The Bercy neighborhood is frequently used an example of successful contemporary urban planning. One of its successes it to have created a real neighborhood out of nothing on an initially unpromising site. But the other, perhaps more distinctive characteristic of this operation is to have created an urban form which is highly ordered yet diverse, modern yet still recognizably in the tradition of Parisian urban design. It was worth telling the story of this exemplary urban project.
The site is a long strip of land in the east of Paris hemmed in on the south-west by the Seine river and the highway that goes along it and on the north-west by the the railway tracks leading to the Gare de Lyon. It is about 800 meters in length, reaching, on its south-east edge, to the boulevard Poniatowski, a segment of the boulevards that ring Paris proper.
The site’s historical use was as a warehousing area, primarily for wine. There were good reasons why this site was perfectly located for this use. It is situated along the Seine, which allowed for easy unloading of cargoes from upstream, including from Burgundy, a major-wine-producing region. Since the 1780s, when Fermiers Généraux wall was built, the site had the added advantage of being located just outside the city limit and therefore not subject to the octroi tax. Use of the site for warehousing developed, turning the area into Paris’s main wholesale and logistical center for wine. In 1877, the City of Paris purchased the land in 1877 and coordinated the warehouses, leasing individual buildings out to operators.
In 1982, the City launched a vast program to revitalize the east of Paris. The Bercy zone was part of the areas under review, with the obvious advantage that the land already belonged to the municipality. It was decided to put an end to the warehousing role of the site, which was already in advanced decline. It was not obvious however that it would be possible to turn the area into a multi-function urban neighborhood. The site was cut off from the city, not centrally located, physically marked by it past warehousing function, and unreachable by public transportation.
The City decided to use the mechanism of the Zone d’Aménagement Concertée (ZAC). The ZAC is an urban planing procedure created in French urban law in 1967 to allow government-led development of zones with a specific urban plan and development guidelines set down in detailed plan known as the Plan d’Aménagement de Zone (PAZ). The City therefore asked the public urban planning office affiliated with the City (APUR) to develop the PAZ. The ZAC was officially created and the PAZ was approved by the Paris City Council on February 29th, 1988.
The principle for the new Bercy neighborhood was in line with the general plan for the east of Paris: construction of housing both for those eligible for aided housing and for the middle classes, development of spaces for commercial and some industrial uses, and the overall improvement of the city infrastructure and requalification of degraded areas. Specifically for Bercy, the program included:
– A 12.5 hectare (30 acre) park;
– 1,500 units of housing, mixing market and subsidized units;
– 113,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet) of office space;
– 40,000 square meters (450,000 square feet) for wholesale activities.
The park would be built in a strip along the Seine to allowing the preservation of a number of very impressive old trees located there and the incorporation of buildings of the former warehouses. A new neighborhood would be built along the north-east edge of the site and in a pocket to the east.
The competition for the design of the park was won by Marylène Ferrand, Jean-Pierre Feugas, Bernard Leroy and Bernard Huet. Their plan was to emphatically not to do what would often be done in such circumstances, that is to bulldoze the site and start afresh.
Instead they carefully incorporated elements of the existing industrial facilities into the new park. They restored a number of old buildings, kept some walls and aspects of the topography, and especially protected a number of glorious old trees. Not only did this allow the park to continue as a living memory of the former land use, but it gave it a certain feeling of being lived in from the day it opened. This park never had the park equivalent of “new car smell”. It is today a very popular, heavily-used, park made up of many different spaces and combining many different forms of use.
The urban developer for the Bercy neighborhood was SEMAEST, a private-law corporation which is majority-owned (58.2%) by the City of Paris and that was created to manage a number of urban development projects in the east of Paris. The role of SEMAEST in the Bercy operation was to acquire the land (all acquired amicably), to prepare the site and implement the infrastructure called for by the PAZ, to sell the individual plots to real estate developers, and to ensure the overall good unfolding of the events in the building up of the neighborhood. This structure is very typical of French urban projects. SEMAEST’s expenditures on this project were €173 million and its revenues were €393. In other words, it made a profit of €120 million.
The most distinctive aspect of this operation was the decision to appoint a coordinating architect responsible for the definition of specifications that all builders would need to comply to. The architect selected was Jean-Pierre Buffi, a well-known architect of Italian origin who has been active in Paris since the 1960s, when he came to work for Jean Prouvé. Buffi’s job was to define the urban form, establish the architectural specifications for the buildings, assist the City of Paris in the selection of the architects, and monitor that the actions of the developers were in accordance with his specifications. In other words, he was responsible for the urban design at a much finer level of granularity than is often practiced.
Buffi began by studying what he considered to be the two most successful built fronts facing parks in Paris: the buildings facing the Tuileries Gardens on the Rue de Rivoli and the buildings facing the Champ de Mars (the park where the Eiffel Tower stands). This helped him understand that the Bercy park’s built front was of a size and scale that put it firmly in a Parisian tradition.
One one hand, Buffi stayed very much within the Parisian urban tradition. The long strip of land was broken up by side streets perpendicular to the park and further subdivided into plots suitable for buildings of 50 to 100 apartments. They all would need to conform to the (120 feet) height limit imposed by Paris urban regulations and to other architectural specifications, but would be built by different architects – in other words the buildings would follow the approach that yielded “Haussmannian” Paris. On the other hand, Buffi chose to deconstruct the classical Parisian urban block by creating distinctive new typology for this neighborhood.
