Grandorge: April in Paris

In the UK, we have yet to achieve such thoughtful and comprehensive adaptations of our social housing. A pity. We have much to learn from what happens elsewhere.

This photograph was taken in April in Paris in 2013. It is a partial view of the north-facing façade of a refurbished and extended 16-storey social housing tower located in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Crucially, it is located just inside the Boulevard Périphérique, an eight-lane ring road that creates a disproportionate divide between the city’s urban centre and its suburbs.

David Grandorge is a photographer and senior lecturer in architecture at London Met. His fee for this column has been donated to support the publication of new and diverse voices in the AJ


The results of this research can be seen in the book Plus: Large-scale Housing Developments, published by Gustavo Gili in 2007. The proposals shown therein were framed by the premise of ‘never demolishing, subtracting or replacing things, but always adding, transforming and utilising them’. This was an incredibly bold claim, but the architects would carry out these intentions with both rigour and panache at Bois-le-Prêtre.

At the bottom of the photo, two concrete paths can be seen converging at an acute angle between three triangular slithers of mown grass. Above them is a reflective wall of sinusoidal profiled stainless steel and a smaller area of polycarbonate of identical profile that cloaks a lift shaft. 

The project came about as result of a competition win that was preceded by many years of research undertaken with Frédéric Druot into how the life of French communal housing complexes could be extended into the future.

The building was designed by Raymond Lopez in the 1960s. Barely 20 years later, it was insulated and rendered externally, its balconies closed off and small uPVC windows installed, decisions that might seem strange today, but made sense to someone at the time. By 2005, the building had become a little the worse for wear. The uPVC windows were failing and other technical problems had become evident. After six months of discussions with the tenants, it was proposed that they would remain in situ during the ensuing construction period, a socially judicious strategy that was enabled by the stacking of repeating, prefabricated 3m-wide winter garden and balcony elements at the tower’s exterior. This would significantly change its metabolism.    

In this age of global warming, some might baulk at the extensive use of concrete, steel, aluminium, glass and polycarbonate, but they were employed here in a thoughtful and lean manner. They have halved the building’s energy use and transformed the inhabitants’ relationship to the outdoors.

Collectively, the architects sought and subsequently engaged in a sustained dialogue with political decision-makers, arguing for greater sensitivity in how post-war housing estates in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities were addressed. 

Those familiar with the work of Lacaton & Vassal will recognise these synthetic components and might also be aware that the view shown is a fragment of their highly original transformation of the Bois-le-Prêtre residential tower.