How to define architecture?

“A style for the job” once said critic Rayner Banham concerning the great English architect James Sterling. In the current period of uncertainty, we are more than ready to adopt this formula. The one caveat to its acceptance is that we constantly try to design architectures that reflect a certain number of constants:

  • architectures whose siting depends on two factors: the design of urban forms that emphasise public and private aspects by creating internal courtyards, such as the one in the Brulon-Cîteaux hotel ; and to offer an adapted, generous and controlled level of natural lighting.
  • written architectures : the metalwork designed by Alain Payeur for the various grilles giving onto Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. Balustrades are designed by the agency or in association with graphic designers.
  • Socially innovative architectures : the idea is to find a new approach to “living together” thanks to shared common spaces, and an intergenerational housing offer able to adapt to meet the changing needs of the residents.

How to articulate architecture and urban forms?

The economic model represented by all types of networks of whatsoever kind inevitably calls for density and compactness. It is said that a density of 60 housing units/hectare is needed to amortise a network. Balance is attained thanks to a mix of functions combining housing, facilities and activities, with production optimised and smoothed by limiting energy peaks and balancing travel movements.
Combining density and mixed use provides a way of developing an alternative and complex-free approach to single-family homes grouped around efficient collective urban forms.

What are your main concerns in terms of housing?

The comfort of the residents and their ability to live together. The identification of the site, the orientation of the buildings in the city and their urban form, coupled with a bioclimatic approach, provides a clearer understanding of the comfort and quality of life sought by the residents. In a housing unit, this quality is materialised by a number of simple elements: quality of the air, amount of living space, natural light and sunlight, free heat gain, acoustic comfort, distant views, exterior spaces and extensions to the housing unit.
The shared services in the common areas (launderette, hall, shared roof terrace, guest room, garden, bicycles, parking places and car-sharing system, courtyards and collective urban structures) reduce costs and reinforce the feeling of belonging to the city. This approach optimises habitable floor areas, creates attractive places in which to live and opens up possibilities of intergenerational exchanges.

Evolving intergenerational housing means that residents can be accompanied throughout their lives and be given the right to stay in their housing units should they so desire. The intelligent structure and distribution of the housing units means that the three and four room apartments are able to evolve alongside the changing needs of the residents. A transformable room that could become a living room, a parental suite or a studio apartment with either a separate or shared entrance might be occupied by a young person who could look after a young couple’s children in exchange for somewhere to live, or a home help who would be able to care for a single person or an ageing couple in exchange for accommodation. In between these two periods, the family would be able to fully profit from the space and occupy the entire apartment.
This potential separation of a housing unit also has economic aims, such as the rental of a studio over certain periods to reduce charges.

What status do you give light in architecture?

Light signs a building’s geographical belongingness to a territory: from Lille to Marseille, from Stockholm to Tripoli, the angle of the sun’s rays guide the architectural form, the handling of the façades and the urban composition in the search for sunlight and shade.
Architecture, urban forms and public spaces are deeply tied to their orientation, their relationship to the sun and the resulting quality of light. Light from north or south, from west or east, a light that is hot or cold, low or high angled, has an impact on city layouts and properties, as well as on the design of the façades and the organisation of buildings.
Light reveals materials, an envelope, a form, a building. The work carried out on materials is intrinsically linked to the incidence of light, allowing it to be captured by working on materials (matrix, relief and reflection), filtered (moucharabieh, “to see without being seen”), and directed (fibre optics, glass components, glass panels, light wells, overhead light, etc.)

Town planning

How can today’s urban project be defined?

The urban project takes the form of routes, a hierarchy of roadways, plot breakdowns, the construction of public space and the rules covering the erection of buildings. We believe that these disciplines and, above all, the way they relate to one another are now shared and remain the base for projects able to resist the construction of projects over time: time for design and dialogue, time for construction as well as management and maintenance, time for appropriation and reversibility. This results in a capacity to define stable elements (layouts and public spaces in particular) as well as, depending on the situation, other elements that are more flexible.
Currently, disciplines have enlarged the field of an urban project focussed on the public programming of apartment blocks and amenities. Mobilities, economic and commercial activities, ecosystems and participation represent new parameters that need to be understood and incorporated into the work carried out by the teams to respond to the demands of the “la ville passante” , to allow a smooth passage through the town and that avoid dead ends. Our work essentially consists in creating the conditions for the emergence of the identity of the street in its own right as well as that of different types of streets concerns the essentially of our work.

With the increasing growth of metropolises and metropolisation, what role is played by the project?

Participation in major metropolitan and megapolitan scale projects has shown us that unlike a commonly held preconception, the general public has considerable interest in and a desire to visualise large scale projects, projects at a scale that reflect the catchment areas of their inhabitants. In addition to planning documents, the value of the guide plans is that they permit the articulation of sectoral rationales, particularly in terms of mobility, that are normally difficult to grasp. It is also the relevant scale for understanding ecosystems.
Within the framework of urban development or intermunicipal projects, the metropolitan scale concerns itself with the management of urban developments on the outskirts of city centres to avoid the creation of “two speed” towns.
On the scale of the megapolis, it is above all the complexity that fascinates us: the experience of Les Halles and the Grand Paris stations saw us concentrating on interconnections, environments that we call urban mangroves . We have also studied large Asian complexes and, in particular, Singapore.