A continuous built front was established on the northern, non-park side of the site, along Rue de Pommard, in keeping with the urban character of that street. The pedestrian side streets connecting Rue de Pommard to the park were also to be built up, with a small set-back for plants, in order to give these streets a well-defined urban character and to mark the boundary between city and park.
Buffi wanted to ensure that as many apartments as possible had a view on the park, and therefore decided to place open courtyards facing the park. The result of this is that the places where the buildings come to meet the park, at the corner of each of the side streets, form very strong architectural elements with narrow and tall façades, that Buffi refers to as “pavillions”.
In order to maintain a strong formal coherence of the built front along the park, Buffi introduced the most distinctive architectural element, the balconies that run at the same level along the whole distance of the built-up front of the park. These balconies are not only located where there are buildings, but they also run in front of the courtyards as hanging terraces. The effect is very reminiscent of the Casa Rustici in Milan by Pietro Lingeri and Giuseppe Terragni, but extended along the 500 meters (550 yards) or so of the built-up front of the Bercy park.
The guidelines set by Buffi extended to colors and materials, as well as to lay-out and architectonic elements. Nevertheless, there was still room quite a bit of diversity. The strong horizontal theme at pre-defined levels, similar to the running cornices of “Haussmannian” buildings, created a sense of unity, but it remains clear that within that framework a number of very different designers were at work. Architecturally, this balance of diversity and unity is the most striking and successful feature of this operation.
The urban program is diverse, developed with the objective of creating a real living and fairly autonomous neighborhood. There are 1,400 apartment, including 350 unsubsidized units, 400 partially-subsidized, and 640 subsidized. The ground floors include shops, cafés and some offices. There are a whole series of other amenities in this neighborhood: two pre-schools, two nurseries, a police station, several hotels, a bakery school and the French Cinémathèque (the former American Center designed by Frank Gehry).
The site included a remarkable set of historic buildings known as the Cour Saint-Émilion. These were rehabilitated by architects Denis Valode and Jean Pistre and transformed by a private developer into an open-air shopping center with a central pedestrian street full of restaurants and cafés. The Cour Saint-Émilion has turned out to be an extraordinary success, always full of people despite a location that did not seem terribly central. A movie complex was built at the east of end of this area.
The only part of the Bercy operation that failed was the part that was purely developed by the private sector, at the far east end of the site. 14 hectares (35 acres) had been set aside for business activities related to food and drink, partly to appease the industry displaced by the closure of the warehouses, partly also to ensure that there would continue to be economic activities and jobs on the site (keeping in mind that this was well before it was clear that the Cour Saint-Émilion would be built, much less that it would turn out to be such a success). The project was won by a consortium including major French companies BNP, Suez and Accord. They selected architect Henri La Fonta, an architect who has worked closely with bank-led developments and is responsible for some terrible corporate architecture all around the Paris region. The building on the Bercy site is an architectural atrocity that has also been unsuccessful commercially. Because of its great length, it is now acting as an urban barrier in the development of the Porte de Bercy neighborhood beyond.
The new Bercy neighborhood did admittedly take a little while to get going. It only really started to come together in 1998, when line 14 of the Paris subway was opened. Line 14 is an entirely automated, driverless line. It stops at either end of the new Bercy neighborhood, at the “Bercy and “Cour Saint-Émilion” stations. With the opening of this line, the early residents who had moved in when the area was nearly inaccessible suddenly found themselves less than 5 minutes from the Châtelet stop in the heart of Paris, with rapid direct access to two major railway stations. In 2006, a pedestrian bridge was built across the Seine, connecting Bercy to the fast developing neighborhood on the Left Bank (check back for a future post on that new neigborhood). The pedestrian bridge is designed by the Franco-Austrian design firm of Dietmar Feichtinger.
Bercy is now an active and lively neighborhood, a center of life for thousands of people. In the words of ordinary Parisians, the reason why it is so successful is because it is a real neighborhood where you can do several different things. For example you can go shopping at the Cour Saint-Émilion and then let your kids run around in the park. Or you can go for a movie and a walk, or for a visit to the Musée des Arts Forains, a surprising museum that has opened up in the historical buildings of the neighbor. The Bercy neighborhood is now seen as quite central, especially with the development of the areas to the south-west on the Left Bank – and soon to the east-east at the Porte de Bercy.
The new Bercy neighborhood is an example of careful urban programming that maintain a balance between usages that are tightly woven side-by-side. It is also an example that sound architectural and urban design principles can create a unity and quality of environment without being overbearing on the different builders, and ultimately create a neighborhood of a spatial quality that people recognize and appreciate.
Jacques Marvillet, Vingt ans d’urbanisme amoureux à Paris, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2005.
Coordinating architect for the “Front de Parc”: Buffi Associés
Architects of the buildings of the “Front de Parc”: Franck Hammoutène, Chaix et Morel, Fernando Montes, Yves Lion, Dusapin et Leclerc, Christian de Portzamparc, Henri Ciriani, Ceria et Coupel, Buffi Associés
Architect for the “Cour Saint-Émilion”: Valode & Pistre