29 August 2016

"LIGHT FANTASTIC"

Architectural Review

AR Housing 2016 winner: with its abundance of natural light, this project instils in its residents a feeling of space and freedom.

In the world of real-estate advertising, any outhouse, lumber room or junk cupboard is deemed worthy of mention as the pièce en plus. And while the popular aspiration to own a small outdoor space, at almost any cost, has called for a new design trend of micro furniture – a plethora of items are available to convert the tiniest balcony surface into usable space, from foldable tables hanging from railings to half parasols against a wall – LAN Architecture’s recently completed Carré Lumière housing project aims to convert the promise of outdoor space into an integral part of the home.

In the 79-unit scheme in Bègles, a southern suburb of Bordeaux, each apartment – from the first floor upwards, the ground-floor units being smaller – opens outwards to a loggia. This vacant extension of the interior brings in a corner of sky, draws in a bit of green and offers a view out to the surroundings. More significantly, these loggias are spatially generous – ranging between 13.5 and 60m2, often bigger than the main living spaces in the home.

Véronique Siron, an architect who opted for the fifth-floor 64m2 apartment with a 36m2 covered terrace explains that, because she bought it off-plan, she had to imagine the views. ‘It’s a good surprise,’ she says, before revealing that she works better now that she faces this vista. Her chair at the kitchen table faces the sliding glass doors, and when her mother comes for lunch, she doesn’t sit across the table but next to her so they can both enjoy the view. The terrace’s end wall actually stands immediately opposite, bringing us back to the interior, somehow reminding us we are home, in a contained space, while the side openings frame the panorama onto the Bordeaux hillsides, and let the light in. For her, ‘the best thing about it is that it’s a void, a breathing space’.

Throughout the project’s two volumes, sliding panels of perforated metal sheets enable residents to close off their loggias, animating the building’s frontage to the street – ‘form as movement’ à la Paul Klee. The contrast between the humble, unembellished external facade, and all that is concealed within, is striking.

The loggias’ everyday range of uses – laundry drying, weightlifting, smoking, dining, gardening and sunbathing – is almost as wide as the iterations of the type present in the project’s twin volumes, where no two apartments are the same.

All the residents insisted these spaces were key to tilting the balance in favour of this housing block over another – quite a few visited more than one apartment in the building before choosing. A middle-aged couple fitted out their 60m2 terrace with sunbeds and palm trees, a large parasol and an artificial fountain. ‘We don’t even feel the need to go on holiday any more,’ they say ‘it’s like being at the Club Med year round.’

‘LAN Architecture’s recently completed Carré Lumière housing project aims to convert the promise of outdoor space into an integral part of the home’

In the other block Raymond Lauvergne, a Parisian in his late 70s, forced by his son and because of health reasons to move to the region to be closer to family, has turned his terrace into a small model train workshop – while the second bedroom is completely taken up by his scaled constructions. A few doors down, the main entrance to Nicolas Degrange and Quentin Leucat’s two-bed apartment opens directly onto the covered terrace. The flatmates insist they have now figured out what to do in their void, but just haven’t taken the time to do it yet – as Leucat is a carpenter, the plan is to build a bar and tall bench to make it, officially, an extension of their living room.If, overall, the residents’ interventions are so far fairly minimal, the architects insist on the importance, beyond the delivery of a built project responding to a brief, of instilling the potential for architecture to evolve through time and in accordance with people’s lifestyles.

In their exhibit at this year’s Venice Biennale, LAN Architecture presented an impressive 1:12 model of Carré Lumière, where the appropriation of the loggias was taken to the next level: a proper timber extension is built, a small swimming pool is installed and a blank wall is used as projection surface to create a home cinema – one of the residents claims they might copy this one. The idea was to interview the current residents and ask them to imagine how the space might evolve in a couple of years, what they would like to make of it.

‘In a city, housing blocks are the buildings that evolve the most. We wanted to focus on what would happen after the first generation of occupants,’ explains Umberto Napolitano, founding partner of the practice. Currently occupied for only 18 months at most, the project is considered an experiment, and one from which the architects hope to learn – to what extent can the spontaneous architecture of ephemeral structures really start to populate the current voids and evolve over time? How real is the inhabitants’ desire of appropriation and how best to let them express their sense of ownership and create a home that is truly theirs?

‘The range of personal interpretations and appropriations of LAN’s voids will hopefully be just as diverse as its residents’

Each apartment is exposed to three elements: private loggias, communal courtyard and public street. This situation, usually characteristic of individual houses rather than individual units in communal housing, is achieved by designing each of the two volumes as narrow, angular rings. The mere 7 metres in depth provides each apartment with the peculiarity of being double aspect across the width, enhancing natural light and facilitating cross ventilation. In plan, the loggia acts as an extension to the main living space, usually connected to it by large sliding glass doors, and from there the interior unfolds along a corridor, either straight or L-shaped, leading to the bedrooms and bathrooms. There is no wasted space.

As the loggias are an important source of daylight for the interiors, it seems slightly misleading to suggest they could, partly or totally, be turned into a room of their own rather than remaining a natural continuation of the main living space. However, a few clever moves enhance the optimisation of the interior for everyday life: placing the shower room between the two bedrooms; building in a thin, easily removable, partition to separate the lavatory from the main washroom and potentially welcome disabled users; integrating a recess into the corridor to accommodate the washing machine; deepening the lavatory to provide storage space, inserting glass bricks into the walls – the scaled-down carrés de lumière – to create pigeonholes for the display of small objects.

