In a Parisian courtyard, cocooned in an artificial enchanted forest, sits R&Sie(n)’s experimental house
As if plucked from the pages of a dark fairytale, this remarkable dwelling exudes the mystique of a house in an enchanted forest. Concealed from public gaze within a typical Parisian residential courtyard, the two-storey volume is shrouded in a dense thicket of hydroponically sustained ferns. These erupt from their chemically controlled nutrient beds to form a shaggy green coat, so like some kind of crazy, urban duck blind, there is little sense of the man-made construction underneath.
‘Such bucolic disinhibition is the radical antithesis of Paris’ manicured urban condition, but architects R&Sie(n) (punningly pronounced ‘heresy’) actively relish all manner of tensions, whether between nature and architecture, purity and corruption, attraction and repulsion’
It’s all tinged with an experimental edge and tugged by an undercurrent of unease. ‘Like Hitchcock with hydroponics,’ posits R&Sie(n) partner François Roche, alluding to the Rear Window-like claustrophobia of the courtyard, where people’s lives are watchfully crammed together.
It took five years for the project to be finally realised. Building in a Parisian courtyard is problematic at the best of times, as planning laws require two-thirds of surrounding residents to approve any new construction. The organic camouflage is an obvious response to the issue of intrusion by a new structure, but also attempts to establish the intruder’s privacy. The house’s inhabitants, an adventurous family of four, are perpetually cocooned in a luxuriant veil of greenery.
The ferns are contained in a metal pergola set at a slight remove from the house and anchored by horizontal members attached to the external walls. Further bracing is provided by a network of tensile supports.
The 1,200 specimens of feathery Dryopteris filix-mas are nourished by a mixture of bacteria, nutrients and rainwater, which can be adjusted in response to climate and light. This foetid brew is fermented in 300 glass beakers and then piped, drop by drop, to the plant substrate. Specially hand-blown by Italian craftsmen, each beaker resembles a giant glass raspberry. Clustered together in the foliage, the glittering, mutant ‘fruit’ add to an already surreal tableau.
Behind the lush depravity of the ferns, things get more clinical. The 130m² house is the simplest of structures, with walls, floors and ceilings all formed from raw concrete. External walls are wrapped in a thick layer of green plastic with polyurethane insulation underneath. As the house butts up against an existing courtyard wall, a narrow service zone is set along this blind side. Large windows are punched into the three other faces, offering oblique views of the courtyard through the greenery. Living and dining functions are on the ground floor, with a trio of bedrooms above. There’s also a basement housing the mechanics of the hydroponic system.
Clearly it requires some discipline to live in such a boundary-pushing environment, but nonetheless the project is an enthralling sideswipe at ‘green’ architecture and a rare foray into the darker side of nature. Roche goes further, concocting a narrative of an urban witch and her alchemical experiments that sustain the planting. ‘The neighbourhood is attracted by the green aspect yet repulsed by the processes of fermentation,’ he says.
Architect R&Sie(n), Paris, France
Project team François Roche, Stéphanie Lavaux, Jean Navarro
Structural development Christian Hubert
Glass beakers Pedro Veloso, Vanessa Mitrani