New Directions in French Architecture and the Showcase of the Paris City Edge 196590

Jean-Louis Cohen

French architectural thinking and practice have gone through radical changes in the past two decades, so much so that it is now difficult, considering the results of the grands travaux, or large-scale works, initiated in 1981 and a number of contemporaneous projects, particularly in Paris, to recognize the ruined landscape that existed at the end of the 1960s.

May 1968 and Its consequences

Then, at the end of a period that was extraordinarily productive quantitatively in terms of dwellings and public buildings, French architecture as a whole was in a state of collapse due to various factors. The first of these was undoubtedly the craven consensus of the profession in the face of generous commissions for post-Second-World-War reconstruction and public works. This was the attitude that governed the encounter between the functional and constructive ideals of the functionalists and the compositional techniques of the École des Beaux-Arts when they met on the terrain of the new suburbs. The second factor relates precisely to the state of crisis existing at that time in the École, which had remained closed to any conceptual modernization notwithstanding individual efforts made on a practical level by Marcel Lods, Georges-Henri Pingusson and later Georges Candilis. The third and final factor concerns the lack of informed criticism and theory, notably the incapacity to call into question a naive modernist creed, deaf above all to the pleas that Ernesto N. Rogers in Italy had put forward for a critical revision' of the experiences of the modernist movement. No doubt it was also necessary to wait for Le Corbusier to disappear from the scene in 1965 before certain taboos could be broken.

The 1968 crisis, foreseeable in the light of the troubled attempts at reforms in the universities from 1965 onwards, brought about a fundamental shake-up of the former certainties of professional architects and brought new political and ethical possibilities to the forefront of their preoccupations. No immediate effect was apparent in projects or in the buildings actually constructed, and the products of the early 1970s can be assigned either to new brutalism on the one hand or to megastructures on the other. What architects proposed in the area of domestic building were proliferating' forms, pyramids or ziggurats which were looked on as an alternative both to the high-rise towers and low-rise blocks of big estates and also to individual houses. This tendency reached its height with Jean Renau-die's blocks of flats at Ivry ( 1970) and with the competition for the first district of Evry new town (1971), won by Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat, and notable also for the joint project for a megastructure by Paul Chemetov, Henri Ciriani and Ricardo Bofill.

New institutions, new discussions

In the middle of the '70s new orientations appeared as a result of greater openness to European and American experiences, and also because of the encouragement derived from public policies favouring architectural innovation. In 1973 a decree from the Minister of Public Works, Olivier Guichard, limited the length of low-rise blocks in big estates to 60 metres. Then the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as President of the Republic in 1974 brought about a swing from the building of collective dwellings-which reached its height in 1975 with 550,000 units - towards individual houses. But on the edge of these political changes, the influence of contacts with Italy and America on the work of Bernard Huet, seen also in the new schools that came out of the transformation of the École des Beaux-Arts, and given expression in LArchitecture d'Aujourd'hui (1973-77), paved the way for new ideas. In Italy, Carlo Aymonino, Aldo Rossi and Manfredo Tafuri were concerned respectively with the urban dimension and the importance of history, while advances made in America by Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi needed to be assimilated. The parallel emergence of a specifically architectural branch of research leading to the appearance of theoretical and critical literature also had a certain impact on some young architects.

During the same period the operation of the Plan Construction and the Programme Architecture Nouvelle (PAN), both started at the beginning of the decade, encouraged mayors and prime contractors to place greater confidence in young architects who were at last prepared to think in terms of urban design. The Paris housing scheme of the Rue des Hautes-

Atelier de Montrouge, offices of Électricité de France, Porte de Sèvres, Paris (1970)

Roger Taillibert, René Le Qall swimming pool, Porte de Saint-Mandé, Paris (1973)

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Paul Chemetov, Jean Perrottet, Christian Devillers, block of flats, Porte de Pantin, Paris (1978)
Paul Chemetov, block of flats, Saint-Ouen (1980)

Formes, built in 1976-79 by Christian de Portzamparc, marked an essential change of course in the quality of its communal spaces and its plastic strength.

The initiation in 1981 of the debate on architectural 'post-modernism' with the Paris presentation of the 'Strada novissima' from the 1980 Venice Biennale came at a moment when Ricardo Bofill had long been paying court to the Paris authorities; but the debate was to some extent at cross-purposes, since it was in the end associated with a re-evaluation of certain categories of thought of the modern movement. Its impact was therefore relatively limited to the better-informed section of the profession, though its ravages in the field of large-scale production are better known. Always centred on the Pahs region, and strongly influenced by public commissions for dwellings and communal buildings, French architecture set out on a course of conceptual and formal diversification.

