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Sensitive stimulus.

A new centre for handicapped children is conceived as a haven of contact, welcome and stimulation, which rejects the ghettoising limitations of traditional institutionalised care. The building also has an important role to play in the regeneration of the surrounding urban fabric.

Built to designs by the Paris-based practice Hennin-Normier-Lelievre, 'Turbulences' opened last year in Saint-Die, an old industrial town in the Meuse valley amid the steep wooded hillsides of the Vosges in north-east France. 'Turbulences' has been conceived as a prototype for a new generation of care centres engaging with the city centre, for autistic or otherwise severely handicapped children and adolescents. It provides 40 residential and 10 day-care places and; in addition to medical care, offers specialised educational, physiotherapeutic, social and support services and facilities which are intended for the mutual benefit of the local community, the handicapped children and their families.

The project's inception dates back to 1989 when, frustrated by the limitations of the institutionalised care of their children, and by prejudice, exclusion and feelings of guilt, a group of parents decided to found an educational and support association named 'Turbulences'. Architect Nicolas Normier and his wife Catherine played a very active role in this venture from the outset. Remarkable results had been achieved through stimulating the physical, emotive and intellectual potential of their own autistic daughter, Marine (then aged 15) and they were firmly convinced other similarly handicapped children would benefit from the same sensitive individual attention.

The bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1989 provided an opportunity to gain publicity and official backing for 'Turbulences'. Nicolas Normier and Jean-Marie Hennin were architects for the two temporary 'Tours de la Liberte' erected in the Tuileries gardens in Paris for the bicentenary celebrations (see AR August 1989). Inaugurating these airily dynamic steel and glass sail-winged pavilions, the architects specifically dedicated them to 'the mentally handicapped and the forgotten ones of asylums'.

Hennin and Normier had well-established connections in the Vosges, where they have frequently worked. One of the Tours de la Liberte was subsequently dismantled and re-erected in the town of Saint-Die, in the riverside park opposite the town hall; as a symbol of regeneration and faith in an enlightened future. Normier suggested to the mayor of Saint-Die that the acquisition of the tower might be complemented by a residential and day-care centre for handicapped children and adolescents, sited in the centre of town and run by the 'Turbulences' association in collaboration with local volunteers and a professional staff.

The mayor was persuaded such a centre could play a regenerative urban role, create employment and involve all age-groups of the local community in a town of 26 000, whose traditional textile and printing industries had been severely hit by the recession and restructuring. A 6000 m site in a declining neighbourhood near the town centre was allocated for the purpose by the municipal council. Bounded by two streets, it was formerly occupied on the north Rue de la Prairie frontage by mid-nineteenth-century houses, with rear yards and outbuildings, among them a cart-shed or barn which has been retained as a covered play-area on the east side of the new garden. The west side gives on to Rue de la Croix and a new street has been opened to the south, through the back-land.

With site and local support confirmed, the 'Turbulences' project, with its innovative mix of professional and voluntary care, combining education, social activities and urban integration, secured essential Ministry of Health recognition. Finance to build, staff and equip 'Turbulences' was then obtained from State and Regional funding agencies and the Credit Foncier bank. INTELBAT - the national electricity company's services arm, contributed the design, supply and installation of computerised communications and building management systems.

Hennin-Normier-Lelievre have produced a decent, humane and approachable residential home and day centre, adapted to its context and the complexity of the brief, within a limited budget (a gross area of 4274 m, fully equipped, for FF 41 million). As built, 'Turbulences' comprises two three-storey buildings enmeshed with the scale and grid of the urban context, barely a block away from Saint-Die central railway station. Set behind a low hedge, the day-centre range containing the main entrance is approached from the southern street boundary. Raised walk-ways and a long greenhouse provide a spine link to the residential block, which is aligned on Rue de la Prairie.

The day centre is the main focus for encounters between the handicapped children and people from the outside world. The key area is the main hall or common room, which is open to everyone and where local people, notably the elderly and adolescents, are encouraged to drop in. Conceived as a place of stimulating contact and exchange between handicapped children, parents, friends, visiting school children and the local community, it is designed on an open plan with an island fireplace, and contains such attractions as a multi-screen tv wall, a small lending library, an aquarium and a musical chequer-board floor.

An open kitchen, and dining and teaching areas give directly on to the entrance space, from which a swimming pool and a physiotherapy and gymnastics room are reached at ground level. Reception, administration and classrooms are on the first floor, as is a day-room for the bed-ridden and a second physiotherapy room.

The top floor is comprised of a roof terrace and four more classrooms, one of them for groups of visiting schoolchildren who are taught on the premises, and share in the life and activities of the home and day centre for one-week periods. To maximise encounters between visiting and handicapped children, this classroom can be reached via the physiotherapy room at first floor level, from the space containing the swimming pool.

In the residential block, the two upper floors contain eight common rooms, guest rooms for parents and a staff flat as well as bedrooms designed to cater for a range of age groups and degrees of handicap for resident children and adolescents. Workshops on the ground storey are generously glazed, to give through views from street to garden. All other activities take place in the day centre, which can be reached through a greenhouse designed to provide a variety of sensory stimuli - changes of temperature, as well as the colours, smells, forms and textures provided by plants, flowers, butterflies and other insects. Raised ramped walkways running along the western flank of the greenhouse provide direct access between the upper storeys of the two blocks.

Normier sees the purpose of the architectural project, the variety of functions, spaces and planting as a means of inciting the different responses and uses that epitomise the aims of 'Turbulences'. Manifestly envisaged as a demonstrative rejection of the isolation and stigma of exclusion long associated with the handicapped and establishments designed to house them, the programmatic credo of 'Turbulences' is openness, stimulative contact and exchange. In keeping with the spirit of the project, the garden is designed to stimulate, by the diversity of its planting and incident.

Anything but a ghetto, 'Turbulences' aspires to provide a dynamic regenerative force for the social and built urban fabric. On the strength of the Saint-Die centre, Hennin-Normier-Lelievre have been appointed architects for a similar project, in collaboration with Michel Piotrkowski-Formalise. In this case, the aim is to apply the 'Turbulences' approach to the regeneration of a problem housing estate at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, near Paris, by combining a special school, a primary school and a training centre for the unemployed with a residential home and day centre for handicapped children and adolescents.
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Title Annotation:center for handicapped children and adolescents in France
Author:Meade, Martin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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