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Sumit Singhal
Sumit Singhal
Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.

Le Serpentin Refurbishment in Pantin, France by Agence RVA

October 11th, 2015 by Sumit Singhal

Article source: Agence RVA

From urban downfall to urban renewal

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Courtillières neighbourhood was in decline and suffered from a degraded image: the isolated community had become subject to overpopulated housing units, a deteriorated housing stock, an increasingly impoverished population, rising unemployment rates, tension and violence in public spaces and schools, and dangerously high rates of illegal activity.

In response to this alarming situation, the French state and local government authorities chose to implement public funds through the National Urban Renewal Agency (ANRU previously known as the “Grand Projet de Ville”) in an effort to remediate the existing conditions for the welfare of the community and its residents. To facilitate the process, the cities, Pantin and Bobigny (the two cities within which the Serpentin project site is situated), created a public interest group (GIP) through which a public tender was launched calling for urban renewal proposals from teams regrouping expertise in the fields of urban planning and design, architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and sociology.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

  • Architects: Agence RVA, Dominique Renaud, Philippe Vignaud and Associates
  • Project: Le Serpentin Refurbishment
  • Location: Pantin, France
  • Photography:  Luc Boegly, Agence RVA
  • Principal architect: Nicolas Trentesaux
  • Graphic designer: Atelier Pierre di Sciullo: 7-11 rue des Caillots, 93100 Montreuil
  • Engineers/Economists: ARCOBA -ARTELIA: 45 avenue Victor Hugo – Aubervilliers, 93534 La Plaine Saint-Denis
  • Landscape architect: Agence Vincent Pruvost: 47, boulevard Jeanne d’Arc, 93100 Montreuil
  • Client (public housing developer): Pantin Habitat OPH: 6 avenue du 8 Mai 1945, 93697 Pantin
  • Project site surface area: 75,000m²
Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

  • Housing unit density: 80 housing units / hectare
  • Building dimensions: Width: 8m pre-rehabilitation, 8.40m after rehabilitation
  • Length: 1,060m pre-rehabilitation, 970m after rehabilitation
  • Building height: 6 storeys (1 ground floor + 5 upper levels) / 16.15m
  • Building footprint (in relation to site surface area): 11 %
  • Gross floor area: 50,000m²
  • Façade surface area: 30,000m²
  • Housing units:
    • Pre-existing units: 655
    • Restructured units: 513
    • Demolished units: 60
Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Over a period of several months, three teams including that led by Agence RVA carried out diagnostic and programme studies for the site. The teams’ analyses and programme recommendations were presented to the community for feedback before being submitted to a jury composed of community representatives, design and engineering specialists, and local and state level officials for review. In 2002, Agence RVA was awarded the contract for the design and rehabilitation of the ensemble of properties belonging to the public housing developer, HLM de Pantin, including the Serpentin housing development, the Fonds d’Eaubonne and Point-de-Pierre housing developments and a public park.

The façades: “artwork and work”

The aesthetic aspects of a building’s façade and its colour scheme are of extreme importance for the architect, Émile Aillaud. No matter our opinion of the colouration of the public housing development, Nuage Towers, in Nanterre, that of the Grande Borne’s abstract frescos (Rimbaud’s portrait) in Grigny or that of the Serpentin’s nuances of pink and blue (softening the limit between the façade and sky), colour is a key element of Aillaud’s architecture and essential to its understanding. Aillaud’s attention to colour is a result of his collaboration with the artist, Fabio Rieti.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

The Serpentin’s coloured cement plaster façades were damaged over time due to multiple hasty building interventions (including the removal of the balconies) and to the wear and tear of the fragile plaster surface material. Similarly damaged, an initial façade rehabilitation of the Fonds d’Eaubonne and Pont-de-Pierre housing developments was realised in the 1980’s; a layer of brick was added onto the existing cement plaster. (Aillaud approved of the intervention.)

The rehabilitation of the Serpentin’s façades, however, would not be evoked for another thirty years. Insulation was added in the 1980’s, but the damaged cement plaster and its fading colours remained untouched.

Before undertaking the complete façade rehabilitation, the design team identified four possible approaches, keeping in mind the inherent constraints of rehabilitating an inhabited architectural heritage site:
 restore the façades as they were originally designed by Émile Aillaud;
 restore the façades “in the style of” Émile Aillaud;
 renovate the façades entirely, greatly altering the original architecture;
 innovate : seek out a contemporary project solution based on the original architectural parti – an approach akin to the spirit of Émile Aillaud.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

The first approach was discounted due to an incomplete understanding of the architect’s original intentions combined with the high costs, both in terms of construction and maintenance, associated with restoring the façades as they were initially designed. Attempting to restore the building envelope “in the style of” Émile Aillaud risked to further stigmatize the public housing development. A complete renovation, implying the radical transformation of the façade’s materials and colour scheme, was problematic in terms of honouring the building’s architectural heritage. Having negated the first three design approaches, the team is left with the fourth approach: innovate. This solution permits the design of a contemporary, sustainable project, able to adapt to existing technical challenges while simultaneously honouring Aillaud’s original design intentions.