The sensory connection to the outdoors extends beyond the residents’ private corners into the communal areas. From the street, a few steps lead to a small pedestrian passage between the two volumes, perpendicular to the main axes, where the two entrance gates face each other and lead into the courtyards – this slight elevation of the ground floor enables light to permeate the subterranean parking below. While not conceived as a space in which one would spend much time – there is nowhere to sit, just a few bike racks and a couple of giant planted pots – the central courtyards are generous and pleasant, the overriding whiteness feels invigorating.
Flooded with light from above, each courtyard presents the visitor with several flights of stairs – two in one volume, three in the other, all canopied over to shelter people from the rain – breaking the total mass into smaller units and effectively reducing the perceived scale of the project. Each landing is shared by a maximum of three apartments, the positioning of and distance between front doors further reducing the impression of living in a dense housing block.

This sense of independence was one of LAN’s driving intentions, seeking to ‘provide intermediary forms of habitat combining the need for privacy with the enjoyment of sociability’. The project’s ribbon shape is largely responsible for this effect, at the expense perhaps of neighbourliness. Residents admit that there is very little interaction, other than the furtive crossing of paths in the courtyard or the lifts, but they don’t seem bothered by it – except perhaps for Lauvergne, who rents out his parking space to a young couple also living at Carré Lumière and is pleased to tell me they cracked open a bottle of champagne together on New Year’s Eve.
Key highlight number two cited by the residents, after the loggias, is the closeness to the tram. ‘If you hear it in the morning, it means you have just enough time to run down and catch it.’ The network of public transport opened a few years ago now – it was the first obvious step to bring Bègles closer to Bordeaux.

Immediately outside the project, a hotel, a brasserie-pub and a bakery have opened in the last year, overlooking an open public square by the tram rails. For now, Carré Lumière’s ground-floor retail units are still seeking takers – Julien Leriche, real estate managing director for the developer Ataraxia, mentioned one of them has just been signed for, but feels the attempt to impose commercial space on the street front is sometimes a difficult promise to keep.

‘Born out of the desire to create an artefact that doesn’t yet exist, Carré Lumière is in no way a template – yet the premise to reinvent community housing is indeed an ambitious one’

Previously on the site were the idle towers of Cité Yves-Farges, an impoverished, neglected and troubled estate that was partially destroyed to make way for the new Terres Neuves neighbourhood, welcoming 1,000 new families, including LAN’s contribution. ‘We hadn’t heard great things about Bègles, but we came several times and nothing bad happened to us,’ say Hervé and Nathalie Bonnaud, who spent a year looking for a new apartment before moving in to Carré Lumière.

Led by the local municipality and supervised by the SAEMCIB (Société Anonyme d’Economie Mixte de Construction Immobilière de Bègles), Terres Neuves qualifies as a zone de renouvellement urbain (RU), an urban renewal zone, and as such benefits from government funding for regeneration – also meaning lower VAT rates for buyers. If context is inevitably specific to each project, Bègles itself seems to have played an important role in making Carré Lumière happen. Governed by the green party, the municipality is open-minded and striving to reconstruct its identity and its relationship to neighbouring Bordeaux. ‘It is in its methodology that this project can be inspiring,’ says Napolitano, who was surprised when they won the competition.

Unusually, it was the municipality that chose both the architects and the developers, who jumped on board once LAN’s scheme had obtained planning permission. ‘It is a bit of a fantasy for all parties involved,’ explains Leriche, because ‘the spatial qualities of the apartments are undeniable’, but economically, ‘it is not very viable.’ If Napolitano is quick to point out that ‘a developer is never a loser in the story’, he admits that for them either the project can set an example, because of the sheer workload – the direct liaisons with 27 different contractors and the duration of more than five years – compared with profit. In a different context, where the market value per square metre is higher, it might be a different story.
Because of the project’s morphology, the ratio of facade surface to internal floor area is much higher than normal. According to LAN, ‘the days of hypercapitalism in architecture are long gone – it is no longer possible to announce a cost and then bust the budget. The priorities need to be clearly set from the beginning.’ In Carré Lumière, they decided to fabricate an aesthetic based on existing elements and ordered ready-made, yet qualitative, products out of a catalogue – standard guardrails, industrial sheeting, basic carpentry.

‘LAN’s driving intentions was to seek to provide intermediary forms of habitat combining the need for privacy with the enjoyment of sociability’

If Napolitano and Leriche’s construction costs don’t match – €1,000 per square habitable metre claims the former; €1,570 says the latter – both agree that, for the residents, it is definitely a unique opportunity. And they agree: ‘for “ordinary people” spaces of this quality are a luxury’. The scheme is almost entirely inhabited – 25 per cent are owner-occupiers, while the remaining 75 per cent are rented out, a ratio that tallies with national figures. 

Born out of the desire to create an artefact that doesn’t yet exist, Carré Lumière is in no way a template – yet the premise to reinvent community housing is indeed an ambitious one. Yes, the base concept could potentially be reproduced, if not at this price. The biggest success of the scheme is the huge diversity of people – in age, origin and occupation – who have chosen to make it their home, despite initial negative preconceptions over the locality. The level of freedom and experimentation encouraged by Bègles is paying off. The range of personal interpretations and appropriations of LAN’s voids will hopefully be just as diverse as its residents.


Manon Mollard for the Architectural Review