Ecology, sociality of architecture
and pleasure of living

A pioneer of timber frame architecture, Iwona Buczkowska makes the case for the construction qualities of wood as well as the pleasure that it gives to its residents. They provide configurations that are both family-friendly and intimate, open, and collective. Iwona Buczkowska views housing as the point of convergence between ecology and sociality. Building on this domestic equation, she questions the city and its developments in a time of the necessary ecological transition, hoping that the lessons of thrift and community will inform its future.

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Iwona Buczkowska, housing in the Pierre-Sémard district, 1986 - 1996, ("La Piece pointue") in Blanc-Mesnil (225 social housing, shops, artists' studios, underground car parks). DR

Iwona Buczkowska
Architect and Urban planner

29 May 2021
11 min.
Escape the big cities… (if we have the means to do so). There’s the conclusion of the year 2020, an enduring conclusion…
Covid-19 and the heat waves demonstrate how spatially inadequate our modern architectural and urban solutions are: standardized places with poor use value; pedestrian flows reduced to overly compact circulations, going only one way and therefore dictated; crowded housing solely devoted to basic functionalities (eating, sleeping, sitting in front of the TV set, and so on), where the relationship to the outside comes down to, in the best case scenario, a tiny balcony to keep a few bottles of beer cool during the winter, as well as a few potted plants during the summer, but that don’t allow any activity…
Though the pandemic was impossible to predict, the inadequacy of our cities has, however, been extensively described, notably in Thierry Paquot’s Désastres urbains [Urban Disasters] (La Découverte, 2015) and La Folie des hauteurs [Delusions of Height] (François Bourin, 2008). What could we expect from large urban centers dominated by commercialism and financial speculation? Given this context, the utopian community vision, rarely achieved, remains fully relevant today.

Everyone dreams of a city that, in a friendly and protective gesture, could take care of its residents under all circumstances, of homes that go beyond the mere notion of heated shelters, and that bring emotions and pleasure.
“The city is like some large house, and the house in turn like some a small city, cannot the various parts of the house …. be considered miniature buildings?”[1] Leon Battista Alberti’s phrase was to be “restated, four centuries later, in practically identical terms, [by] the first theoretician of urbanism, Ildefonso Cerdà.”[2] 
Using different words, Aldo van Eyck also embraced the concept of the “city as house and house as city:” “tree is leaf and leaf is tree – city is house and house is city – a tree is a tree but it is also a huge leaf – a leaf is a leaf, but it is also a tiny tree – a city is not a city unless it is also a huge house – a house is a house only if it is also a tiny city.[3]
Citizens/city dwellers and their comfort and pleasure are central to this humane thinking based on respect and paying attention to people. And yet, though the word “cell” is currently used almost as a synonym for apartment, referring (no doubt, unconsciously) to prison cells or cancer cells, it demonstrates to what extent the precious balance between city and house is difficult to achieve.
Without indulging in the nostalgia of old cities, their complexity and the attention that was paid to people, served, in certain cases, as a lesson. Such is the case of Apricale, a small pedestrian hillside hamlet in Val Nervia, in Liguria. At the highest point of the village is a landscaped terrace, the prince’s. Then comes a small stone piazza, and further down, another, both with their own church. These three terraces are arranged in close visual proximity. Seven narrow streets converge towards the center of the village, though they aren’t readily seen in aerial imagery because its residents have chosen—perhaps also due to seismic issues or the tricky terrain—to gradually build over the streets and alleys as families expanded, producing a chiaroscuro effect. Passersby are thus sheltered from the rain in the winter and from the heat in the summer. Genoa’s Teatro della Tosse chose to use this natural setting of squares and alleys as a venue for its August performances, clearly because it is conducive to communication and exchange. Pleasant and useful at the same time.

The village of Apricale, located on a dominated slope at an altitude of 291 m, overlooks the valley of Merdanzo, Italy. DR
The twentieth century bequeathed the modern movement to us, with its architecture that is often authoritarian, segregative, and hygienic. Criticized during the CIAM X congress, held in 1956 in Dubrovnik by Team 10, a group including the likes of Aldo van Eyck, Peter Smithson, Jaap Bakema, Giancarlo De Carlo, and so on, resulted in a first response: a complexity of fabrics with “high densities and low heights.” The second response, expounded by Moshe Safdie, Yona Friedman, Jean Renaudie, Herman Hertzberger, Piet Blom, Claude Parent, and Team Zoo in Japan, amongs others, is released from the geometric constraints of orthogonality. They aimed for “labyrinthine clarity” in design, mixed functions and social composition, a plurality of geometries, freedom of choice in the forms of housing, and so on, as well as garden terraces, where each housing unit features a planted terrace with full in-ground beds, thereby returning to nature the exact surface area of the urbanized plots. There weren’t tiny balconies providing patterns and rhythms to the façades, but the natural outwards extension of the house: a real room to live in during the summer months, so valuable in a dense city under lockdown… Reserved during past centuries to princely residences, the garden terraces showcased by Jean Renaudie at the neighborhood scale for social housing, though they were taken up later on by a few architects, haven’t found the place that they deserve in architectural design over the past decades. This is something that is now greatly to be regretted. 