The façades’ architectural and graphic conception

Once Agence RVA had selected opaque glass tile for its durability and versatile colour range, the design team defined the project’s guiding principles:
– evanescent contemporary, pixellated motif;
– intensity of colour that dissipates as it rises;
– differentiated colour schemes between intrados and extrados;
– independent treatment of the ground floor level (contrasting light and dark rhythm of precast concrete wall panels and the pre-existing cellar doors).

The architects wished to collaborate with a graphic artist to elaborate the building envelope’s colour scheme. After a public tender process, the choice of graphic designer, Pierre di Sciullo, resulted in a unique and distinguished design. The street front is treated uniformly: a continuous, vertical colour gradient signals the Serpentin within its immediate context. The park-facing façade is treated with multiple, sparkling horizontal colour gradients, varying in length such that the building’s entryways are differentiated from one another. The façade’s colour choice is intended to complement the park’s verdure. This contemporary design proposal for the building’s envelope was agreed upon by all parties and participants involved.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

The glass tile mosaic is made up of the following elements:
– 25,000m² of opaque glass tiles;
– 200,000 glass tile sheets;
– 32,000,000 pixels (2x2cm opaque glass tile squares);
– 11 colours: red, orange, peach, salmon, white, mouse grey, slate, sky blue, lapis-lazuli and deep-sea blue;
– 1 vertical colour gradient along the street front;
– 38 horizontal gradients along the park-facing façade.

The urban façade: a unified street front

A building’s street front should be designed in relation to its context. Given the exceptional length of the Serpentin, the building’s street front is presented with a multitude of different urban typologies. The façade is asked to respond to a major thruway, avenue de la Division Leclerc, planted with mature canopy trees, a large plot of community gardens, Aillaud’s public housing tower blocks and the construction of contemporary multifamily housing units resulting from ongoing urban renewal projects.

In response to the Serpentin’s diverse context, the project team designed a continuous, unifying monolithic façade composed of an undulating vertical grey colour gradient. Breaking with the previous address system which was composed of a street number followed by a entryway letter and a street name, today, each entry is indicated with a conventional address: a street number, followed by a street name and the city. Each street number is indicated on a customized address post.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

The park-facing façade: “diversity and intimacy”

In contrast to the busy urban street front, the park-facing façade sinuously winds its way
around a vast open space, creating intimate pockets of green within the Serpentin’s curves.
The building’s concave sections envelop portions of the park creating identifiable, human-scale outdoor spaces.
The façade’s horizontal colour gradients are tailored to the building’s undulations. Each curve and open-space “alcove” is associated with a particular gradient.

The housing units: renovation to meet current standards

One of the causes of the community’s social woes is the substandard living conditions resulting from substandard housing. The Serpentin housing complex is made up of undersized and poorly equipped housing units dating from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The building measures six storeys high (one ground floor and five upper levels) without an elevator.

The Urban Renewal Programme (PRU) and its associated funding enable the amelioration of the housing units’ spatial organisation (via the regrouping of existing surfaces), the modernization of each unit’s kitchen and sanitary equipment as well as increased thermal and energy performance. The goal is to rehabilitate the Serpentin so that it meets current housing stock standards and codes (except for its lack of elevators which are impossible to integrate given the narrow building width and the decision to respect the building’s architectural heritage).

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Housing unit figures:
– 635 original housing units > 511 housing units after rehabilitation + a facilities management office;
– 21 housing unit typologies;
– 100 % of housing units with street and park views (except studio units);
– 100 % of housing units with a park view.

Construction programme:
– Complete interior renovation: only the exterior walls, floors and windows are conserved;
– Equipment and finish upgrades:
o Installation of new electric and sanitary equipment;
o Installation of a new controlled mechanical ventilation system;
o Realisation of new wall and floor finishes.

The entryways : Renewed transparency

Common area design principles:

As with the rest of the building’s interiors and exteriors, the Serpentin’s common areas were subjected to the ravages of time as well as numerous, shoddy maintenance interventions. The exterior cellar doorways were walled up to put an end to the myriad of illegal activities and associated police chases that took place on the cellars’ ground floor. The entrance halls’ park access doors were also walled up for similar reasons. The original metal awnings were left weighted down in appearance after an initial rehabilitation attempt.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

In keeping with the project’s overarching design principles, instead of attempting to recreate the original architecture, the project team envisioned a contemporary solution taking into consideration existing maintenance and security issues (regrouping cellar access by stairwell) while simultaneously respecting Aillaud’s initial intentions (establishing a visual connection with the park and integrating streamlined awnings).