The tendencies involved

Several important currents can thus be identified whose evolution is not likely to be complete by the end of the century. In the first place, the partisans of a renewed functionalism have not disappeared. Far from it. Those who favour Corbusian orthodoxy - admittedly relative, since it has shed some early or late ideas that could prove embarrassing-led by Henri Ciriani and Edith Girard, believe that such concepts as 'open plan' or the 'architectural promenade' are still valid. In this they are joined by some younger architects such as Michel Kagan, Maxime Ketoff and Marie Petit. Paul Chemetov, Roland Simounet and Pierre Riboulet have had to tackle a different task of adapting Corbusian theories in which strictly typological principles linked to calculated programmes tend to take first place alongside urban considerations. Parallel with the efforts of Jean-Pierre Buffi and Georges Maurios to link the forms of Corbusian modernism with theories of urban architecture, the work of Yves Lion shows a formal and intellectual rigour which at times achieves an explicit monumentality. A quite different philosophy directs the work of Henri Gaudin, whose poetic strategy rests on his fascination for the ambiguous densities of the medieval town, reflected in skilful preparatory sketches.

While these architects generally belong in the mainstream of the French obsession with reinforced concrete that characterized postwar architecture, another tendency is also visible. This carries on from Jean Prouve's experiments in the field of architecture employing metal. Apparently inspired by new construction systems borrowed from aviation, Jean Nouvel proposes not only new outer skins, but also different and strongly individualized basic concepts in his buildings. Furthermore, stimulated by the process of reintellectualiza-tion of French architecture begun in the 1970s, certain young architects like Antoine Grumbach or Patrick Berger have approached their work from the viewpoint of the urban structure of Paris or its vernacular architecture, creating from it projects both contextual and personal. The direction taken by Christian de Portzamparc, based on similar premises, has manifested itself in ever vaster projects, in the play of broad and mysterious forms.

Shaped by the debates that followed 1968 and stimulated by the policy of public competitions such as the Programme Architecture Nouvelle, a generation of architects barely out of school have had the opportunity of access to commissions early in their careers, notably in the field of dwellings and public buildings. Among this generation there coexist some very different figures, who are gradually freeing themselves of their allegiance to their seniors. Coming from the studio of Christian de Portzamparc, Frédéric Borel offers a personal interpretation of the Parisian vernacular, while Fabrice Dusapin and François Leclerc have elaborated a more graphic architecture shot through with the images of '50s late modernism. The policy of innovation carried into the domain of home-building has given this generation of explorers the opportunity to investigate new relationships between lifestyle and domestic space, breaking away from the simplifying hypotheses of 'large-scale complexes', and also from the over-emphasis of urban considerations to the detriment of interior arrangements within dwellings. The projects which received awards at the 14th session of the Programme Architecture Nouvelle (1988) or the first two EuroPAN competitions (1989 and 1991) have opened new horizons in this area.

The Paris city edge, a panorama of contemporary buildings

Certain places possess an almost magical capacity to register conceptual changes and conspicuous improvements in architectural achievement. Such a place is the city edge of Paris, built up since the 1920s on the site of the city's last ring of fortified ramparts. Establishing a continous belt that insulates the city within the former walls from the suburbs, the edge brings together low-cost housing and public buildings of the period between the wars with the functionalist 'large-scale complexes' of the '50s in a sort of linear townscape unique in Europe in that it brings the logic of the motorway into immediate proximity with a historic centre.

Built between 1957 and 1973, the Boulevard Périphérique has become one of the fundamental structures of an urban landscape whose pace of transformation is accelerating ever more rapidly. It is changing so swiftly because the strip formed by the old unbuilt-on zone now constitutes, together with the large expropriations made by the railways and industry, one of the city's main reserves of building land. However, side by side with this major urban function, the Périphérique has served as a showcase for all the main tendencies in French architecture mentioned above. The theoretical attitudes of architects manifested all along the 35 kilometres of the roadway can be read, to start with, in the general arrangement of the buildings along the artery, which ranges from totally ignoring its ground-plan to using it as a setting in which the boulevard is relegated to the background of the architect's formal strategy. But these attitudes differ as much in architectural rhetoric as in urban strategy.

The continuous circuit of Paris, free from traffic lights, at last became a reality in 1973. Since its opening it has been punctuated by Roger Taillibert's mast at the René Le Gall swimming pool, Raymond Lopez's tower blocks to the north of Paris, and the metallic signal of the Iran Pavilion by Claude Parent, André Bloc, Mohsen Foroughi and Hedar Ghiai. The work of multidisciplinary practices, which were among the new styles of working sought by younger architects at the beginning of the '60s, is also visible along the Périphérique in the offices of Électricité de France built by the Atelier de Montrouge and in the obstinately grey-toned tower blocks of the Atelier d'urbanisme et d'architecture at the Porte de Montreuil (1969).

