The Skin of this Onion is Delicious: Learning from Rue Rebière (English Version)

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Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

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A project for 180 apartments built by Paris-Habitat as part of the Zone d’Aménagement Concerté (ZAC) de la Porte Pouchet, Paris 75017.

Architects: 

Périphériques (coordinating architects),

And the projects, from west to east: Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte (lots 01-02), Atelier Bow-Wow (lots 03-04), La Fantastic Agence (Stéphan Maupin) (lots 05-06), Avignon-Clouet Architectes (lots 07-09), Atelier Provisoire (lots 08-16), Cedric Petitdidier & Vincent Prioux (lots 10-11), Rousselle & Laisné Architectes (lots 12-13), Gricha Bourbouze & Cécile Graindorge (lots 14-15), EM2N (lots 17-18).

If Paris is a city shaped like an onion, formed of concentric rings as fortifications have been demolished and extended, then the site of the new îlot expérimental on Rue Rebière in the 17th arrondissement is the thin membrane just beneath the outer skin. The site is 620 meters long and only 12.6 meters wide, wedged between the Cimetière des Batignollesand the rue itself, which is what one might call a quiet street, or perhaps one too shy or cranky to admit cross-streets. Beyond the cemetery the Périphérique roars along a viaduct while on the other side of the street stands the rather impassive Lycée Balzac, not awful, not particularly inviting. It’s exactly the sort of unlovely site a young architect ought to love, particularly for housing, particularly for the social housing which has now been built here.

Tour Bois le Prêtre, Paris (1959-61, renovée en 2011 par Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton et Jean-Philippe Vassal ). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le Tour Bois le Prêtre, Paris (1959-61, renovée en 2011 par Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton et Jean-Philippe Vassal ). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The story of how such an odd site came to exist is good example us using lemons to make lemonade. Before its recent transformation, rue Rebière was one of those excessively wide streets which tend to slash the ragged edge of even great cities, where land is cheap and nobody much cares what gets built (as of this writing, one can still see the rue under the knife on Google Street View). The surrounding area was the subject of interest by the City of Paris for many years. Life in nearby social housing built before the Périphérique, including two towers, had become unbearable because of traffic noise and pollution. It was proposed to demolish the tower closest to the Périphérique, the tour Borel, and radically remodel the rest of the complex, the tour and the barre Bois Le Prêtre (this latter project, which took place without displacing the residents of the tower, recently won the de Equerre d’argent prize for France’s best building of last year).

The City of Paris and Paris-Habitat, which builds and manages social housing in the city, agreed to this ambitious plan. In order to house those displaced by the demolition of the tour Borel, it was decided to narrow the nearby rue Rebière, creating a site where a new, more experimental approach to social housing could be proposed. In the 1960s one could imagine a 600 meter long slab, perhaps leeringly cantilevered over the cemetery, going up here. Instead Paris-Habitat hired nine fairly young architects, seven French, one Swiss and one Japanese, to build 190 apartments, 140 of them social housing. The process took the form of a workshop overseen by the Parisian firm Périphériques, in which the nine separate projects were coordinated to form a new street, one which what Robert Venturi might call, in praise, a “difficult whole.”

Such collaborative self-expression is unfortunately rare in the world of architecture. As in the more famous project for Grand Pari(s), but to a more focused end, the workshop privileged coordination and collaboration over competition. The result, though certainly too fresh to judge definitively, is something new both for social housing and for Paris. One might not like to admit it, but the characteristic materials — limestone, plaster and zinc — and program — apartments or offices above, boulangerie, supermarket, clothing boutique, real estate agent or hair salon at ground level — of many Parisian streets give the city both its charm and a certain monotony. At least at the level of form, the new rue Rebière seems a provocative, though never less than cheerful, critique of the Parisian street, roughly speaking a third alternative to the beaux quartiers and the grands ensembles. While the some of the latter take on bizarre, repetitive geometric forms, their material palette is virtually always the same concrete, glass and steel. On rue Rebière we get timber planks (Rousselle and Laisné Architectes), translucent corrugated plastic (Gricha Bourbouze and Cécile Graindorge) and a garden wall (Avignon-Clouet Architectes) as well as glass, concrete and steel in various finishes and colors.

Logements (Rousselle & Laisné Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Rousselle & Laisné Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The heterogeneity of the nine projects has a practical purpose, providing a range of apartments to suit the diverse needs of the residents. I was not able to go inside, and only time will verify the livability of the apartments, but all of the projects seem to offer an amenity far beyond the average Parisian dwelling. Many have three or four different orientations, good views and large, usable outdoor spaces. The site is both tricky and advantageous, its skinniness makes cross-ventilation and solar access easy, there is a southerly orientation towards the now-leafy street and the possibility of “borrowed landscape” from the cemetery to the north.

