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Public Housing by Jakob+MacFarlane Architects, Paris, France

Jakob+MacFarlane experiment with winter gardens with their ‘beehive’ social housing project. Photography by Paul Raftery

‘The trouble with social housing,’ muses Brendan MacFarlane, ‘is that it’s not evolving as a building type.’ It’s a bright spring day and we’re standing on a fifth-floor balcony of Jakob + MacFarlane’s new social housing complex in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. To the east, are the barracks-on-steroids of Belleville; to the south, tourist Paris and the dome of Sacré Coeur.

MacFarlane’s observation is nothing new, but it’s a shaming fact that public housing still tends to get short shrift when it comes to investment of resources and architectural imagination. In Paris, the consequences of corralling people into marginalised banlieues continue to be revisited on planners, politicians and civil society. But how to change things? ‘We need new sorts of housing that can address issues such as altered family structures and environmental concerns,’ opines MacFarlane, a touch evangelically. ‘But even if people feel some generosity of spirit in the buildings they inhabit, that would be a start. Tough places breed toughness.’ We contemplate the looming barracks of Belleville in chastened silence.

A drop in a murky ocean it may be, but MacFarlane’s new scheme is an attempt to propel a neglected building type a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder. It is formally inventive, its trio of six-storey blocks contoured like giant beehives.

It has a generosity of spirit in the way space is used and proportioned, and in the relationship between private and communal areas.

And it embraces environmental awareness both actively, with solar panels on the roof set to provide 65 per cent of the hot water supply, and passively, through factors such as orientation, shading and materials. Less familiar is its system of winter gardens, which employs curtains, like sweet wrappers, to envelop the facades, opening up large, perimeter balconies for use in colder months.

Despite previous failings, the current French system of procuring and designing public housing does not always recoil from unorthodox thinking. Projects over a certain value are subject to design competitions and this was how Jakob + MacFarlane found themselves in the 19th arondissement, a change from their Docks de Paris locale and programme (017, AR February 2009). Here, the brief was for 100 flats (including a proportion for disabled users), with parking and shops at street level.

The budget was 14 million euros for a 6,600m² scheme, which MacFarlane says is ‘slightly above average’ for this sort of project. The roughly triangular site used to contain the Herold Hospital, a 19th-century institution demolished in the 1980s. Since then, the overall site has been gradually redeveloped, with a mid-rise block of flats for the elderly and a crèche. Jakob + MacFarlane’s plot completes the picture and the final flourish will be the transformation of the leftover portion into allotments and a park.

The land allocated for the housing is a narrow strip bounded on its north-east side by a winding road. The site drops two storeys to the road, and is partially excavated to conceal three subterranean levels of parking. Rubble from the excavations forms a huge rusticated wall that reinforces and defines the curved boundary of the street. The three apartment blocks sit on a datum above the rampart wall with geometries that respond very particularly to fixed conditions, such as the need to preserve a group of ancient trees, site views and Haussmann’s historic rules governing building setbacks.

MacFarlane conceives the design process as a carving of an imaginary three-dimensional urban matrix, with the resulting forms smoothed and eroded, like the geological residue of a glacier. Each block has a different footprint and because the floors bulge and shrink, each of the apartments is unique. Flats are clustered around a central core of lift and spiral staircase, and private balconies extend all the way round each floor, expanding into larger communal terraces next to the circulation core. MacFarlane envisages these terraces being used as informal sitting-out or play areas, all part of encouraging that elusive ‘sense of generosity’ by which unscripted spaces offer the potential to be used as the fancy takes.

Individual flats range from one to three bedrooms, with the ground floor set aside for disabled residents. Reflecting a similar spirit, there are no cramped, stingy corridors; instead, rooms flow fluidly into one another, separated by sliding doors. All flats enjoy double orientation, and all living rooms and bedrooms have access to balconies through full-height French windows. As they cantilever outwards, the floor slabs reduce in thickness and are edged with porous stone tiles, automatically irrigated to encourage moss and plant growth. The concrete is a warm and very un-concrete honey colour, achieved by the addition of mineral pigment.

The balconies can be sealed off by ETFE curtains, which were developed by a Dutch firm specialising in inflatable structures. The curtains are anchored to the balcony slabs by a system of hooks to create a translucent membrane through which some air can penetrate.

The effect is a bit like being in a biohazard tent but the slightly laborious system of anchoring does have a practical payback in that it extends the internal spaces, creating a habitable interstitial zone.

As the blocks are still awaiting full occupation it will be fascinating to see how enthusiastically the system is taken up. What matters, however, is that the potential is there and, despite being an untested system, MacFarlane found his developer client surprisingly receptive to the winter gardens and other ideas. ‘Usually the aim is to minimise options,’ he says dryly, ‘as clients tend to be very risk averse.’ Yet good architecture usually follows from imaginative patronage and, while public housing is rarely favoured with Guggenheim-style largesse, it’s clear that a willingness to engage and experiment can reap tangible dividends.

Architect Jakob + MacFarlane Architects, Paris
Structural engineer Batiserf Structures
Services engineer Choulet
Landscape consultant Cap Paysage

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