– Creation of transparent entryways that open the view onto the park from the street;
– Reconfiguration of cellar access (interior access as opposed to exterior access);
– Installation of a security control system (interphones and access badges);
– Rehabilitation of glazed entryway panels;
– Preservation of original precast concrete stairs.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

The façade system

The building underwent an initial rehabilitation in the 1980’s. At this time, insulation was
added onto the exterior levels 1 to 5.
The new façade from levels 1 to 5 is composed of the following elements:
– the existing rigid foam polystyrene insulation (60mm thick) reinforced with plaster (10mm thick);
– a wood framing structure;
– an air gap;
– a reinforced precast concrete curved panel (12mm thick);
– a film of reinforced plaster;
– sheets of glass tile mosaics affixed with a bi-component adhesive.

Prior to and during construction, the façade system was subjected to numerous security and safety checks.
The ground level façade is composed of the following elements:
– existing load bearing walls overlaid with 1,200 precast concrete panels treated with anti-graffiti glazing;
– prefabricated sheet metal panels (to cover pre-existing cellar doors);
– precast polymer concrete awnings.

Courtillières (1954-1959)

The urbanisation of Courtillières, fifty-seven hectares of municipal agricultural land north of the Aubervilliers fort, was a direct result of the 1954 post-war housing crisis in France.

Émile Aillaud was commissioned to realise the Courtillières master plan. He envisioned a coherent “cité-parc” ensemble: four hectares of modelled green space encircled by a sinuous, kilometre long housing complex, the Serpentin. A new thruway, the avenue des Courtillières, was created to service the development.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Housing towers with star-shaped footprints and rectangular multifamily housing blocks were implanted on each side of the Serpentin “rampart”: at the west, the Pont-de-Pierre development and at the south, the Fonds d’Eaubonne development.
The construction of 1,500 housing units upon this once agricultural land generated important infrastructure and facility needs.
In response, Émile Aillaud built two school complexes regrouping nursery, primary and secondary levels. A day care centre was located at the core of the project’s central park. Other community facilities (offices, shops, and a clinic) were grouped together around a market square and formed the neighbourhood centre.

Dominique RENAUD & Philippe VIGNAUD – Agence RVA

Created in 1994 by Dominique RENAUD and Philippe VIGNAUD in Les Lilas, France, Agence RVA is a multidisciplinary design firm specialising in architecture, urban planning and design and landscape architecture. Our team is composed of an international group of certified planners, urban designers, licensed architects, licensed landscape architects and landscape engineers.

Each project, from its conception to its realisation, benefits from the diversity of the firm’s professional backgrounds and skill-sets. Our interdisciplinary approach ensures that each project is considered from a variety of perspectives and responds to local and regional contexts while integrating unique design expertise associated with each specialised field.

Committed to the creation of sustainable, multifaceted communities, the urban design and planning team is involved in projects that range from community master plans to urban planning policy development. Our recent project commissions include the urban renewal master plan for the Malassis neighbourhood in Bagnolet, France, and the regional plan for the Canal d’Ourq corridor. Our urban design team is also involved in site context analysis, community consultation and construction review boards.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Agence RVA’s architectural team specialises in creative multifamily housing projects. We are involved in the design and construction of elegant, affordable public and private sector housing developments that are either independently commissioned or result directly from our master plan proposals. We are also involved in numerous public housing rehabilitation projects. Our interventions aspire to improve the residents’ quality of life while simultaneously honouring the project’s architectural heritage. Our clients include municipalities, public and private housing developers, and public-private partnerships.

Agence RVA’s landscape architecture team specialises in large-scale urban renewal projects – from the creation of public parks, squares and streetscapes to site planning and development of residential park landscapes. We aspire to deliver site sensitive, sustainable projects that complement our architectural and planning work, positively contributing to the contemporary city and allowing for communities to thrive.

Agence RVA’s diversity – both its professionals and its projects – enrich our collective expertise and our savoir-faire. Each team member is committed to applying their unique skill-sets and experience to work for our projects, project users and clients. Our passion for and deep understanding of the power of humane and respectful environments to transform communities over time motivates our work. This same passion results in our commitment to projects from their conception, to their realisation and over the course of their lifetime.

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

Image Courtesy © Luc Boegly

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Categories: complex, House, Renovation

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