossible in Paris.

So why not give them the next best thing in the form of truly generous terrace space? With cantilevers of up to 3m beyond the load-bearing facades, the terraces offer between 25m² and 35m² of outdoor space per flat, and provide a supplementary circulation path − since all the principal rooms run along the perimeter, you can, if you so desire, step out of your bedroom and walk to your living room without passing through the apartment’s interior. The terraces’ generous overhangs provide protection from rain and sun, while their irregular contours are intended both to control sightlines with respect to the neighbours, and avoid a vertiginous sheer drop when looking down.

They are also intended to express visually (and this is highlighted more strongly on the shorter tower) the idea of houses with their gardens having been piled up on top of each other.

It remains to be seen whether the architect’s hunch that its generosity will spare these outdoor spaces their usual fate − unsightly dumps for bicycles, old fridges, unwanted furniture and washing − will be vindicated. The fact that they afford some rather surprising views over the cityscape should militate in their favour.

Inside, the apartments vary from studio flats to four-bedroom duplexes, and are treated with a bland sobriety that should allow tenants to make themselves immediately at home whatever furnishings they bring with them. Not only are the plans very varied, but each apartment has its own unique ‘outside’, thereby countering one of the criticisms that was often levelled at Modernist grands ensembles in France, namely that tenants had difficulty appropriating their home as their own because they felt like battery hens lodged in relentlessly identical barracks.

Since it is the facades and the lift/staircase core that are load-bearing, all internal walls can be removed, meaning that one day the flats could be entirely reconfigured or, as the architect indicates, the towers could be converted to a completely different use. These are, of course, freestanding buildings, so Hamonic + Masson could orient them as they chose, with bedrooms (with reduced-size fenestration) that are mostly north-east facing, while the majority of the living rooms (with more generous glazing) look south-west and enjoy corner sites. Where energy conservation is concerned, the towers meet the specifications set by the city of Paris in its climate plan.

Hamonic + Masson’s towers stand close together in what will soon be a communal garden for the entire Villiot-Rapée city block (designed by the landscape architect Péna & Peña). The two buildings are similar but by no means identical. The architect chose to vary their height, with one rising 12 storeys (37m, the maximum allowed), while the other counts nine. Furthermore, the ground levels are different for each, meaning their floors are not aligned, thereby avoiding direct sightlines between the two.

The lower tower stands on pilotis; the garden running under it in the form of a spongy green-asphalt play area (bike sheds and underground car-park access nestle beneath it). The taller tower is planted directly in the ground, and will soon give on to a terraced sun patio − for security reasons, the roof spaces are out of bounds.

French architects frequently complain about the ever-more stringent building regulations, which they say impede innovation and creativity, but, as with the Hays Code, they can sometimes be got round or turned to advantage. Thus, the jaunty cut-off angle on the final floor of the taller tower was imposed by the sight-line rules, and the building has but one lift where the code specifies two for edifices over 11 storeys: Hamonic + Masson placed the duplex apartments at the top, so the two final floors count as one.

The architects also fought for details they believed in. For example: the metal stair railings in the duplexes, which were much more expensive than the clunky wooden ones that would have been standard, so costs had to be cut elsewhere to get them accepted; or the metal floor plaques that mask the transition between inside and out on to the terraces − a more elegant solution than the standard way of doing things, but, because untried, subject to persuading the bureau de contrôle it would pass muster. It is this generosity of spirit, the will to fight for the best on available resources, that raises this project several cuts above run-of-the-mill social housing.

The lessons learned will not be wasted, for Hamonic + Masson is currently building a 17-storey tower (50m high) on the same principles − although, context oblige, in rather more sober dress − at a site across the river in the 13th arrondissement.

Architect Hamonic + Masson
Project team Gaëlle Hamonic, Jean-Christophe Masson, Marie-Agnès de Bailliencourt,Bureau d’étude and
Cost consultant SIBAT
Green building consultant Franck Boutté
Contractor Capaldi
Photographer Grazia, Delangle

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