City from and by Housing

The urban conditions of agile cities are based on the combination of two objectives: producing quality of living, with situations of high comfort, and densifying territories. These ambitions must remain interdependent and simultaneous. It is no longer possible to aspire to urban evolution without questioning the reasons for living and staying in cities. We view defending the pleasure of living as something highly political. Spatial generosity is the starting point for a possible social life.
To transform the city is first to transform the way we look at it. This means looking at the city as a collection of capacities and of energies to be expanded, and not as an inert mass to be modeled. It is to consider it as an agglomeration of activities and living spaces.

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Transformation of the Tour Bois le Prêtre, Paris 17th district, Anne Lacaton & Jean-Philippe Vassal with Frédéric Druot, architects, Paris Habitat, client, 2011. © Philippe Ruault

Frédéric Druot

Anne Lacaton

Jean-Philippe Vassal

01 May 2021
10 min.
“Extraordinary” responses are needed in terms of the quality of housing.

In Priority
All existing situations should be made remarkable. This entails focusing primarily on what is unloved, loathed, disastrous, or unfinished—everything “sensitive.”
Urban disparity should not be increased through emblematic and isolated actions, but rather, the functions and pleasures of the city should be rebalanced.

At the same time
New housing must be built, synchronously with the transformation of any units in “fragile” situations and the adaptation of “unfinished” functional territories.
Ask simple questions: is there everything needed there?  what is lacking ?

The endeavor focuses on precision, finesse, kindness, and care: attention to people, uses, constructions, trees, asphalt surfaces, bugs, everything that exists and that has to this day served to shelter, guide, bring together, or charm.

All geographies are considered with equal attention, and the capacity for development and transformation of each as-built situation and serviced plot of land is looked into.

Inventories, a Tool of Knowledge
A comprehensive and accurate inventory of data, needs, and conditions is aimed at collecting information and parameters beyond the usual generic terms: housing, urban form, zoning…
It examines factual situations, lists needs on a case-by-case basis, focuses on the diversity of scales, characters, constraints, regulations, absences, difficulties and possibilities.

The inventory is based on the expertise already marshalled by urban stakeholders and drives it further.

Enlarged apartment with winter garden, existing interior preserved © Philippe Ruault
• There should never be any demolishing or undoing, but only additive reinforcing of the balance of existing urban organizations.
• Nothing alive should be cut through.
• Investments should be allocated between carrying out improvements and new constructions, so that everyone can directly benefit from public intervention.
• Housing should be detached from its social and financial classifications.
• Housing as a “financial product” should be vigorously opposed in order to match supply and needs. • The generosity of use that has been missing in housing for over fifty years should be restored.

Urban Unit of Measure
The urban unit of measure is housing. Not housing in general, but one house or one apartment. In other words, a continued focus on content, multiplied nine thousand times, fifty thousand times, seven hundred thousand times…

It is urbanism as extension, committed to making the entire existing territory compatible with its essential rights of use: accommodation, freedom of mobility and access, the right to a remarkable environment, serenity, and security.
The city is conceived as a series of situations to be prolonged and mobilities. Living well; feeling well in one’s bedroom, living room, landing, or doorstep; being located close to services and shops; feeling well when walking through the park; meeting and mingling with people…
Any intention of densification must be closely tied to this strategy of connections, convenience, continuity between the quality of interiors, shared spaces, and public spaces.

To densify means to provide more space and certainly not to compress individual space. Giving added capacity to housing and enabling residents to experience countless situations, both ordinary and extraordinary. Freedom, mobility, porosity, and generosity must form the foundation of any discussion of densification.
Densifying meticulously, extending existing situations, and not wasting land all involve pursuing a strategy consisting of superimposing, abutting, and exploiting proximity in order to agglomerate, expand, and add on a case-by-case basis.

For the urban strategy to work, housing must move well beyond current standards, be an object of greed, envy, and jealousy. An ode to serenity. Housing must bring the well-being of people to preeminence and be the first bulwark against the lack of love of unfinished territories.
No housing construction strategy can be developed without redefining and sharing exacting ambitions regarding housing quality. New objectives must be set, redefining housing, its needs, its services, and its landscape.
The living space must be generous, comfortable, easily appropriated, economical, fluid, flexible, bright, scalable, “luxurious” even. It must allow the simplest uses: eating, working, resting, withdrawing, welcoming and hosting friends, hanging out the laundry, playing music, tinkering, parking one’s bike or car, watching one’s orchids grow.
The living space must not contain any obstacle to mobility.

