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In Wake of Paris Riots, Public Housing Authorities Build More, Better Projects

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Courtesy Edouard Francois Architect


If last year’s riots Paris riots were horrific, they weren’t surprising. The banlieue, suburbs like St. Denis, Poissy, and Clichy-sous-Bois, are pockets of concentrated immigrant poverty and faceless, block-style building long regarded as tinderboxes for trouble.

Paris has begun building more affordable housing within its borders to reduce social isolation of those outside. Besides offering public-housing tenants an alternative to the banlieue, the move addresses the city’s own growing squatter population, which suffered from a slew of fires in the city’s outer rings at the end of the summer. While approximately eight in 10 lodgings in some peripheral neighborhoods are public, many Paris neighborhoods contain no more than a quarter.

Almost all of Paris’s social housing authorities have revamped their building strategies over the past five years. The shift dates to the inauguration of Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, a socialist and a design advocate who, with others, knew the banlieue was an issue long before the riots. The Office Public Patrimoine Construction Réhabilitation Aménagement Politique, or OPAC, is the largest of these agencies and offers a good case study. Whereas about 1,500 new apartments were built per year prior to the new system, that number is now about 4,000, says Helen Schwoerer, OPAC’s head of public housing architecture. Two-thirds of OPAC’s work is infill, and the rest is new construction.

The city has also distributed projects over a much wider area of Paris. Officials from OPAC and other city agencies are working to ensure that all quarters contain 20 percent public housing, and they have announced that all new buildings in wealthier quarters must include at least 25 percent affordable housing in their programs.

The city is also building better social architecture, aiming to reverse social housing’s negative stigma, Schwoerer says. OPAC has added more architects to competition juries (competitions are mandatory for all public projects in France) and has begun casting a much wider net to find talent. Whereas the same firms used to build most of the city’s public housing projects, now the list includes innovative, international, and young firms, such as Lacaton + Vassal, Francis Soler, Edouard François and Roland Castro. Many jump at the chance to build projects in the historic heart of the city, where new projects are almost impossible to come by.

Not all projects are stellar, but the overall results are impressive. Instead of towering blank walls framing empty courtyards, fairly low-budget projects are often animated by creative plans, forms, and materials.

An OPAC housing project being built inside a 19th-century school on Boulevard Henri IV in the historic 4th arrondissement is a good example. Architects Guillaume Neuhaus and Laurent Niget will maintain the building’s landmark exterior, but they will transform the interiors in almost every way: The interior courtyard will be reinstalled and clad completely in gold-colored aluminum panels, a reference to period gilt interiors. Once-cramped apartments will be rebuilt and enlarged with lofty ceiling heights to accommodate large families. Larger windows will allow more light and improve ventilation.

A project by local architect Edouard François in the 20th arrondissement, called Batignoles Planchées, emulates its old neighborhood’s livery model. It will be divided into three long volumes separated by narrow pedestrian alleyways. The outer buildings will comprise a series of attached houses of varying heights and materials, including terra cotta, brick, concrete, and zinc, that emulate a tiny village. The project’s inner section will include a concrete communal building with wooden stairways and balconies that have plants growing up their lengths, culminating in a roof garden. François persuaded officials to support the concept, which is radical for the city, where strict rules usually prohibit rural styles in the urban grid. “We should never be afraid to test the officials,” he says. Indeed, François is known in Paris as an architectural renegade: In 2004 he completed the social housing Flower Tower, in which extruded concrete floor slabs sprout 380 tall bamboo plants from massive concrete pots.

In 2005 Lacaton + Vassal and architect Frédéric Druot beat out competitors Dominique Perrault, Roland Castro, and others to reshape the Tour Bois le Prêtre, a 17-story housing tower on the city’s northern edge designed by architect Raymond Lopez in 1957. The team will cut away most of the thick concrete facade’s partitions, installing balconies and large sliding windows in their place. Besides opening the apartments to more natural light, the units are being significantly enlarged and opened, and the firm will install new heating, ventilation, and electric systems.

Other housing agencies have also been revamped, producing interesting work throughout the greater metropolitan area. Near Lacaton + Vassal’s project, in Porte Pouchet, the young firm Péripheriques is planning an entirely new mixed-income neighborhood that features work by several emerging firms. Also, for Assistance Publique Hopitaux de Paris, Jakob +Macfarlane is designing 100 units in three new public housing apartments whose curving skins undulate around rectilinear interior skeletons. Beckmann-N’Thepe is nearing completion on an unusual concrete building for Société Anonyme d’Economie Mixte Immobilière Interdépartementale in the formerly industrial Massena area, in which the building’s center is carved out about three levels up to create a lofted courtyard, while side portions are also cut out to create several rooftop gardens. The firm is also developing public housing in the derelict St. Denis, which features staggered balconies with guard rails composed of a fiberglass-based fabric

While the increase in innovative projects is very encouraging, Aldric Beckmann, a partner at Beckmann-N’Thepe, echoes a popular sentiment when he says that most new public housing is still prosaic and unsophisticated. Architects have more say, but the bureaus are largely composed of bureaucrats and engineers, and practical concerns reign when budgets are low and the margin for error is even lower. While certainly improving, OPAC and other agencies are still not exactly architectural trailblazers.

Meanwhile in the banlieue, the situation is more dire. Mostly poor, small towns do not benefit from the financial and management advantages of Paris. A lack of coordination between suburban localities stifles improvement, and because many buildings are cooperatively owned, large-scale transformation is difficult. While the majority of new suburban building is heavy, blocky, and still insensitively scaled, there are some success stories. Peripheral towns like Bois-Colombes, Villeneuve-la-Garenne, and Clamart have all rebuilt their town centers. But for greater things to happen here, most point out that the best hope is the implementation of a much-talked-about “Grand Paris,” in which the city takes over its outer circles. The city’s borders haven’t moved since the 19th century, making it one of the smallest major capitals in the world. But there appears to be no movement on that front for now. Until then, observers hope that improving social housing inside the city will stave off a sense of alienation and resentment, but even so, only time will tell. 

Sam Lubell