It has been several years since the architects Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Phillippe Vassal of Lacaton & Vassal collaborated on the refurbishment of Paris’ Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, but as Australia faces nation-wide social housing reforms this high-impact, low-intervention project has never been more relevant.
At the time that the design trio won a competition to tackle the increasingly unliveable conditions in the tower, which had housed low-income families since the 1960s, the standard urban solution to similar ‘vertical slums’ had been to tear them down, using the decline of facilities to justify the displacement families. In Paris, the residents would have been relocated to the banlieues, the outskirts of the city, where the opportunities and services leave much to be desired and inequality is famously entrenched.
But Druot and the duo from Lacaton & Vassal happened to have staked their reputations on doing the opposite. The architects insist that demolition is always wasteful and destructive, and considered in this case that the cost to families of relocation and dislocation was far greater than any benefits brought about by redevelopment. As a general architectural approach, all three architects prefer to add and transform, focusing on the elements that work and how to functionally improve lives for residents. Their interest lies in what happens inside – the life that a building makes possible – rather than the form or materiality of the building itself.
“Their interest lies in what happens inside – the life that a building makes possible – rather than the form or materiality of the building itself.”
At Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, the answer to how they could improve residents’ lives came after much consultation: “The residents told us about their lifestyles and about their needs, and we treated that information with the utmost respect and with the utmost attention. The residents felt that they were listened to, recognised and considered,” Druot told us.
The old façade was replaced and extended by enclosed sun rooms and balconies for each and every apartment, and the installation took a single day per apartment, so people went to work and came back to a new home. The residents gained light, extensive views of the city, greatly reduced heating and cooling costs and significant floor space – between 22 and 60 square metres per dwelling. The city itself saved millions of dollars, the architects spending only three quarters of their €20 million (AU$30.4 million) budget, while the price of demolition and rebuilding had been costed at €26 million (AU$39.5 million).
“The transformation of the building and the apartments has been all the more embraced because the rents were not increased,” said Druot.
“Each of the residents adapts the space to suit their way of life and their unique mode of enjoyment.”
Architect Frédéric Druot
We asked Druot if he thought the model, which has been applied to buildings in Bordeaux, Sao Paolo and Santiago, could continue to be used all over the world, and he was emphatic: “Yes, anywhere in the world … It’s a matter of paying attention to what already exists … to be generous as an architect, to give as much as possible in the pursuit of good economics.”
In Melbourne today, it’s the mid-rises that are currently earmarked for destruction in the first stage of the Public Housing Renewal Program, to be replaced by towers up to 20 storeys high with a large proportion of the yield to be allocated to the private market. As developers, policy-makers and members of the community, we should always be asking if what we’re doing is really improving life in our cities, and Tour Bois-le-Prêtre is a wonderful reminder that creative rather than destructive or erasive thinking can bring enormous benefit to families and the cities they live in.
Fréderic Druot and Lacaton & Vassal
City of Paris
Lily Keil is Senior Editor at Right Angle Studio. She trained and worked as an editor at Melbourne University Publishing before freelancing for four years. She has been published in magazines such as Meanjin, January Biannual and Higher Arc and was a co-editor of Good Sport magazine in 2016. Her childhood in remote Tasmania may be the origin of her abiding fascination with cities.
Images courtesy of Fréderic Druot.