How to share and finance large urban projects in a difficult economic context?

From the point of view of their perimeter, urban projects are not necessarily big. In certain French and European towns they can be the nodal point for projects having a high added value while being part of a larger and shared vision of urban growth developed by a relationship of confidence created between mayors and consultant architects. Having said this, the demands for sustainable development and economic constraints impose a new watchword: optimise land, infrastructures and buildings. It is the challenges being immediately faced that call for invention and decompartmentalisation.

What influence does the energy issue have on the urban project and even on the urban form?

Reducing the ecological footprint while improving comfort levels inevitably calls for a sensitive and environmental approach to town planning. This, in turn, requires a shared project management which, as expressed by Philippe Madec , demands that the “users”, in other words, the citizens, be integrated very early on in the process. While a reduction in energy consumption is not necessarily accompanied by reduced growth, it does call for optimised expenditures in a number of sectors: heat, fresh air and hot water production, transport of merchandise, materials and waste, short or optimised circuits, renewable energy sources, passenger transportation, manufacturing of materials, etc.

This optimisation is currently based on three key levers: the first is a bioclimatic reappropriation of natural resources, being wind, sun, water, biomass and in a more generic manner, raw materials. The second is based on a sharing of needs by the introduction of networks that reduce consumption, smoothing out the peak effects of highest consumption levels over a limited time and by combining and developing energy sources and terminal points. The third is based on recycling, with recyclable materials being seen as a new “raw material” located at the gates to the city, resulting in lower transport costs for the newly created materials, as well as creating a qualitative solution to waste management.


What differences between landscapes and public spaces?

In this period of “the general urban condition” (Françoise Choay), or to cite the Belgians when discussing their environment: there can be “no landscapes without houses”, meaning that urban and agricultural environments, artificial and natural, and mineral and vegetal should create a coherent whole.
Rainwater recuperation, geothermal systems and the uses of gardens and car parks are able to create participations between the built fabric and the public or open space of a same entity. In addition, work on existing environments in settings undergoing transformation (station esplanades, industrial wasteland, platforms, etc.) often incorporates complex remedial structural and waterproofing works. The creation of the Halles park in Paris over a constructed infrastructure reaching down three to five levels provides a good example of this approach.

What are the qualities of a public space?

Its capacity to use and appropriate: this presupposes that the ground level be freed and that the street furniture be thoughtfully laid out to meet several functions. Sometimes, there is also a need to invent new systems, such as doing away with the pylons providing stall holders with electricity and replacing them by having the supply delivered to the street market stalls through sealed covers in the pavement
The organisation of parks or squares needs to reconcile flow controls to create quiet areas alongside circulation routes, play areas for small children. But it is also necessary to provide free spaces whose future uses remain unknown. This is what we proposed along the tarmac of the Montaudran runway in Toulouse, a brand new setting in the city but whose activities cannot be fully determined in advance.
Long working life: this primary requirement demands that street furniture and floor finishes be highly wear resistant.

What are the processes for producing “periurban” landscapes?

The problem can be expressed in two ways:

  • what kind of production and what ways of producing will be able to ensure free spaces in tomorrow’s world?
  • what agricultural and industrial landscapes should be constructed to feed and sustainably ensure the management of tomorrow’s metropolises?

Concerning these points, the agency essentially focuses on periurban territories. Currently objects of desire and abandonment, vulnerable and shifting spaces, they are laboratories of energy transition and representatives of the changing landscapes: like the game of Go, the aim is to capture empty spaces rather than surround solids to preserve the multiplicity of open landscapes by making savings in the use of the resource.

In the Raquet eco-district in Douai, on the intersection of farmed fields, activity areas, wastelands and mining towns, we are installing four themed parks that will contribute to increasing biodiversity, preserving resources, biomass, water and organic farming.
The management of these parks is based on the four open space “protective” economic levers and is carried out in close coordination with the Douais local authorities:

  • energy transition with the biomass plant in a forest park, and a heat network supplied by the biomass collected over a larger part of Douais ;
  • agricultural economy and short marketing chains with a horticultural sector linked with farmers ;
  • sports and leisure with a park containing an aquatic centre and sports fields ;
  • water management with alternative techniques using the canal and its basins.

Urban agriculture, whether on natural or artificial soil, raises the issues of reintroducing nature into urban and periurban settings and the economic interest of bringing nature back into the city.

In the Raquet eco-district, the horticultural sector contains an urban farm and a vegetable processing centre managed by an association seeking the reinsertion of handicapped persons through work, an approach that already exists for laundry and dining services. This organic urban farm consolidates the surrounding farming activities.

The activities and open landscapes are preserved while also setting up limits to periurbanisation. This economic management is accompanied by a social and solidarity-based integration.

In the Halles district of Paris, we are constructing the largest fully accessible planted roof terrace rising up over a building with five basement levels.
Because all urban landscapes, whether mineral or planted, are now artificial and incorporated into a built substructure over a palimpsest city that combines projecting technical structures and plants, this far-reaching experiment is a considerable asset in the thinking concerning cool areas, technical terraces and the fifth façade which, in this case, is on street level.
Nature’s presence in the city is revealing itself in new ways through an examination of urban issues such as mineralised soils, rainwater management, urban farms on roofs or vertical façades, giving new meaning to the concept of non-constructible floor areas.