Hard by the noisy highway, overlooking a cemetery and a former garbage dump, La Tour Bois-le-Pretre glimmers on a spring morning. Sheathed in a fresh cloak of glass balconies and corrugated aluminum panels, it rises on the edge of this city amid a landscape of decaying concrete-and-brick housing blocks.
This half-century-old tower used to be one of those blocks. Its makeover, by a creative team of local architects – Frederic Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal – is a case study in architectural ingenuity and civic rejuvenation. It’s a challenge to urban innovators, too. Instead of replacing the old tower with an entirely new building, the designers saw what was worthwhile about the existing architecture and added to it.
Retrofitting, it’s called. Preservationists in America have argued for a long time about the benefits of reusing obsolete structures. Since some 80 percent of what’s been built in the United States has been constructed during the past 50 years, reuse seems like the inevitable wave of the future. The practice is not common when it comes to large public housing projects. But there have been a few successful attempts. This one is the latest.
Poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris and in the city’s inner-ring suburbs are, as in many cities, dominated by these much-maligned projects from the 1960s and ‘70s. Not long ago I visited Sevran, one of the poorest Paris suburbs, where the rioting that spread across France in 2005 started. Unemployment now hovers around 40 percent among the young there. Violence has gone up in the past couple of years. There was a shooting not long ago in a kindergarten.
Sevran is full of housing towers. French policy, similar to the U.S. approach that has reshaped the inner cities of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Ky., and elsewhere, favors demolishing these projects and moving out tenants. Several towers have come down in Sevran, replaced by community gardens, sports fields, some new housing and a new school. More towers stand empty, awaiting destruction.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a vast extension of the Paris subway system that would link the city center with dozens of alienated suburbs like Sevran, along with new exurban commercial districts. Employment and growth depend on improved access to public transit.
Stephane Gatignon, Sevran’s mayor, told me: “Urban renovation alone can’t solve our problems of unemployment and drugs. But it at least gives us the opportunity to live with more dignity.” Architecture has its natural and obvious limits, in other words. But it is powerful as well.
So it is with La Tour Bois-le-Pretre, which sits on the farthest edge of the 17th arrondissement, a mixed district with persistent pockets of poverty, where a Metro extension would also go. The tower was a natural candidate for the French wrecking ball after decades of neglect and decay, but tenants didn’t want to lose their homes. So an unusual question arose: Might the building become a candidate for a different approach?
A competition was organized by Paris Habitat, the Paris Office for Public Housing, in 2005 to renovate the building. The challenge: to repair the tower’s crumbling infrastructure, upgrade its common spaces and its exterior, and – this was the most radical part – add more light and square footage to dark, cramped apartments, without changing the footprint of the building, which couldn’t be extended.
Oh, yes, and to spend less money for all this than the cost of tearing the building down and then rebuilding.
Designed by Raymond Lopez and opened in 1961, the 16-story prefabricated concrete tower had already undergone an ugly, claustrophobic update during the 1980s. Various competitors proposed leaving the shell basically intact but gutting the interior. Lacaton, Vassal and Druot won the competition with a novel approach.
They would work from the inside out to improve light and space, giving the tower a fresh, larger skin by creating a shell to envelop the building. This would extend the apartment floor slabs to add winter gardens, or solariums, and balconies that would bring in abundant light and increase the size of all 96 apartments.
The proposal included a new lobby; new elevators, kitchens and bathrooms; and many new floor plans. It promised, unlike the other proposals, that the tenants wouldn’t need to move out for months on end, or years. This last part was crucial, because people removed from their homes for long stretches tend not to want to return. Lacaton, Vassal and Druot would displace them only for relatively short stints, and the retrofit would take less than two years.
The new winter gardens and balconies would be added using prefabricated modules erected like scaffolding around the outside. Punching through the old facade to connect these modules to the apartments would take only one day per apartment. Residents who left for work in the morning would return in the evening to find an entirely new, much larger home, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors opening onto glassed-in winter gardens that gave way to balconies with panoramas of the distant Eiffel Tower and La Defense.
Word started to spread about the tower before it was finished. The design was featured in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Construction, which began in 2009, was completed a few months ago.
Little more than half of what demolition and rebuilding would have cost: $15 million, compared with $26 million.
I went to the tower with Lacaton the other day, to see how it looked and talk with tenants.
It seemed elegant and airy. One tenant griped about the broken elevator, another about the “shady” kids who gather in the newly painted bright green hallways, now full of light and large windows. The halls have become more attractive places for them, and there’s no security to kick them out. Lacaton listened politely.
“No,” Sister Ann-Marie Mevellec, a decade-long resident, said when I asked her whether she liked the changes to her apartment. She smiled beneficently. The kitchen was too small, she said; the winter garden was too cold in winter, too hard to keep clean. She missed her old loggia, where she grew vegetables.
Unheated winter gardens and balconies often go unused in modern apartment towers. Many of the ones I saw functioned like closets. But they added light and space. Sister Ann-Marie conceded that the building was on the whole better. Energy costs have been cut by 60 percent. The tower has new sunny common spaces.
Marie-Jean Benjamin, a retired hairdresser who raised seven children in the apartment she has occupied for 47 years, told me she remembered the building when it had just opened as a dark, cramped place in a terrible neighborhood making way for the ring road. Back then, interior plumbing was a luxury for a poor family looking for a decent home. She showed me her new bathrooms and kitchen and the winter gardens onto which she had moved her bar, some tomato plants and an exercise bike.
“I’m proud of the building,” she said.
The corrugated plastic windows the architects chose for some of the winter gardens look smart, lowered costs and provide privacy for tenants from the outside. But they also obscure views from the inside.
Those shimmering corrugated aluminum panels that cover parts of the facade refract light. They change color with the hours and the seasons, like budget titanium, dissolving the mass of the building. But they’re difficult are to keep clean. No matter how energy-efficient, economical and handsome a work of architecture may be, it still depends on upkeep and security. Lacaton said she was rethinking the materials she would use for a similar, much larger retrofitting in Bordeaux.
Jeanine Gaillard, 81, in scarf and loafers, a resident in the tower for 21 years, was at that moment dragging her wheeled canvas shopping basket outside the tower toward the highway. She lamented that the nearest grocery story was on the other side of the ring road, blocks away.
“It depends how you ask the question,” Lacaton responded when asked whether the building ended up as she had hoped. Architects couldn’t fix the neighborhood or provide 24-hour security guards, she said. But they could make something pleasing whose appearance derived from the narrow range of material options available, within a tight budget.
“The aesthetics arose purely from the decisions about the quality of space,” Lacaton insisted. “We could have done something playful and fashionable on the outside, to look better, if we had put just a few balconies here and there. But our priority was improving the living conditions for everyone.”
They’ve done that, adding an exemplary landmark to the Paris skyline.