Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ricardo Bofill: 1980s Classicism in Paris

Ricardo Bofill is the kind of architect who often divides opinion. In France, he’s most famous for the Antigone quarter in Montpellier, of which you can find a model in the Cité de l’Architecture, and large estates on the outskirts of Paris. His project in Montparnasse isn’t as well-known, but still offers a good sense of what he’s like as an architect.

Bofill has done all sorts of buildings, from Spanish airports to skyscrapers in New York, but is best known for his public housing projects. Most of these are in France and use classical architectural language on large scales.

Bofill’s biggest projects in the Île-de-France are in the villes nouvelles created around Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. L’Espaces des Abraxas at Noisy-le-Grand includes a giant triumphal arch containing twenty apartments, and this is about the smallest feature in the design. La Sourderie is located in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, and the development’s large artificial lake is modeled after those of Le Nôtre, with Bofill’s intention being to create a ‘Versailles for the People’. His designs for Cergy-Pontoise serve as the backdrop for Eric Rohmer’s film L’Ami de Mon Amie. There’s something impressive about how far Bofill carries his vision, but I sometimes feel these projects are just a bit too big for classicism’s imposing language.
Les Echelles du Baroque is much smaller than these estates. The quarter in which it stands, behind the Gare Montparnasse, was largely demolished and redeveloped in the 1970s, and Bofill’s development was built from 1979 to 1985.

The estate provides 272 apartments, all social housing, which sit beside the Place de Catalogne, the largest piazza to be built in Paris since Haussmann’s time. In the centre is a water feature by Shamaï Haber, inaccessible and surrounded by roaring traffic that somewhat undoes its potential to calm. Instead of the monumental public space presumably intended, this is a giant, and not particularly welcoming, roundabout.

Bofill didn’t have the same freedom or space in Paris that he’d had in its outskirts, and so his two buildings sit on relatively small sites, dissected by the Rue de Vercingétorix, over which his buildings join to form an arched entranceway. Planning regulations also stipulated that the maximum height could be seven stories, and so this is very much Bofill-in-miniature.

Nonetheless, the estate isn’t so different to his larger projects. As elsewhere, classical forms are built from prefabricated concrete elements. In the Amphitheatre building, small balconies are set between giant columns which unite the bottom of the building with the top. Huge columns in mirrored glass act as windows for residents of the neighbouring Place de Seoul, overlooking a central garden. Two enlarged columns, supporting nothing, frame the entranceway.

On this smaller scale, Bofill’s work isn’t nearly as overwhelming or imposing as in the new towns. It didn’t appeal to me aesthetically, but what’s most important for a housing block is how its residents feel, and those at Les Echelles du Baroque seemed happy when I visited, and other accounts I’ve read suggest similarly. Parents were chatting with one another while their children played and the elderly smiled and nodded at the teenagers they passed while walking.

This isn’t altogether surprising, as the architecture does succeed in a number of important ways. The way in which all apartments overlook the same central circle likely adds to the sense of safety, with many eyes watching in case of danger, and also to the sense of community. With the exception of Place du Catalogne it’s very pedestrian friendly, with few cars and many outdoor public spaces. The buildings, too, do an excellent job of shielding the inner courts and the neighbouring park from the roar of nearby traffic -I didn’t notice it at all.
The friendliness is likely also to be due to the park, school and church on the Rue de Vercingétorix, which provide ways for residents to get to know one another. The church, Notre-Dame-du-Travail, was closed when I visited, but I’m planning to go back to look at its iron and concrete interior which dates from 1892, making it one of the first religious buildings in Paris to use such materials. Notre-Dame-du-Travail was designed in an industrial fashion in order to relate to the neighbourhood’s working class population, often alienated by traditional church architecture. The approach is almost precisely opposite to Bofill’s own ‘Versailles for the People’ approach, but the two projects seem to complement one another well.
Les Echelles du Baroque, surprisingly given Bofill’s work elsewhere, is much more friendly and on a much more human scale than many of the other large developments which sprung up around the Gare Montparnasse in the latter half of the twentieth century. I still might not particularly like Ricardo Bofill’s work after visiting, but experiencing it firsthand certainly deepened my understanding and changed my perspective on it. If you’re looking for architecture that challenges you to think about what really makes a development succeed, Les Echelles du Baroque is definitely a place to visit.
Originally written for and published on AngloINFO Paris.

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