When an architect gets things mostly right

After dropping the Boy at his last day of vacation class, I headed down a street roughly in the direction of the métro — this is one of my pleasures in Paris — wandering until I hit something interesting. Or not, as sometimes happens.

The vacation class* which Joseph is attending is at a school we were looking at for next year which happens to be in newer building in a neighborhood of newer buildings. A number of housing projects are underway — these images are not from one of them.Housing, Paris — rue Petit I came upon this project a little further afield and, having just passed a number of projects which were unqualified disasters — ranging in dates of completion from last year to 40 years ago — I was happy to rumble upon this. Even with some evidence of progeny from the train wreck that Postmodernism foisted upon architects toward the end of the 20th century, this project gets so much right.

You might be wondering if I am crazy to write about a project which is about as exciting as, well, a pile of bricks — which is nearly all that this project is — but sometimes simplicity really is a trump card.

  • Windows are large, simple and regular, making for sensible, functional rooms. That they are regular shapes and sizes makes them easier to live with and “furnish”.
  • The selected building materials come from common sources, will age gracefully, and  are easily maintained. How many buildings in Paris were the dream of an architect upon their completion only to suffer with age — and rapidly at that. Even some of the grands-projets of Paris met this fate. Common materials carry a keen advantage — should repairs or modifications be required, these are easily accomplished with materials close at hand and trades with the skills to match.
  • While ordinarily, a gap in the street wall would be a negative, here the space is well defined and undoubtedly well used as a public park. Paris is not known for its overabundance of play space.
  • Lines, patterns, and rhythms are regular, effectively echoing the dominant building type of Paris, the Haussmannian block.
  • Window shading and window shutters are both incorporated nicely. Earlier, the Boy had seen a building with rolling shutters which caught his fancy. How long will those remain trouble free, if they are even as I write this?

Some quirks:

  • There is one odd thing about this project. Some of the windows are single hung. This might not seem odd to an English or Dutch speaking reader but hung windows are not common to France and few things are available here which would commonly accompany their use. (I’m looking at you window air-conditioner and you half-height window screen.) Indeed, the most common window accessory in all of Paris is a french casement hold-open — squirrelly as they can be  these are essential for partially opening an inward-swiging casement window to allow a draft but not allow the window to swing wild about. The proportion of a hung window also does not match the Parisian standard. Worse yet, the hung style of window is known to be the leakiest of all operable window offerings, making the choice questionable as contemporary architecture moves toward a net-zero future.
  • While I appreciate the desire to have a sloped zinc roof, also quite common in Paris, the little mini-Mansard cornice line comes off as a bit odd — the one element which suggestive of pastiche.
Housing, Paris — Passage du Nord

My apologies for the lack of effort in my photography. I'd already been out longer than I planned.

As I was review the photos one more time to try a trigger my impressions of the project as I stood in front of it, I am struck by how plain the architecture is. But it’s still okay. It might not look fine in a photo (or, importantly, a rendering for a client) but the overall effect is still a positive one, even on as gray a day as this. One other thing makes it work that is not shown here nor which can be shown: the overall context of the neighborhood and Paris beyond. It is a vibrant place, rich with a variety of architecture and urban detail. This was, after all, just down the street from this.


*Joseph’s vacation class is covering photography and light. He’s enjoying it more than he ever does school. Maybe we need rename school.

About Richard Anderson

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