Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture’s Bordeaux housing

With ZACs, the usual practice is to commission an urban masterplan, which the city asked MVRDV’s Winy Maas to supply in 2010. The Dutchman’s blueprint was not exactly what you’d call laissez-faire, stipulating as it did not only street layout but also exact building volumes for each plot, which he arrived at through taking the basic cuboid as defined by the site perimeter and the regulation height limit, making 45° cuts all the way round for sunlight penetration, and slicing off more here and there if he felt existing neighbouring structures required it.

The result was clusters of four dwellings, each of which enjoys both a small front garden and roof terraces with outdoor space articulated in the form of giant ‘cages’ in chain-link fencing. The latter, so the thinking went, would serve as trellises for all sorts of climbing plants, chosen by the residents, who would thus contribute to the estate’s final look and feel. Twenty years on, photos of the Mulhouse project show it half-buried under a superabundance of vegetation, with a mix of climbers and trees –the latter planted by occupants in their front gardens – providing a joyous screen of privacy and climate modulation.


Ekko is a contemporary reinterpretation of Bordeaux’s urban grain in its form and use of light tones. The roof, clad in flat, white glazed tiles, reflects sunlight, helping to reduce considerably the intensive heat build-up of the summer months. The façades are all ventilated, with a ceramic tile cladding matching that of the roof. The bringing-together of structure and vegetation is the hallmark of the project. The three-dimensional common garden brings together all the different apartments, a living metabolism that helps to improve comfort and utility, regulates environmental impact and manages privacy. Its five storeys of floating trees form a complete volume. More than a winter garden, it is a living space that adapts to the different seasons and affects the interior spaces of the dwellings. This idea of companionship with nature goes beyond it just being visual landscape, but adds a sensual dimension to this, providing the pleasure of the tactility and even the smells of nature.
Duncan Lewis, director, Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture

The project, with its 90m-long garden façade, extends along the Rue de Hortense (from the Latin hortus, meaning garden), its volume of over 6,800m3 providing, in addition to individual apartments, a collective outdoor room for all, designed for a multitude of uses. This garden space is inspired by the ‘cold greenhouse’ of Estufa Fria in Lisbon and is contained within a light metal trellis, its irregular design helping to support its living ecosystem. This shades generous balconies and creates a natural corridor that filters fresh air into and through all the apartments.

Labeled ‘eco-quartier’, Bastide Niel was designed as a technically innovative district in terms of energy savings, water and waste management and traffic flow. Many of the building materials for Ekko are bio-based, such as timber for structural purposes and terracotta infilling and cladding. We also opted for a ‘cool roof’ with flat white glazed tiles, and a façade with terracotta shingles glazed in five progressive shades. The white treatment reflects the warmth of the sun and keeps surfaces cool. 

Moreover, Maas stipulated that all five façades should sport one and the same material, in a light colour to reflect sunlight, and that balconies and other add-ons must be kept within the volume shape. To set the tone and test the rules, MVRDV built the first project, the enormous Îlot Queyries. Completed in 2020, the 200m-long residential structure lines up giant white pyramidal wings around a courtyard, the latter, in a dash of rule-twisting latitude, coloured a deep red.

Lewis then proceeded to design a similar trick on the northern elevation, using a ‘false’ façade that respects the building envelope to introduce stack ventilation, which helps cool the apartments in hot weather, as well as trees that rise up through the cavity and poke out through its unglazed windows. ‘From outside it gives the impression of an instant ruin,’ he jokes. The cavity also contains some of the building’s access walkways, all of which are open-air and many of which are unusually wide, meaning that, on the upper floors, they serve as social spaces for neighbours to gather. 

As Lewis tells it, for the second plot to be developed – the long and narrow B001, immediately adjacent to Queyries – one of the senior staff in the city’s department of urbanism, who disliked what Maas was doing at Bastide Niel, decided to organise an architectural competition with just two invited architect/developer teams: Maas v. Lewis. ‘Winy and I are friends,’ smiles Lewis, ‘but I didn’t agree with his rules.’ So he sought to bend them in his turn, finding the latitude he needed in a 5.25m strip of land in front of the long southern façade that, in the masterplan, was designated for planting. Taking inspiration from Lisbon’s Estufa Fria, ‘a cold greenhouse that protects its contents from the sun with thin wooden slats’, he designed a giant galvanised-steel cage that filled the entire strip up to the volume limits imposed by Maas. In this way, without deforming the envelope shape, he could suspend balconies within the cage, thereby maximising floor space for the developer, since terraces are no longer subtracted, and plant its interior with local deciduous species of trees and climbing plants. It would provide a cooling sunshade in the torrid Bordeaux summers, while in the damp, grey winters, once the leaves had fallen, what sunlight there was could still reach the dwellings.


