Combining accommodation for young workers and immigrants in an edge condition in Paris, this apartment block goes beyond its basic brief to provide a civilising backdrop for daily life
Commissioned by the Régie Immobilière de la Ville de Paris (RIVP), one of the French capital’s principal social-housing providers, this mixed-use building was the result of a collaboration between two young architecture firms, Chartier Dalix and Avenier Cornejo. The programme sought to optimise RIVP’s provision of temporary housing by combining two hostels, one for young workers and one for immigrants, as well as including an entirely separate neighbourhood crèche on the ground floor.
The site is right on the edge of Paris, at the Porte des Lilas, in a redevelopment zone bordering the city’s notoriously noisy six-lane ring road (the boulevard périphérique). The rather heterogeneous context includes 1930s red-brick social housing on the other side of the périph, as well as new buildings in the immediate vicinity, of which the most prominent is the boxy black-concrete Etoile Lilas cinema just opposite the site (Hardel & Le Bihan, completed 2012).
Long and narrow, the plot is barely big enough for the programme, meaning the architects had no choice but to fill it almost entirely and to rise to the maximum height permitted, with regulation upper-level set-backs.
As a result, formally, but also programmatically, the building is reminiscent of an ocean liner, as well as of Le Corbusier’s seminal Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Just like in ocean liners and the Unité, the accommodation is lined up either side of long spinal corridors: here it takes the form of 240 studio apartments, with 60 for the migrants on the top two storeys and 180 for the jeunes travailleurs on the floors below. And just like in liners and the Unité, the facades are non-loadbearing, meaning fenestration can be punched out wherever necessary.
The studio apartments also owe a big debt to ships and the Unité, reproducing the tried-and-tested formula of long narrow ‘boxes’ with bathrooms at the corridor end, followed by open kitchens in the middle (thereby grouping plumbing together), with the main living space on the facade, lit by generous glazing.
Although site and programmatic constraints left the architects little latitude with regard to the building’s organisation, this doesn’t mean there weren’t choices to be made. Indeed two strong principles guided the design process: that there would be no scrimping on materials and finishes − indeed quite the reverse (optimising plumbing, structure, fenestration and so on meant there was money left over to do this) − and that the hostel’s communal facilities (canteen, launderette, gym, library, lounge, meeting rooms) would be used to raise the tone of the whole.
Rather than scattering the communal facilities throughout the building on different floors, as the brief had suggested, the architects chose to group them all together on the third floor, which then becomes exclusively concerned with collective living − another idea borrowed (whether consciously or not) from the Unité, which featured an internal ‘high street’ halfway up. But unlike at the Unité, the architects chose to open up this communal level to the outside world by fully glazing its facades, which they pulled back from the building line to create a continuous balcony/terrace.
The result feels like the leisure-and-entertainment floor of a luxury hotel, and will hopefully mean that two very different populations − immigrants and young French workers − will be able to mix in a meaningful way. Visually this floor breaks up the bulk of what might otherwise have seemed a forbidding 10-storey cliff (especially with the dark-brick cladding) and provides a connection with the surrounding neighbourhood that is denied on the other floors (the studios have no balconies at RIVP’s request, since they feared residents would store junk on them). Moreover, the building’s longer facade is further breached by an irregular vertical incision, once again in the interests of breaking up the building’s bulk, but also with the practical intention of bringing daylight and views to the spinal corridors.
Where this project particularly stands out is in its finishes and details. The facades are beautiful, featuring hand-moulded dark Belgian bricks of different hues and textures laid without pointing, the choice of brick being a nod to the neighbouring 1930s housing blocks, while its colour was a response to both the cinema opposite and to the dust and dirt of the périphérique.
The black-painted windows all feature specially designed shutters, intended both as protection against the summer sun and for privacy; when open they sit flush with the facade, while when closed they reveal perforations recalling brickwork, which cadence the facades at night when lit from within. Contrasting with all this sombreness is the brassy TECU Gold (an alloy of copper and aluminium) cladding the communal storey’s ceiling, both inside and out, as well as the facades of the vertical incision, which was chosen to bring a little sparkle to proceedings.
As for the crèche, as well as being physically segregated, it is visually demarcated on the rear facade thanks to its protected outside play area realised in various shades of green, one of which is the famous Parisian RAL 6018, used by the municipality for its hoardings and wheelie bins. To ensure total protection, a system of frames with netting has been put in place to prevent stray objects from falling onto children’s heads.
Inside the detailing is just as soigné. The communal spaces are particularly impressive, with radiators laid under grills flush with the dark-concrete floor, Acrytherm panels (a compound of resin and quartz particles manufactured by the firm Rébéton) in various hues cladding the walls − a product whose properties allow seamless corner joints and also cladding of doors for a fully panelled effect − and everywhere the warm reflection of the TECU Gold ceiling. Indeed equipment, furnishings and detailing are all of the highest standard, and moving around these spaces it’s easy to forget you are in a hostel for people of very low income and not in a four-star hotel.
Since there were two teams of young and enthusiastic architects working on the project, they were sufficiently numerous and involved to oversee the building phase continuously and push the subcontractors to give the very best of themselves, as well as having the manpower to spend a great deal of time on research into the most appropriate materials and products, which include solar panels and wind turbines on the roof (the panels are intended to supply at least 30 per cent of the building’s hot water, while the turbines are expected to produce 8,500 kW/h annually). Where the studio apartments are concerned, it was the architects who designed all the furniture themselves: sleek and functional, contrived to optimise the available space yet also civilise the surroundings.
With this project, rather than reinventing the wheel or attempting to load the building with symbolic significance, the architects’ mission, they said, was simply to produce a perfectly calibrated ‘machine for living’.
They also expressly set out to dispel the shame that is often associated with hostel accommodation and, on the contrary, make the residents proud of their temporary home. And judging by the reaction of one inhabitant on the day I visited, it seems they have succeeded: ‘It’s been designed just as I would have done it!’, she exclaimed. ‘I never would have imagined I’d find something like this in a hostel.’