Our experience of the months of Covid-19 shows us how much we need nature, social connections, shared warmth, and interactions with “others.”

Though obvious, as is the urgent necessity of a green revolution, this is now justified not only by the medium-term prospects of climate change, generalized pollution, and loss of biodiversity and geological wealth, but has also become a priority in the face of the threat of new genocidal pandemics.

I tried developing these two aspects—ecology on one side, and the sociality of architecture on the other—through my projects related to social housing, public facilities, and development schemes for vast neighborhoods, by promoting the sense of community, including for individual housing units, advocating for a sensible life in interaction with the natural or urban environment. Above all, community means to communicate, to exchange, to interact. It acts as a unifying thread that can contribute to an uncluttered structure—the most elegant solution to the problems at stake. Giving heed to the neighboring road network, the plurality of pedestrian routes, and to the connections between different zones, in a subtle way, is also to pay attention to the spatial and social relations within the buildings, within the houses, the photo-negative empty volumes of which will shape the outside. Everything “comes” from inside, from the core, from man. It is not so much a case of making physical contacts possible as of enabling people to see one another, visually breaking the distance in order to generate, following Maurizio Vitta, “another type of relationship between the house and its resident.” If we are to believe Italo Calvino, “the world wants to look and be looked at the same instant.”

The central green place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska The central green place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska
A small paved place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska A small paved place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska
A small red place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska A small red place, 2021. © Iwona Buczkowska
The central square and its different levels, 1996. DR The central square and its different levels, 1996. DR
Internal streets, 1996. DR Internal streets, 1996. DR
Covered passages, 1996. DR Covered passages, 1996. DR
The goal was to develop pedestrian neighborhoods, private and public gardens, terraces, large and small squares, multi-purpose “all-wood” buildings with a ground floor that could accommodate artists’ studios, workshops, professional services, shops, and so on, the tenants and owners of which would live in the upper floors (working in favor of reduced commuting times). Each of the housing units is different. Their many façades and varied orientations break up the monotony of the single vantage point, multiplying framed landscape views, through the roof and towards the sky, or with a floor sloping towards the ground. The housing units are deployed on several levels around a central void demarcated by oblique beams, and enjoy overhead natural lighting, terraces, and gardens. One can do some gardening, nature finds its way within, and there’s never a dull moment. Over the course of the day, natural light enters from many different directions, including from above. The apartments include “excess” volumes and surface that could be further increased (the sloped spaces with a height of less than 1.80 meters that could be made use of aren’t taken into account in the rental price calculation). Thanks to the proliferation of mezzanines, getting some intimacy is easy, all the while maintaining visual contact if desired. Users flow fluidly, and the diversity of rooms drives users towards self-empowerment and inclusion. These are spaces that breathe, that are sculpted by light. Outside, vegetation takes over, transforming the landscaped areas into forests—the building’s architecture acts as an intermediary, opening up multiple perspectives.

Housing on several levels with multiple mezzanines, Iwona Buczkowska, housing in the Pierre-Sémard district. DR
In an article in Télérama, François Granon examined the “all-wood” neighborhood at Le Blanc-Mesnil, wondering if they were apartments or houses, and concluding, jocularly, that from the standpoint of an architect, they were in fact both at the same time. Because, between the high-rises erected around the elevators and the detached suburban houses the French so much adore due to their gardens, without perceiving how unsightly a lot of them are,[4] there are other solutions combining the benefits of both collective and individual housing.
In some architecture schools, the theme of collective housing is sparsely covered. As much unloved by faculty as by students, the latter because of how overly standardized it is, it is covered over scarcely a university term during their undergraduate studies. Nothing more than a cursory primer is passed on to students, which they will not be in a capacity to either delve into or to tailor over the course of their studies. The notion of the “pleasure of living” is rarely the focus for reflection. Interesting buildings do exist and could serve as a reference, though, when related to the overall housing production, they are scarce. Shouldn’t we be driving students to make a wider use of their imaginations in their housing projects and to break with the mechanical application of the standard images that surround us? In any case, that’s what Harvard University has decided to do, as I’ve witnessed when taking part in the very interesting studio presentation on dual-use building projects for post-pandemic housing under the direction of architect Farshid Moussavi.

