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"Report from the front"

15th venice biennale


For the 15th edition of the architecture Biennale: REPORTING FROM THE FRONT, Alejandro Aravena, curator of the exhibition and winner of the Pritzker price 2016, proposes to tackle architecture as a driven element to answer the social, ecological and economic challenges of the XXIst century.

« We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life. Given life ranges from very basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition, consequently, improving the quality of the built environment is an endeavor that has to tackle many fronts: from guaranteeing very concrete, down-to-earth living standards to interpreting and fulfilling human desires, from respecting the single individual to taking care of the common good, from efficiently hosting daily activities to expanding the frontiers of civilization.

[...] They are battles that need to be fought. The always menacing scarcity of means, the ruthless constraints, the lack of time and urgencies of all kinds are a constant threat that explain why we so often fall short in delivering quality. The forces that shape the built environment are not necessarily amicable either: the greed and impatience of capital or the single mindedness and conservatism of the bureaucracy tend to produce banal, mediocre and dull built environments. These are the frontlines from which we would like different practitioners to report from, sharing success stories and exemplary cases where architecture did, is and will make a difference.» Alejandro Aravena

Therefore, LAN has been selected to witness the situation in France and illustrate one of the ways to fight for a « better living».

Exhibition from May 28 to November 27 2016


Guests scientific curators


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Imagining a space of possibilities

Dear Alejandro,

We agree with you fully. Architects today have more battles to fight than ever. In a world where prevailing opinions leave no room for other voices, projects have become our own acts of resistance. They are opportunities to set precedents that, just as in law, we can then cite as an established right.

We built these two buildings in Begles in this spirit, with the idea of being able to say, “Look, it’s possible.”

The ground was fertile. Begles is one of the few cities in France where one can still carry out such a project. It’s governed by the Greens, very open minded, and in full reconstruction after the demolition of a “grand ensemble,” an entire neighborhood that was razed to the ground in order to start over on new terms.

Such a tabula rasa meant that the project had to address issues that were much larger and overarching than simply the locale itself. The problems we encountered in Begles are the same ones that we have observed in many places across the world since then.

We have to build at higher density to use up less ground, and whenever we can’t, we need to design systems to increase that density.

We have to give people of limited means the chance to live in a place that will change with them, accompanying them as they undergo the major transitions in their lives: living together, marriage, children, and old age.

We need to reinvent collective housing, or at least envision intermediate habitats that marry a desire for intimacy with the pleasure of socializing.

We need projects to show that the current price of construction is the result of a crazy equation in which the service economy is calling all the shots.

We need to conceive climate models which are not just in response to a regulation or a radical ecological trend, but which instead thoroughly consider the true implications of climate change in our world.

This project is our response to these 5 battles.

Begles is not a finished project, rather a “form in movement,” a la Paul Klee. It is an envelope that can double its size tomorrow, and thus, double its density. Each apartment can access its winter garden to increase its living area; inhabitants can do this themselves without having to obtain building permits. In response to the growth of a family, they can add a room within a framework that has already been constructed, and why not, they can remove it once the kids have left the house!

Just as in a freestanding house, each apartment has 4 façades, three of which are exposed. In fact the apartments have the same qualities as a single-family home (the sense of privacy, individual exterior spaces, independence, and strong sensory contact with the outdoors) without the latter’s disadvantages in terms of environmental impact (stretching networks, visual and atmospheric pollution, excessive consumption of ground).

This project also demonstrates how absurd the economics of building architecture has become. Begles was built at a cost of 1,000 € per m², in full knowledge that the m² of the loggias are not factored in. This is much below the current price in this region, and at twice the surface area. To do this, beyond all the rationalization, prefabrication, budget control and management, and a certain architectural sobriety, we cut out all the middlemen, the service economy. This means that the habitats go from the person who builds to the person who buys with as few steps in between as possible.

