In its shopfronts cashmere sweaters the colors of macaroons. Behind their digicodes its reposing hameaux. In its ballot boxes three out of every four votes for Sarkozy. Hidden in their Maseratis its children dressed in black. The sixteenth arrondissement of Paris is a peninsula between the Bois de Boulogne (which belongs to it) and the Seine; there is the slight feeling of a border crossing, of breaching a feeble forcefield, upon entering or leaving. One can find here the works of Perret, Sauvage and, soon, Gehry, but it is the section of the Earth’s surface with the greatest concentration of buildings by Hector Guimard (1867-1942). The seizième is to Guimard as Oak Park is to Frank Lloyd Wright, except that it contains works from all periods of the architect’s career, from 1891 to 1927. Along the way one passes other buildings which support the contention, inherently arguable and worth arguing, that the sixteenth is the most architecturally interesting arrondissement. Annexed to the city in 1860, the seizième grew up in what we might call, with light apologies to Robert Caro, The Years of Hector Guimard, a complex, under-appreciated and richly contested period in the history of modern architecture. A new eclecticism began to rebel against the last moments of a played-out Haussmannization. Many modernisms were in play. Art Nouveau, which seems barely able to contain Guimard’s work, let alone the output of the entire period, may now seem the stuff of coffee table books, a particularly beautiful dead end, a fashion, a decorative style, but its surviving remnants hint of an influence more spiritual than physical.
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 Batignolles and 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.
Si Paris est une ville qui, grâce à ses fortifications successives, imite la forme d’un oignon, le site du nouveau îlot expérimental dans la rue Rebière au dix-septième arrondissement de Paris serait la dernière membrane avant la peau. Le site est 620 mètres de long sur 12.6 mètres de large, coincé entre la Cimetière des Batignolles et la rue Rebière, une rue peut-être trop timide ou même grincheuse à admettre les rues transversales. Au nord du cimetière gronde la Périphérique sur un viaduc et sur l’autre côté de la rue est le lycée Balzac, un bâtiment pas terrible, mais pas terriblement accueillant. C’est, en bref, exactement le genre de site à séduire un jeune architecte, particulièrement pour les logements et surtout les logements sociaux.