Winter garden + balcony added to the existing building © Philippe Ruault
Surfaces and Dimensions
The surface area of a home is the one we have in front of us.
The freedom of use it generates is related to its size, to the perpetual possibilities that its layout provides without ever interrupting movement or the perspective on another situation.
In order to support freedom of use, housing must be significantly larger than current standards for living areas, which are increasingly constrained and restricted.
Large spaces give us a vital sense of freedom and escape. Enlarging doesn’t mean wasting spaces, but rather, inventing space.
The idea isn’t to come up with new housing types by arbitrarily fixing the size of each room, but rather, to set design objectives that go beyond programmatic functionality to generate real benefits in terms of the use of living spaces.
To achieve the levels of living comfort everyone is now expecting, increasing the surface of three-room apartments to 100 m2 (1,076 sq.ft) or more would therefore not be unwise.

Fluidity, Mobility
Beyond increasing the functional dimensions of each room, mobility should be organized in their layout.

A space that allows freedom of use for its occupants generates the possibility of :
• offering at least two options for movement in all rooms,
• having at least one option for movement towards an outside space,
• benefiting from outside spaces where proper plantations can be maintained and furniture fits comfortably,
• moving from one functional room to another through intermediary useful space,
• giving, on every floor of the building, the possibility of going from inside to outside, as in a single-story house, with a maximum amount of façade openings amounting for instance to twenty linear meters in a three-room apartment configuration.

Design, Structures, and Envelopes
In order to meet these requirements in terms of comfort, flexibility, and convenience, the building systems to be implemented demand structural efficiency and cost control.
Frame structure (columns, beams, and floors) are preferred as they allow the following:
• changes in floor occupancy and layouts, between housing, offices, activities
• achieving much larger spans than in traditional systems, as the lesser number of load-bearing points provides higher versatility and adaptability, as well as authorizing free, unconstrained partitioning
• erecting buildings offering a large surface area at minimal cost.

Climate, Energy, and Use
The envelope must contribute significantly to exchanges with the private spaces (winter garden, balcony, terrace).
It should help create an indoor environment, through intermediate spaces handling the nexus between the inside and the outside, passively generating energy savings, and providing additional use surfaces to the housing unit.
External wall insulation, waterproofed façades, dual-flow ventilation, and limited glazing surfaces are gimmicks at odds with good housing design, undependable contrivances pushed on us to cloud our judgement.

Services, Convenience, Environmen
Beyond the intimate spaces are common areas (stairs, elevators, halls) serving a limited number of homes. There are also parking lots, a car park that is structurally incorporated within the construction area and that could be eventually used for something else, a full range of functionalities necessary for the daily life of each resident.
Housing must be considered in a comprehensive manner, including in the real estate grouping, service facilities, activities, workspaces, and shops. Proximity to these conveniences is essential. Housing must be easy to live in, capable of providing answers to daily needs, and consolidating social organization by maintaining simple neighborhood relations and urban interaction.

Program Flexibility
The structure and design of the homes must ensure that areas are allocated in a very scalable manner, thereby expanding the adaptation of the types of accommodation and the programs. The notion of flexibility is an alternative to the intuitive programming that has produced, to date, an inadequate supply, poorly suited to housing needs, as well as the sectorization of urban functionalities in spite of the original intentions in terms of functional and social diversity. Zoning strategies have largely contributed to this loss of urban efficiency.

Two Approaches to Flexibility
For Existing Collective Housing :
Flexible design and structured layout are leveraged for every new housing unit resulting from the extension of existing housing to ensure the adaptability and upgradeability of its residential capabilities.
Though mainly intended for housing, the needs of local shops and activities ranging from leisure to academic support and professionals are catered for within apartment buildings on the ground floor and the floor above, with all other floors reserved to residential units.
For New Housing Sites:
“Capable structures” must be created. All new surfaces, without exception, must comply with the programming of housing, offices, retail, and public venues.
This arrangement can be considered a built land reserve, assignable according to actual, specific needs.

