Emblematic of wider transformation in the grim flatlands north of Paris, a new school rises from the ashes of a former industrial site in Saint-Denis
According to legend, Denis, the first bishop of Paris, picked up his head after it was chopped off on Montmartre (martyr’s mount), trudged five kilometres northwards with it, collapsed, and was buried where he fell. His tomb begat an abbey, which later became the most powerful in the realm and necropolis to the kings of France. But the French Revolution put paid to all that and, following closely on its heels, the Industrial Revolution changed the region’s topography forever.
By the 20th century, Saint-Denis and its neighbouring communes, Aubervilliers and Saint-Ouen, had become one of the largest industrial sites in Europe. Particularly favourable for development, the flatlands of the Plaine Saint-Denis attracted migrant workers from far and wide, notably Spain, to the point at which the area straddling the Saint-Denis/Aubervilliers border was called ‘La Petite Espagne’.
Today, while there are still Spaniards in Little Spain, the industries that attracted them have long since gone. Indeed the whole of the Plaine Saint-Denis is undergoing post-industrial redevelopment, its derelict factories making way for offices and its sub-standard housing being replaced by shiny new apartment blocks. The populations of Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers are growing fast, as is the number of children living there − a 21 per cent rise in 10 years.
It is in this context that the Casarès-Doisneau school complex was built, on a former industrial site at the border of the two communes, with financing from both (a dual parentage seen in its name, given Aubervilliers already had a school with the title Robert Doisneau, which the building replaces, whereas Saint-Denis plumped for Maria Casarès, a Spanish Civil War refugee who achieved screen stardom in France).
The programme called for classrooms and ancillary spaces for over 500 nursery- and primary-school pupils, as well as a sports hall for both the school and the local community. AAVP, headed by 42-year-old Vincent Parreira, was selected from 170 competition entrants.
Among the industrial edifices already on-site was a handsome ‘Eiffel-type’ metallic hall and a tall brick chimney. The intention was to retain both in memory of the area’s working-class past, but while the chimney could be saved the hall proved too dilapidated for reuse. Nevertheless, it was decided that its volume should
be replicated in the new building as a complement to the chimney, and that the area in front of it, formerly occupied by industrial structures, should be left clear
in order to form a public space. It is this ensemble that greets visitors arriving along the main thoroughfare (the Rue du Landy).
And what a greeting. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes of its predecessor, the new hall building dazzles the eye. Perforated, gold-tinted aluminium panels envelop it like an industrial-strength net curtain. Belying the simple geometry of the hall’s volume, the patterned perforations add a wealth of decorative detailing, and for many casual observers evoke the moucharabies of Arab and Moorish architecture − an ingenious way, in this paedophile-conscious age, of creating a vocabulary of
veiling and protection without evoking incarceration.
On closer inspection, the patterns’ provenance turns out to be rather closer to home, since the perforations trace out giant diagonal crosses − which recall the bracing members of 19th-century iron structures − and decorative motifs derived from polychrome brickwork.
This is a direct reference to Jules Saulnier’s magnificent 1872 iron-and-brick mill building at the Chocolaterie Menier in Noisiel (to the east of Paris), conceived as a giant oriental carpet and translated here into metallic lace. As for the restored chimney, it has been tied in visually through the application of criss-crossing gold ribbons.
On its concrete-framed ground floor, the new hall building contains the school canteens, while rising above them is the wooden-framed sports hall. This dual system of concrete ground floors and wood-framed upper storeys was used almost throughout the school in a spirit of sustainable development, what the French call ‘construction douce’. Inside, the sports hall reproduces a Saulnier-type structure in glulam members, and is walled with high-performance polycarbonate sheets that keep heat in while allowing light through − but not too much, since it is filtered by the external perforated panels.
The panels in turn imprint their shadow on the polycarbonate, producing an effect of luminous wallpaper. Changing rooms and technical areas are housed in an adjacent metallic structure linked by flying ducts and a ‘factory’ footbridge.
In France there is a tradition of designing urban schools as street-line-respecting buildings enclosing an internal courtyard (the playground), and the Casarès-Doisneau complex is no exception, bar a kink in the eastern flank in deference to the restored chimney. In this way the complex can be relatively closed to the outside world (in the interests of child protection) while opening fully onto the central space.
The architects chose to place the main school entrance to the north, on the quieter Rue Cristino Garcia, meaning less traffic danger and allowing the principal classroom wing to take advantage of the southerly sun on its courtyard side.
Although the sports hall’s perforated metal panels are continued all along the ground floor of the classroom buildings, their upper storeys have received a different treatment: their wooden structure is echoed externally by larch battens, cut in situ to evoke cross-shaped braces, and decorated with turned-wood lozenges and distinctively detailed window covers and surrounds.
While to many these evoke Alpine chalets, they were in fact derived from brickwork patterns and also from moucharabies and wooden mosque screens, presumably in a nod to Spain’s Moorish past and Saint-Denis’s large Maghrebi population. The architects have chosen to leave the larch untreated, meaning that the most exposed parts will soon weather to a silvery grey.
A gable and a cartoonish metal tricolore signal the main entrance, hidden behind perforated panels and slatting. Beyond the porch, a generous entrance hall greets visitors and perpetuates the French tradition of the escalier d’honneur with a spiral decked out in Tom Dixon lamps and protected by wooden slatting for thematic continuity. Classrooms are simple, white and generously day-lit, whereas corridors are strongly coloured and double up as coat racks (observe the elephant-head
But pristine as the corridors and the concrete stairwells appear, they are not too proud for children’s artworks, which look rather splendid when tacked on to their walls. The courtyard-side classrooms give on to timber-slatted walkways that provide sun shading and rain protection, and are connected
to the playground by external wooden staircases. Unadorned larch slatting dominates the courtyard, and proves handy for fencing off a central green area (there’s another on the roof).
It continues on to the buildings’ undersides, where they are lifted up on pilotis to form préaux (covered outdoor play areas traditional in French schools). In photographs, the Casarès-Doisneau complex might, with its whiff of the Wendy House, appear uncomfortably kitsch to some eyes. But in its current context of crumbling post-industrialism, it brings a welcome breath of freshness and complex-free joie de vivre.
Once its wood has weathered and its context has been entirely rebuilt, its future livery of silver and gold should hold its own against almost anything that might be thrown up around it. This is a school that appears friendly to young children without resorting to a rainbow-coloured paint job, and that has been designed to take a few knocks − pupils have already begun carving their names into Casarès-Doisneau’s timbers, much to Vincent Parreira’s delight.
Architect: Atelier Architecture Vincent Parreira
Photographs: Luc Boegly