Iwona Buczkowska, housing of the “Longs Sillons” complex in Ivry sur Seine (96 social housing, shops and workshops, City meeting room, underground car parks). DR
Many of us are reflecting on the post-Covid-19 city: will it find the necessary impetus to transform as it once did after outbreaks of cholera, the plague, malaria, or tuberculosis? Installing an aqueduct in Philadelphia, laying sidewalks, improving public transport, tracing boulevards, regulating housing development (in New York), developing “green lungs” in order to drive away the “bad air” through wide, open spaces, as with Central Park in New York. These are a few solutions that were implemented during past centuries in response to the epidemics of the time. It is now urgent to protect air quality in our large cities, to rethink urban transport by decreasing the impact of cars, to decrease densities, to place more emphasis on plants, and, concurrently, to redesign the standardized cell. In short, revolutionizing the way we produce the city. Indeed, though space alone isn’t enough to define architecture, and though relevant research should neglect no factor (urban, social, economic, or technical), the fact remains that “interior space,” the area that surrounds us, “understands” and includes us, is the main criterion for the appreciation of a building, and acts as the litmus test for all esthetic conclusions (see Bruno Zevi).
And the few such places that exist, thanks to the efforts of architects, building owners, and contractors, must be protected and maintained, rather than considered for demolition in spite of the opposition of many professionals and residents. Alas! Their opinions matter very little in the face of financial speculation that uses the “Greater Paris” as an excuse, to the greening developed here and there, to those few certifications to be collected—as if the well-being procedured by a given space could be boiled down to a simple sum of technical labels. Nor the city, nor the “cell,” its basic building block, can be reduced to this poverty of uses without collateral damage. Isabelle Regnier recently condemned “an urban marketing ploy” and the “laying waste of urban oases” in Le Monde[5]. In an interview given to the same newspaper, Jean-Philippe Vassal states that the concept of “sustainable architecture” must start first with by maintaining existing buildings rather than by demolition[6].

At a time when we are considering the post-pandemic, we must question our built environment and, in particular, the housing we live in.

While students from Harvard University are examining new ways of living, drawing from my “all-wood” neighborhood at Le Blanc-Mesnil after visiting it, among other places, this iconic project, transformed thirty-five years after completion into a continuous park, lauded by its residents, is currently slated for demolition, with no compelling reason, other than purely commercial motives. No one is a prophet in their own land!

Cities aren’t urban planning, then architecture, then landscape. Making the city demands addressing these three areas simultaneously from the early stages of conception as the whole program is concerned. Could we remove the landscape from Frank Lloyd Wright’s projects? Too narrow a specialization in the making of the city doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful outcome. It is up to the architects to bring together multidisciplinary approaches in order to enhance their buildings through a sensitive treatment of its outdoor areas. The negative image of our cities and the feeling of discomfort that certain large urban centers can cause won’t change without calling into question its building block: the cell. Cities must give us pleasure. The pleasure of moving around, working there, residing there, dreaming there—quite simply, the pleasure of living there.

1. Leon Battista Alberti, De re æædificatoria [On the Art of Building] (1485), Book One: Lineaments, chap. 9. Translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, Robert Tavernor. Boston: MIT Press, 1988.
2. Françoise Choay.
3.  Aldo van Eyck, “Tree is Leaf and Leaf is Tree” (1962), diagram.
4. Regarding their origin, see Monique Eleb and Lionel Engrand, La Maison des Français. Discours, imaginaires, modèles (1918-1970) (Mardaga, 2020).
5. Isabelle Regnier, “‘Verdir’ Paris pour les JO 2024, une ruse du marketing urbain”, Le Monde, March 15, 2021.
6. «“Prix Pritzker 2021 pour Anne Lacaton et Jean-Philippe Vassal : ‘Partout dans le monde, il y a cette folie de détruire,’” interviewed by Isabelle Regnier, Le Monde, March 16, 2021.

Iwona Buczkowska
Polish-born architect and urban planner Iwona Buczkowska designs spaces of conviviality and surprise. Since 2017, the social housing project and Le Blanc-Mesnil and the Collège Pierre Sémard in Bobigny have been made an integral part of French contemporary architectural heritage and have joined the collections of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine at the Palais de Chaillot. An exhibition focusing on the Le Blanc-Mesnil project was held in this museum between October 2016 and April 2017, and a selection of her works are currently on display in the permanent gallery exhibitions on modern and contemporary architecture. Her work has been recognized by many publications and prizes, including the Gold Medal and Special Prize at the V World Biennale of Architecture Interarch ‘89 in Sofia, the silver medal and Prix Delarue from the French Académie d’architecture in 1994, and the Prix Grand Public de l’Architecture for the Île-de-France region in 2003.