What we wanted to do in this significant place was to place a residential building that is mute and charismatic at once. Thanks to the two colours of the components it merges seamlessly with the neighbouring buildings.
Julien Rousseau, fresh architectures
Today, when building in a city centre, it is more important than ever to include ambience. It is crucial to make a statement and fit in the environment at the same time. International studies show that architects have by far the greatest influence on a building’s façade. Aside from your personal ideas, what other issues are important when considering the façade in your work?
For our project “Building Public Housing” in Paris, we needed something like a protective shield for the future inhabitants of the building. Boulevard La Villette is a very crowded street; there are lots of cars, and the overground Metro passes nearby, so we wanted the façade to be like a skin that lies close around the inner rooms. On the ground floor there’s a little inversion. The basement is very simple. There’s a bakery inside, and the glass makes this part very transparent. When you’re walking by, you can see through to the other part of the street and, there, you have the impression of floating, due to the light, especially on the corner.
How did you design the outside? What role does roof and façade design play in your work?
I wouldn’t say you create the roof, or the façade, because first you have to design the inside. The outside will come automatically. So what we do is develop an exterior that corresponds to the content of the building.
When we were beginning the construction, there were very strict regulations in Paris concerning the insulation of buildings. It was considered much more efficient to put the insulation on the outside. So what we needed to do was to put the insulation on the outer shell, meaning that we didn’t have many solutions – you have stone, you have brick, these kinds of materials. But we wanted it to have something more reflective. Our plan was to construct the roof from the same materials as the façade, so we had to choose tiles.
You used the same ceramic tiles for the roof and façade, creating a building envelope. What were the aesthetic and technical reasons for choosing that solution?
Firstly, there is a social issue: preparing tiles requires a lot of knowledge. The construction work is done little by little. I liked the idea of seeing the workers on site, in the long process of putting all the tiles together. It’s pretty incredible to see them, talk to them and observe their accurate work, solving a lot of problems like corners and windows. A lot of knowledge goes into that. It’s the reverse of constructions which are built industrially, where everything is pre-fabricated.
How would you describe the advantages of clay products from a creative perspective?
It’s a material which naturally vibrates. And also its imperfection makes the material very interesting. It reacts differently with the light from every angle. And there’s another aspect that relates to time: clay is self-cleaning, and it’s very easy to maintain when you want to renovate your building. And tiles become more interesting with age; they develop patina.
Looking at the surrounding buildings, your design and the sequences of tiles look very natural. The other buildings have clear distinctions between façade and roof.
Absolutely, it’s true that typical Parisian buildings use various materials, depending on the floor heights. They have a different language between the roof and façade. At this point we wanted to show that we can approach the building at every level. Since the house is at the corner of two very busy streets, we wanted it to look like a milestone that finishes the intersection of the two streets. Therefore, we wanted to play with that dual language of roof and façade. And because you approach this building on the corner at different speeds, either as a pedestrian or by car, we play with different shapes. So the further away you go, the more you can see the openings. They add a sculptural aspect.
The building fits in perfectly with the colours of the surroundings – the silvery-grey metal bridge construction and the typical Parisian sky. What elements or ideas can an architect use to design a roof or façade that catches the eye and stands out?
The shape you have here is influenced by the limitations on the maximum size of the construction you can have at this corner. As it is a social housing project – and there’s a great need for social housing in Paris – it was very important for me to be sure that we created the largest possible area in terms of square metres. And used the space cleverly, we
wanted it to be very simple, we knew that people were not interested in outdoor living space because it is very noisy and chaotic on that corner. So this explains the very simple shape. And we used this kind of window because we wanted to express the depth of the building. The frames stand out 20 cm from the façade. This creates a sense of physicality and a sense of the comfort that can be felt inside, protected from the outside.
There is also the Parisian aspect of the building: the quality of the materials; they reference the Metro, which is made of white tiles, which are very reflective. And also we took the language of the windows, “les chiens assis” – meaning “sitting dogs”, on the upper part of the building. They create a kind of “rupture”, typical of the Parisian way of building, which refers to the Parisian way of living. The rooms with these windows would once have been the “chambres de bonne”, (servants’ quarters), and they give the impression that there is a small room under the roof.
In city centres, there is already a lot of built environment which you must refer to. Are there any design trends when it comes to façade and roof design?
I would say there are no “styles” in architecture any more. It’s less trendy to speak about shapes. The subject which is interesting for me is value, which means usage. Once you get the idea of usage, the architecture explains itself easily.
Project nameBuilding Public Housing, Paris, France
Year of completion2013