Logements (Avignon-Clouet Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Avignon-Clouet Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The workshop process has resulted in a playful harmony between the practical considerations of low-cost housing and the self-expression of eager young architects. The result is subtle where it could have been willful. The street works because no one project dominates, quite a trick given their various sizes, shapes and styles. The presence of the street seems to change each time one goes there. The second time I visited, with the sun finally shining, I was especially impressed with the play of slightly dream-like forms in Avignon-Clouet’s project, which separates what they call “the little factory for eating and bathing” from the living and sleeping areas of the apartments, the latter housed in a more tower-like element with a vegetated facade. The most minimalist project, by Gricha Bourbouze and Cécile Graindorge, suddenly comes alive against a blue sky as the considered juxtaposition of transparent, opaque and translucent elements becomes visible. Perhaps the flashiest project is Stéphane Maupin’s, a rectangular block with a giant V cut out of it, creating a kind of miniature valley in which the apartments face each other as they step up away from each other. The metal cladding and pitched roofs along the “slope” give a domestic quality, as though the apartments were little houses in a miniature hill town.

Logements (Gricha Bourbouze & Cécile Graindorge), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Gricha Bourbouze & Cécile Graindorge), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Stéphan Maupin), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Stéphan Maupin), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Is it a one-liner? The obvious practical problem is privacy, since the apartments face one another across a fairly small space. This brings up an interesting aspect of all the projects. In a recent interview on France Culture with critic François Chaslin, the architects seemed open to the prospect of residents customizing their own spaces. In this Rue Rebière offers a different approach from the purity of Le Corbusier’s housing project at Pessac (1925),which was famously corrupted (or enriched, depending on your sensibility) over time by the personal taste of residents who preferred their roofs pitched. I sense a fundamental division in architecture between buildings, particularly houses, in which you can use your old furniture and gesamkunstwerkes in which every detail of life down to the client’s slippers must be designed according to a single sensibility. One is an architecture of layers, the other of objects. If Pessac was an architecture which sought to simultaneously be perfect in itself and to house human beings, then rue Rebière in its brand spanking new state seems incomplete without that layer of bicycles on balconies, drying laundry and pot plants which will complete it (I only hope the management permit such minor freedoms). The project which terminates the western end of rue Rébiere (by Raphaëlle Hondelatte and Mathieu Laporte) seems to welcome the unpredictability of life. A stack of very generous outdoor terraces, in brilliant colors and curvilinear shapes, are tacked onto a more generic nine story “tower.” It is such a simple idea, not at all expensive to execute, which makes all the difference between an apartment which feels like social housing and one which feels like a home. It is not the only one. Atelier Bow-Wow displays a similar economy of means by dispersing three different sizes of balcony across its facade, to powerful graphic effect. The large balconies on the more horizontal of Rousselle and Laisné’s two buildings are pushed and pulled into a form which changes as you move around it.

Logements (Atelier Bow-Wow), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Atelier Bow-Wow), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Rousselle & Laisné Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Rousselle & Laisné Architectes), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Rue Rebière represents change in the world of architecture. The project does not reject the pursuit of iconic form so much as set it aside in favor of more interesting questions. If the most important of those questions — how do we house people in cities? — has passed down unchanged from the time of Le Corbusier, then the answers have become more imaginative. I inevitably saw rue Rebière through the prism of my own recent observations of Sydney, a city where housing is even less affordable than in Paris. One always wants to find the nuance in a comparison, but I find it hard to see anything other than the difference between Goofus and Gallant urbanism (especially after the New South Wales premier’s recent embrace of James Packer’s proposed casino at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbour, a vision out of Biff’s alternate universe in Back to the Future II (1989), but I digress…). Gallant remembers, gives, transforms, adapts, reuses and reconfigures while Goofus forgets, takes, overwhelms, wastes, abuses and destroys. Rue Rebière, along with the transformation of the Bois le Prêtre tower which is its complement, responds creatively to its city’s environmental, cultural, social and political circumstances, but there are rue Rebières in every city in the world, and many more in sprawling Sydney than in Paris. Sites in need of transformation and talented architects eager to do the transforming — how hard can it be to bring them together? Rue Rebière is a whisper of consolation for all who lie awake at night listening to traffic, wondering whether all the best streets have already been built. Its process and result demonstrate an alternative to the kind of neo-liberal juggernaut which continues to bulldoze places like Ku-ring-gai, a beautiful and unique area in Sydney’s north. Rue Rebière’s lessons are many, but above all it teaches us that in architecture you have to experiment and that when you experiment you should do so with a generous heart.

Alan Miller

About Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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