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Elevating the everyday.

Social housing is one of the hardest building types to elevate above the dreary norms of programme and budget, but through its calculated formal and material ingenuity, this Parisian scheme triumphantly transcends such limitations.

Despite the vast range of scale, type, budget and visual expression, there is a consistency to Herzog and de Meuron's work. Ideas of surface and individual experience can be tracked through a succession of projects. Such an approach, which is not linked to programme or structure, is equally as applicable to projects involving sensitive urban repair as it is to high-profile object buildings.

The recently completed Rue des Suisses apartment blocks are the latest manifestation of this rationale. Located in the fourteenth arrondissement, an unassuming but typical residential area in the south of Paris, the apartments occupy a T-shaped site. There are two street frontages, Rue des Suisses and Rue Jonquoy, and a long rectangular plot set deep within the urban block. Sixty flats, with a mixture of sizes and types, are contained in three blocks -- two facing the streets, and one in the courtyard behind. They were developed for the Regie Immobiliere de la Ville de Paris, one of Paris's more innovative and progressive social housing agencies. Social housing is often reduced to mere programme, but since space standards are regulated and budgets constrained, the scope for innovation tends to be limited. Herzog and de Meuron deal with the programmatic aspects deftly and efficiently (slightly too efficiently in places) but take cues from elsewhere. The project manages to be both uncompromising and contextual, a combination of the exploration of the architects' own concerns and a response to their acute observations of the locale. The surrounding buildings are all different, with little individual merit, but en masse have a certain charm. Herzog and de Meuron take this existing basic framework as a starting point (vertical expression, six storeys plus an attic floor, flats off a central staircase), but visual precedents are not acknowledged.

From a distance, the Rue des Suisses elevation reads like a solid grey metal slab kinked down a vertical line. This simple, effective device gives visual excitement to a plain form, responds to the road junction opposite and propels you towards the otherwise unmarked entrance. Up close you become aware of the detail -- continuous perforated corrugated shutters, which fold up and hang over the street. Partially open, they ripple like corduroy; fully unfolded, they reveal a continuous balustrade and odd signs of life, a semi-private balcony buffering the zone between inside and out. It is ordered but gloriously haphazard, with residents having operational control.

In contrast, and in response to the internal mews condition, the courtyard block is long and low. Floors jetty out, but are seemingly pulled back by the tambour shutters that make up the facade. Shutters are thin timber slats set between curved metal guiding rails; sinuous, gentle, they roll back into themselves like roll-top desks. Everything feels generous and relaxed. The common stair has natural light and space for buggies and bikes, and the balconies are real living spaces rather than elements of environmental control. There are private external spaces -- flats on the ground floor have individual gardens and there are open spaces for those on the top -- but the south-facing balconies and the courtyard space are so successful that the communal aspect of living is given every chance to succeed. People talk to their friends and neighbours and a real sense of community has developed. Children and adults hang out, party and play. Two small houses are placed opposite the entrances to the communal stair. Like t he kinks in the street facades, they subliminally mark the entrance but also subdivide the courtyard into more personable areas. Quirky and tightly-planned, these maisonettes are Wendy Houses made of concrete and detailed to stain. Concrete is exposed in a similar fashion on the sides and back of the courtyard block, but its harshness is softened by a trellis of wires, which already supports vigorous climbing plants.

At present, the apartments look luscious -- they are in good condition, the shutters rumple and turn with ease, and the concrete is staining in a knowingly aesthetic way. Internally, detailing is relatively basic, almost crude. Timber treads abut painted concrete walls, door frames are without architraves, plaster meets timber flush. Good site workmanship, appropriate maintenance (a full-time concierge lives in one of the flats) and careful use by the residents makes this possible, but too easily (or in the wrong hands) it could become dirty and bashed. It is apparent where the money has been spent.

There are clear similarities between this and previous Herzog and de Meuron projects, such as the Schutzenmattstrasse and Hebelstrasse apartments in Basel (1993 and 1988), and the Rudin House at Leymen in France (1997). At Rue des Suisses however, elements are combined and ideas stretched. Here, there are two conditions: the street and the mews, and two responses: vertical metal and horizontal timber. There are also obvious polarities between the two block types (high/low, couples/families, urban/suburban, oppressive/soft, angular/curved), but it is the similarities that give the project its resonance. Materials are generously used with sensitivity and intelligence. Both parts of the complex are essentially concrete buildings clad in shuttered skins modified inconsistently by people rather than the repetitive room structure behind. Other deviations such as the kink, the overhang and the Wendy Houses contrive to elevate the scheme above the prosaic, standardized norm.

Social housing rarely affords the comparison with high art, but the exit sequence from the courtyard through to the Rue des Suisses is the architectural equivalent of a Donald Judd. The canted passageway peels back from under the folded shutters, revealing a wall clad in reflective glass coloured a shimmering, Parisian poubelle green. Such unusual geometries and glowing reflections make the walk through towards the street beyond rich and special. Herzog and de Meuron have created unexpected beauty in the simple everyday.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:social housing architecture
Author:Jackson, Sarah
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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