The formal part, which was implemented in function of the urban planning requirements, also allowed us to use a hybrid climatic model that corresponds to the climate of this part of France. The bio-climatic design is halfway between the heavily insulated Nordic model and Mediterranean patio-style architecture. It’s based on the principle of variable compactness, which introduces the notion of the housing’s adaptability to the rhythm of the seasons or even of the day. Everyone can use their outdoor space as a windbreak, a greenhouse, or, to the contrary, as a cooling unit. We call this inter-seasonal architecture.

There’s nothing standard about this project. Despite the fact that the building is only 7 meters thick, built like a parking garage and ornamented with industrial motifs. We wanted to show that something radical can be expressed even by using a simple, everyday architectural language.

Umberto Napolitano
Benoit Jallon

Biennale Lettre Begles

What shall we do about “large ensembles?”

Dear Alejandro,

So many towns in France had to be rebuilt after WWII, quickly and at a large scale. The French government was deeply committed to building millions of housing units in the form of “large ensembles,” more commonly known in France as “cités.” At the time, the country was under the sway of Le Corbusier and a modernist movement that extolled a discontinuous, hygienic, and standardized vision of the city made up of independent elements immersed in a system of public and collective spaces for the inhabitants.

This progressive utopianism, both a social and an architectural project, resulted in a social policy for habitats that, despite its best intentions, ended up by creating large ghettos. Reality quickly drowned the utopia, and the values underlying such modernist projects rapidly became their greatest sources of weakness: mono-functionalism, segregation, undefined spaces, and isolation. The situation became so out of control that in the 1973 circular titled “On the urbanization forms known as ‘large ensembles’ to ‘fight against social segregation through habitat’,” the government itself signed the death warrant of this urban development policy.

Most of these sites today are areas in crisis governed by “the survival of the fittest,” ones which have a logic and forms of governance all their own. Do you know that the 50 most at-risk neighborhoods in France are all “large ensembles?” Who can forget the 2005 riots, for example?

Is architecture itself responsible for the state of these places? Not completely, but definitely to some degree.

So, what should we do about “large ensembles?” This has become the question of the day. What strategy, besides demolition, can help these neighborhoods evolve towards other scenarios than the ones they are currently living? What would the positive aspects of these forms of urbanization be on which to base their transformation? Can we reverse trends to the point of considering these sites as part of our heritage and even a valuable resource?

Some very pragmatic efforts have already been expended, largely based on privatizing these spaces as much as possible. The housing units have become progressively more and more fragmented, and the public space has obeyed the same logic, which has resulted in the progressive carving up and hierarchization of the public and private, and the reduction of poorly used collective spaces. This approach has been full of pitfalls: public spaces have been impoverished, the ground has been privatized in a homogenous manner, all against the very principle underlying the “large ensembles,” namely that of the open plan.

The project for the Génicart neighborhood tries to reconcile this carving up with the open plan. It began with the positive aspects of this urban model to build a new identity. The project took advantage of every opportunity provided by the need to intervene on the buildings in this neighborhood. The overall strategy was to render new housing blocks more visible by using a more individualized architectural treatment while retaining a more public, open, green, landscaped approach by fashioning new green spaces. This has totally transformed the neighborhood.

From residence to housing blocks, from no man’s land to urban parks

The buildings have been reconfigured as identifiable entities; the logic of residences has given way to that of housing blocks. Work on the facades began with thermal insulation for the buildings and improving energy consumption; this became a veritable opportunity for a dual approach to rehabilitation. On the one hand, we were able to create more spaces, additional living rooms, and more spacious loggias and balconies, and on the other, this project defined a new architecture that was distinct for each block.

This project tries to restore identity and especially a sense of pride. It was conducted while the site was occupied. The Génicart neighborhood represents only 10% of the town of Lormont’s surface area, but it houses 50% of its population, approximately 10,500 inhabitants. Everyone was informed, and everyone had an opportunity in one way or another to participate in this process. The challenge at the outset was to gain their trust and then to mobilize their energies so that they would experience their neighborhood as a special, unique place, not as just another cité.

We think the message was delivered. Since the completion of the works, the neighborhood has been totally transformed and its life has changed completely. We have the impression that the battle has been won, at least for the moment.

Umberto Napolitano
Benoit Jallon