Project data

In France, municipalities have various levers of control at their disposal. For large-scale operations, one of the most widely used is the zone d’aménagement concerté (concerted development zone, or  ZAC), a legal framework whereby work is overseen by a public/private joint-stock company in which the local authority holds the majority stake. In Bordeaux, this was the format adopted for redevelopment of the Bastide Niel, a former industrial area on the banks of the Garonne. 

In today’s ever more environmentally conscious context, could the success of such an approach be transferred from a weakened social sector, historically a proponent of experimentation, to the world of developer-led private housing? With Ekko, a 49-unit residential block in Bordeaux, Lewis has proved that it can – provided the local authority is on your side.

Furthermore, at the building’s summit, we find both a communal terrace with shared planters and a meeting/events room. The developer, says Lewis, would have preferred to squeeze in another apartment here and also balked at the false façade and certain exterior finishes. In the ensuing struggle between architect and client, it was the city’s refusal to see the project unduly coarsened that allowed Lewis to get at least partially his way.

The garden is defined as a broad and porous boundary for living indoors and outdoors, creating an extension of the living room areas. 

Since cash was tight – just €1,850/m2 – and the ‘cage’ was considered an ‘extra’, ingenuity was required to cover the roof and façades effectively and cheaply, leading Lewis to develop a new range of ceramic coverings with German manufacturer Moeding. Indeed, it was only thanks to his firm’s dedication that this ambitious project came through more or less intact, since both detailing the cage, with its irrigation system and planters, and squeezing the flats into Maas’s eccentric volumes proved particularly labour-intensive tasks. Nevertheless, completed in 2021, the project sets an auspiciously alternative tone for future development at the Bastide Niel.
Andrew Ayers is a Paris-based writer on architecture, translator and educator

The Niel masterplan is governed by rules, which favour natural sunshine and impose precise geometric divisions and volumetric constraints on each plot. The Ekko project’s design aims to respond to the current climatic and ecological emergency, as well as the social needs of urban housing. 

The garden is built of a light metal structure and the use of a natural aluminium cladding on the south façade helps to reflect sunlight into the ecosystem of the three-dimensional garden, while balconies extend outward into this like fan-shaped leaves in search of light. 


Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 95%
Heating and hot water load 35.5 kWh/m2/yr
Total energy load 43 kWh/m2/yr
Annual mains water consumption 15.9 m3/occupant
Airtightness at 50Pa <0.8 m3/hr/m2
Overall thermal bridging heat transfer coefficient (Y-value) 0.12 W/m2K
Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied
Predicted design life 50 years


Air, light, the passage of time and the sensations and pleasure that these produce are the essential building values at Ekko.
Duncan Lewis, director, Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture

Start on site September 2019
Completion 2021
Gross internal floor area  3,552m2
Construction cost  €5.9 million
Construction cost per m2  €1,843
Architect  Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture
Client  Groupe Launay
Structural engineer Terrell Group
M&E consultant Overdrive
Façade engineer Terrell Group
Environmental and sustainability consultant Franck Boutté Consultants

Sustainability data



Detail design

‘I’m an architect who does things that are ugly and unfinished,’ declares Duncan Lewis, the British-born founder, with his wife Brigitte Cany-Lewis, of Bordeaux-based Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture. To prove his point, he gives the example of a 12-unit experimental scheme that his office, in partnership with BLOCK and Hervé Potin, completed in Mulhouse in 2005 (AJ 14.04.05). Part of a Cité Manifeste (Manifesto Estate) of social housing, which included contributions from Jean Nouvel, Lacaton & Vassal and Shigeru Ban, the project took nearby early-20th-century workers’ homes as its starting point, seeking to learn from the ways residents had adapted their homes and gardens over decades.


Architect’s view