Adjustment Variables
Looking into the structural nature of housing buildings is to imagine a thousand ways of investing in built organizations, a thousand types of developments and finishes, a thousand possible functional and economic offers. It is to imagine the freedom of adapting easily to varying or unspecified needs.
It also means establishing readily-available built heritage made up of constructions that are, at a minimum, defined by an open structure, high-performance floors, an efficient facade envelope offering maximum natural light, a precise and efficient network distribution, and tight cost savings, all capable of achieving a variety of features, either immediately or in the long run.
A home or an office can be delivered finished or in shell condition. A home can be transformed into an office or a doctor’s office. In the same way, 100 m2 of offices can become a dwelling.
This intention to ensure program flexibility requires adapting building permits and taxation regulations.

New winter garden in front of the existing living room © Philippe Ruault
Housing must provide other benefits than those inherent in its basic function and include, on top of its living space, additional private areas: winter garden, terrace and balcony, unassigned spaces.
This necessary benefit can be estimated as amounting to an area equivalent to at least an additional 50% of the living area.
A villa is a home that expresses the pleasure and freedom of living. It offers clearances, differentiated uses, mobility.
A villa is a useful dwelling, a piece of land conceived as an accessible extension, a territorial environment enhanced with services and practical facilities.
A villa entails an often pleasurable management of a large area by a private owner. Urban housing must replicate and meet these objectives while optimizing the land area.

The efficiency and density of the construction must allow for the construction of larger apartments on a much smaller area of land.
More space in homes, and a more targeted public territory.
We advocate the absence of preconceived ideas regarding the territory and matter in order to work with what is directly available. Make do. Using a former warehouse, a building block, an urban void, possible grants. Act on all existing opportunities without any preconceived notion, though with watchful care. Our approach in transforming existing structures reflects this efficiency. Never start from scratch, but optimize a situation and open it up to something completely different.
We view economy as a driver of freedom, efficiency, precision, and accuracy that makes it possible to enhance the experience of the place, to build generosity. Taking it into account as a project avoids giving in to the culture of urban composition, and to permanently leave behind all certainty, all esthetic biais. De facto, relevance has authority over modeling.
The overall economy must simultaneously focus on housing and public space. Public space and private space must be deployed differently, allocating the maximum surface area to private use. Limiting roads and urban networks to the strict minimum, occasionally introducing a touch of private management of the public domain, especially for areas located at the foot of collective buildings, which are typically characterized by uncertain responsibilities and occupancy. Including within the same building housing, services, parking, convenience stores. Optimizing land use and the calibration of networks to improve cost-efficiency. Considering the architectures, the roads and networks as an advance on the upcoming economy. Making the rents attractive and collective urban housing competitive compared with suburban individual housing.
The overall economy must simultaneously focus on building new housing and transforming existing housing. In the case of individual or collective private property, the profit made by creating additional surfaces must help finance the transformations.
By adjusting public and private economies, adding and complementing, the challenge will be to tackle, in the same movement and with the same ambition, the existing “disenchanted” housing and new housing units, and to bring all housing, both transformed and new, to an exceptional use quality.

In the book "Paris Habitat" published by the Pavillon de l'Arsenal in 2015, under the direction of Javier Arpa, architect and guest scientific curator.

Frédéric Druot
Architect Frédéric Druot graduated from École d’Architecture de Bordeaux (Gironde) in 1984, was a partner at Épinard Bleu from 1987 to 1990, and founded Frédéric Druot Architecture in Paris in 1991. His work has received widespread recognition, including the 2011 Prix de l’Équerre d’argent for the rehabilitation of the residential high-rise Tour Bois-Le-Prêtre in Paris with the LACATON&VASSAL practice, and the 2019 Mies van der Rohe Award for the innovative renovation of the Grand Parc social housing blocks in Bordeaux, with LACATON&VASSAL and Christophe Hutin.

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal
After graduating from École d’Architecture de Bordeaux (Gironde) in 1980, they founded the LACATON&VASSAL practice in 1987. The firm won top honors at the 1991 Albums de la Jeune Architecture, was awarded the 1999 Grand prix national de l’architecture Jeune talent, the 2008 Grand prix national de l’Architecture, the 2011 Prix de l’Équerre d’argent for the rehabilitation of the residential high-rise Tour Bois-Le-Prêtre in Paris with Frédéric Druot, the 2019 Mies van der Rohe Award for the renovation of the Grand Parc social housing blocks in Bordeaux, with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin, and the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize.