Druot, Lacaton & Vassal — Tour Bois le Prêtre

Exhibition curated by Ilka & Andreas Ruby
in collaboration with Something Fantastic,
DAM (German Architecture Museum), Frankfurt, 06.10.2012-13.01.2013, DAZ (German Architecture Center), Berlin, 15.02.2013-31.03.2013, HDA (Haus der Architecture), Graz, 27.09.2014-23.11.2014

You don’t really gain anything by demolishing an edifice and rebuilding it in the same place with a contemporary look.” In 2004 French architects Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal caused a real stir with their study “PLUS – Les grands ensembles de logements–Territoires d’exception,” proving as they did that an existing building with three to four-room apartments can be modernized and enlarged for the same amount of money that it costs to demolish and rebuild it. The proof of the proposed architecture recycling stands in the north of Paris, its 16 storeys looking out over the Boulevard Péripherique: the Tour Bois le Prêtre. Built in 1961 by Raymond Lopez as an elegant residential highrise with split-level and maisonette apartments, remodeled beyond recognition in the 1990s as part of refurbishment of the building services engineering and transformed by Druot, Lacaton & Vassal into a completely new residential building in 2001.

With just a few interventions the architects succeeded in creating larger apartments and new service facilities by converting the former oversized access zones. “It is the solution on the inside that determines the appearance on the outside,” the architects said by way of explaining their method of working. The Tour Bois Le Prêtre received a new sheath, which at the same time created new space for the small apartments. The old facade was replaced by a new one made of glass, in front of which, as with scaffolding, additional modules can be hung. These consist of winter gardens and balconies, separated from one another by floor-to-ceiling movable sun protection panels. This adds an extra 26 square meters to what was previously a 44-square meter apartment.

As was to be expected on the basis of comparable projects, the upgrading of the Tour Bois Le Prêtre did not set in motion a driving-out process among the old tenants. All the inhabitants, some of whom had been living in the building since 1959, were included in the planning processes and stayed, as the rent is still affordable. Many of Lacaton & Vassal’s projects are a contemporary answer to the demands made at the 1929 CIAM Congress, which set the standards for the “Minimum Subsistence Dwelling.” For this reason the transformation of the Tour Bois le Prêtre is more than just an architecture project. It offers architects, planners, conservationists, developers and politicians a model for the physical and social rehabilitation of the housing constructed for the masses in the 1960s and 1970s in France and elsewhere. The “plus principle” can ultimately be used for all buildings with curtain, non-load-bearing facades.

The exhibition, curated by Ilka and Andreas Ruby together with Something Fantastic, was initially held in and staged by DAM, Frankfurt, in cooperation with the European Central Bank in the context of the EUROPEAN CULTURAL DAYS France 2012. It presents the Tour Bois le Prêtre project in the form of a frieze featuring life-size (2.50-meter high) images of the apartments’ interiors, which goes all around the walls on the top floor of DAM (in total some 50 meters long). Furniture, plants, and other fittings have been placed in front of the frieze, such that the photos give visitors to the exhibition the feeling that they are actually in one of the apartments. At the same time, the living rooms represented on the walls appear to virtually enlarge Oswald Mathias Ungers’ museum space. Sitting in one of the numerous chairs, armchairs or sofas perusing the catalog to find out how this stunning transformation was possible, you almost forget that you are in a museum. For a moment you feel as if you yourself live in a 134-square meter apartment on the 14th-floor of the Tour Bois le Prêtre, with a view of Paris, a winter garden and a balcony, all for 700 euros rent.

Following the successful reception of the first installation of the exhibition by visitors and critics, Tour Bois le Prêtre continued its journey with two additional stops. From 06.10.2012 to 13.01.2013, it was presented in DAZ, Berlin, keeping the concept of creating a space that takes the visitor to the actual built project instead of representing it with conventional floor plans and models. In 2014, in a similar spirit, visitors of HDA, Graz, got the opportunity to travel to the Parisian suburb and even enter one of its high-rise apartments, without leaving their city.

→ Check out the exhibition catalog
→ Visit DAZ | DAMHDA | Something Fantastic | Lacaton & VassalFrèdèric Druot Architecture
→ Read an interview with Anne Lacaton in Der Standard
→ Read a review in Deutsche BauZeitschrift | BAUNETZWOCHE | Journal Frankfurt | Frankfurter Neue Presse