Paris has a prestigious history, but it is also a living city. A new project in the 15th arrondissement gives a sense of how contemporary developments can create a dialogue with the multiple facets of the existing city in order to densify and enrich it.
With a population of close to a quarter million people, the 15th arrondissement is Paris’s most populous. It has a very varied urban fabric, including modest individual buildings, sizeable complexes, and a series of residential skyscrapers developed in the 1970s along the Seine. Despite not having the character of the historic center, it is a dense and vibrant part of the city.
So while preservation issues are less present here, the 15th arrondissement vividly poses the question of how an already dense and built-up part of the city can continue to renew itself and create new space to grow, of how new architecture can cohabitate with a confusing hodge-podge of building types and scales.
These are the considerations that came together in the development at 86-90 rue de Lourmel.
The story begins about ten years ago, when SemPariSeine, a for-profit development vehicle majority-owned by the City of Paris, acquired a plot at the heart of a city block that had until then served as a garage and workshop for the telephone company. The City’s intention was to build an assisted living facility and a pre-school. The City then also acquired an adjacent corner lot occupied by a big paint wholesaler in order to expand the project with housing and a large commercial space.
The question was how to develop such a site, at the center of a city block, surrounded by buildings of all shapes and sizes, many of which were very close to the site and had views on it.
The City’s decision, despite these constraints, was for a significant development. It planned for about 120,000 square feet of space of various social services and subsidized housing.
LLTR, a Parisian architecture and urban design firm, was selected for the overall layout of the site. The plan, developed in 2008 in a process that included significant community involvement, was to create a public space that would reach into the center of the block, where a new pedestrian square would be created. Buildings would be built on three sides and on the corner lot, all carefully calibrated to maximize the site capacity while respecting constraints from the surrounding existing buildings.
An architecture competition was held in 2009. The winner was Paris firm TVK, also known for their design of the Place de la République. The construction contract was awarded to Lainé Delau, a subsidiary of contracting giant Vinci Construction, and is just in the process of completion.
Many projects on large sites use a single architectural vocabulary and end up becoming perceived as a mega-project. The most interesting aspect of this project is that it does just the opposite, breaking up the three parts of the project in distinctly different buildings.
The difference is achieved above all by the choice of materials : light turquoise Profilit™, a self-supporting glazing system of alkaline cast glass developed by Piklington, for the corner building; larch timber cladding for the residential building on the courtyard; and white StoVentec composite panels of toughened glass adhesively bonded to lightweight carrier board for the assisted living facility and pre-school.
So even though the three buildings share a sparse, purist language, of simple volumes and regular openings, they do not read as a single complex. Each building has a very distinct identity, creating a complexity that allows a rich dialogue between the buildings and, even more interestingly, with the pre-existing surroundings. TVK fully owns up to this quest for a form of “picturesque” through the relationship with the context, without however at any point departing from their extremely restrained vocabulary.
The light turquoise corner building is an intriguing presence in the landscape of pretty mediocre architecture. It asserts itself by being even more rarefied in detailing than its neighbors, all of one color and material, with no attempt at fancy fenestration or plays on volume, only a horizontal element that has an almost Haussmannian function as a sort of cornice along the bottom of the windows. Upon close examination the façade is intriguing because of its proportions, the result of unusually low window sills, adopted in order to allow very large, fully-opening windows inside the apartments, another way of connecting the building to its context.
The wood-cladded building is the most spatially interesting, due to the very complex set of constraints stemming from the program, on one hand, and the ongoing negotiations with neighbors in order to determine the permissible volumes and sight-lines, on the other.
In order to give a sense of bi-directionality to the apartments, the entrance is through raised passages on the side opposite to the main views. The volumes follow the gaps in main views in the building opposite and the shapes that minimize the obstruction of sunlight. The result is a building that is formally interesting without feeling gratuitous. Purity and simplicity dominate, for example in the architects’ desire to keep roof terraces free of HVAC equipment so that they can be perceived as a visible part of the design.
The assisted living facility is the least interesting of the buildings, perhaps due to programmatic constraints, although it has an elegant lobby in continuity of the public square and a very pleasant accessible roof terrace.
The one wholly unsuccessful part of the scheme is the public square, which was designed directly by an in-house team at the City of Paris. It is a terrible public space, completely uninviting and inappropriate to human use, in addition to having a decidedly low-brow aesthetic. One has to question the wisdom of not having included it in the larger scheme, especially given that the designers happen to be specialists of public spaces.
The development at 86-90 rue de Lourmel is an example of contemporary design that addresses Paris’s urban challenges of density and relationship to context in a very straightforward way. The simplicity of the lay-out and architecture end up amplifying the very urban nature of this dense and fairly unstructured fabric, they embody an acceptance of the complexity and multiplicity that are at the core of the urban experience.
Thanks to Pierre-Alain Trévelo, Antoine Viger-Kohler and Océane Ragoucy of TVK.