Here is a wonderful and inspiring example of how a 1960s social housing block in Paris called Tour Bois-le-Pretre has been transformed through a remarkable renovation effort. Three French architects – Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal – had the foresight and imagination to propose an inspired alternative to demolition: one that would give each apartment more natural light, more space and cut energy costs.
Tour Bois-le-Pretre was designed by the French architect Raymond Lopez and completed in the early 1960s. It is 50 metres high and has 16 storeys. The tower originally had 96 apartments but the recent renovation has added another four units.
In 1990 the original facade was unsympathetically renovated to improve insulation. Not only did this the give the building an unattractive appearance, more severely it reduced the amount of natural light entering each apartment. (To minimise heat loss, apartments were fitted with smaller windows.)
Then in 2005, Paris Habitat, the Paris Office for Public Housing, ran a competition to renovate the building. One of the competition constraints was that the building could not be expanded to take up more land: any renovation would need to keep to the building’s existing foorprint.
The competition was won by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal. They proposed removing the facade of each apartment and bolting on glass balconies or “winter gardens” (similar to a conservatory). The winter gardens measure 7.5 by 3 metres and have been attached to the outside of the tower block without altering the original structure.
In each apartment the living room has been fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors. These doors lead into the winter garden. The result is an increase in the amount of natural light and the amount of usable space. You can see the remarkable transformation this has had on the apartments in the before-and-after pictures below.
The ground floor reception or lobby area has also been renovated and two new lifts installed.
Remarkably, all this cost less than demolishing the tower and building again from scratch. The final cost of the renovation was €11.2 million. It was estimated that demolition and building a new structure would have cost at least €20 million.
The architects involved the residents closely with the new design and uniquely the residents remained in the tower block during renovation instead of being re-housed elsewhere.
The renovation of Bois-le-Pretre has generated a lot of interest and deservedly so. Here in Britain, the parallels are obvious. We have many unloved 1960s and 70s housing estates that prompt the same question: can renovation rehabilitate these estates, or do we demolish them? Architects don’t always argue persuasively about the design and quality of the living spaces in these unpopular housing blocks. The abstract architectural language sometimes used to defend these estates leaves the public cold and unconvinced (see the post on Robin Hood Gardens for an example of this).
I greatly admire the ambitions of the architects who worked on this renovation. Although they undoubtedly wished to make the appearance of the building more pleasant (and the facade is indeed attractive), from the outset their principal concern was to improve the living conditions of the residents. Their focus was therefore on the features that would do this such as more space and more natural light for each apartment. This is a refreshing change from many housing projects where greater effort seems to be expended on the facade than the quality of the interior spaces.
You can see many more photos of Tour Bois-le-Pretre on the websites of the architects Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal:
Interview with the architects – a short video interview in French (with English subtitles)
Daylight & Architecture: Issue 16 (PDF, 6.6 mb)
A magazine by Velux which features an excellent article on Tour Bois-le-Pretre on page 59. Also included are interviews with two residents of the block.
“The transformation of the Bois le Prêtre tower is causing a stir in the Parisian landscape. Its visual impact has opened up a sensitive debate on the economic and architectural issues involved in revamping existing social housing stock. The project shows the spectacular results that can be achieved when performance and pleasure are introduced to a building where these features have never been known.”
Transformation of Tour Bois-le-Pretre
An overview of Tour Bois-le-Pretre from a 2010 exhibition at the MOMA in New York (this was when the renovation was underway but before it had completed).