New Collective Housing in France

Viable Utopia


Lacaton Vassal, Transformación de 530 viviendas, Burdeos

It is difficult to name a country where the modern program of social reform and hygienization through housing has been as strong as in France. In the 1920s, Le Corbusier declared architecture to be a crucial instrument in addressing societal ills – Architecture or Revolution! – and after World War ii, the dire need for reconstruction in numerous French cities, combined with the pressure to accommodate hundreds of thousands of workers who had emigrated from the countryside to the large urbs – especially the metropolitan area of the capital – gave rise to one of Europe’s most ambitious urbanization and social housing operations. A program which time would prove erroneous to a large extent, grounded as it was upon the sacrosanct and ominous principle of zoning.

This did not result so much in functional zoning as in social segregation or that blatant guettoization which, already in the 1980s, began to be seen for what it was: a big problem. The reader abreast of the current ‘yellow vests’ will remember the social revolts that recur in the banlieues, those zoned isolated cities where anomy grows amid vast beehive-buildings.

It would seem logical, given these premises, that neither France’s public administrations nor its private real estate developers wish to repeat the mistakes of the past. Fortunately, to avoid repeating errors does not mean to renounce urban density – which is a necessity – as a criterion. Hence, the zoning and specialization of before have given way to a focus on integration in the urban continuum (the city is for everybody), and the new residential blocks do not shy away from taking on distinctive, even powerful images of the kind that help the city recognize them as part of it, and even more importantly, help their inhabitants identify with the place they live in. To this we of course add the now inevitable demand for ‘sustainability,’ which often translates into dwellings designed with bioclimatic purpose and executed with environmental care and sensitivity.

Density, urban good sense, an identifying image, and sustainability are thus the qualities of the finest examples of recent housing developments in France, and this dossier features four of these: L’arbre blanc tower in Montpellier by Sou Fujimoto, with its gripping but effective fanning out of cantilevered balconies; the block containing 170 apartments and retail spaces in a new neighborhood of Batignolles, in Paris, by Aires Mateus and AAVP, characterized by structurally determined varying rhythms; the apartments in Clichy-Batignolles, again in Paris, the first European project of the Chinese firm MAD Architects, with their curved balconies pursuing views of the Eiffel Tower; and the Ycone in Lyon by Jean Nouvel, with its poetic wrapping of bioclimate-creating filigree.

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