Projects contemporary with the first stages of the Périphérique thus form a contrast to the background of housing operations initiated in the 1950s both in their verticality and in a somewhat exhibitionistic use of structure. Close to the new brutalist concrete of the Brazil Pavilion built by Le Corbusier at the Cité Universitaire, the Iran Pavilion with its cantilevers heroically celebrates the resources of folded sheet-metal, while Taillibert's swimming pool represents the first use in France of Frei Otto's retractable screens.

Now neighbouring the Parc de la Villette commissioned from Bernard Tschumi in 1983, the block of flats built by Paul Chemetov, Jean Perrottet and Christian Devillers on the suburban side at Pantin (1978) is the first recognition, with its red brick casing, of the visual unification of the two sides of the new boulevard, holding up a magnifying mirror to the low-cost housing of the 19th arrondissement built in the 1930s. Elsewhere, Chemetov is content with a sidelong glance at the world of the motor-car travelling along the Périphérique; the shape of the outer wall of his flats at Saint-Ouen echoes the silhouette of a line of cars. In the same register of autonomy relative to the route of the carriageway one can include Dominique Perrault's Berlier industrial build-

Henri Gaudin, Archives de Paris, Boulevard Sérurier, Paris (1989)

ing, a capacious glass oblong, tucked into the Ivry interchange but bearing no geometric relationship to it (1990), or the mute silos of Henri Gaudin's Archives de Paris at the Porte des Lilas (1989). Here there is a radical contrast between the transparency of the industrial building, with its interior spaces devoted to production open to the gaze of passersby, and the closed towers dedicated to conserving the documents of the Archives, which turn their backs squarely on the Péri phérique, affording it at most a laconic symbol of permanence which is entirely missing from the much friendlier facade of the building on its public side.

Following on the same stretch of the Périphérique, the screen wall protecting Pierre Riboulet's Robert Debré Hospital (1988) from noise nuisance, and within whose shelter the building develops its galleries and patios, offers a well-thought-out alternative to the style of baffle walls that have come to enclose the Périphérique for a good part of its length. Acoustic stress is no longer absorbed by a paltry structure that canalizes the motorist's vision, but has become instead the primary determining factor in a style of architecture which exploits the general shape of the site with huge functionalist low-rise blocks planned by Robert Auzelle and started in 1954.

The relationship between the alignment of the building and that of the carriageway is based here on reasons of practicality and the acoustic factor. The latter is also present in the block of flats which Gérard Thurnauer has wrapped around the Porte de Bagnolet complex, built in 1956 by Édouard Crevel. However, acoustic considerations are undoubtedly secondary, and the symbolic dimension introduced by the architectural rewriting of a

Pierre Riboulet, Robert Debré Hospital, Boulevard Sérurier, Paris (1988)
Gerard Thurnauer, flats built around an earlier complex, Porte de Bagnolet, Paris (1990)
Michel W. Kagan, workshops and offices for the Ville de Paris, Rue Bruneseau (1991)

mediocre building will escape no one: it is evidently a kind of vengeance wreaked by the younger architects of the '50s on the Establishment of the time, finally achieved 35 years later.

In the metallic bubble of the Bercy II shopping centre built by the Renzo Piano group (see pp. 248-51), the relationship with the boulevard is systematically developed from an accidental affinity between the spatial envelope of the building - a curve whose orientation derives from the slip-roads of the Bercy interchange - and its structural basis, by way of an arch of glued and laminated wood of fixed profile clothed with a brilliant outer surface. On the other side of the Seine, the workshops and offices built by Michel Kagan on a rectangular site adjacent to the Périphérique make use of the carriageway as a landscape background which is ever present in a progress through an architectural promenade in the Corbusian idiom and which connects the disparate components of a very prosaic programme: workshops and sheds for the motorway maintenance vehicles.

Clearly the most powerful moments in recent building on the Paris city edge are linked to the formulation of individual relationships between each separate building and the Périphérique. However, we must not on that account overlook the buildings whose ground-plan was determined by the Boulevard des Maréchaux, the earlier circular route concentric with the Périphérique, such as the Charléty Stadium undertaken by Henri Gaudin (1991), nor those based on sites laid out between the wars, like the Institut Français du Judo by the Architecture Studio at the Porte Brancion

(1992). In both these cases, the concern with the visibility of buildings from the Périphérique is associated with the exploitation of an earlier urban development, but the plasticity of Gau-din's stadium and blocks of flats exploits an extrovert dynamic register, whereas the metallic dome of the Institut du Judo encloses a sports area flattened into the ground.

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