Perimeter block, courtyardPerimeter block, infill
Oberkampf Postal Workers
Borel, Frédéric | Paris, France | 1994
Image of Oberkampf ...
Street facade

ProjectOberkampf Postal Workers
ArchitectBorel, Frédéric
Address113 rue Oberkampf (11th)
Building TypePerimeter block, courtyard
Perimeter block, infill
Number of Dwellings80
Date Built1994
Dwelling Typessmall flats and duplexes
No. Floors9
Section Typeduplexes and flats
Exterior Finish
stone, glass, glass block, metal panels, metal windows
Construction TypeRC frame
Ancillary Servicespost office, shop, offices, basement parking

In 1989, the French ministry of Poste and Telecommunications started a program to provide affordable housing in Paris for young people training for careers in the Postal service. The ministry already owned several under-developed sites in several different locations in the city and the decision was made to purchase additional sites and build 1500 new apartments. A group of young architectural firms were selected to design this housing and had completed about 900 dwellings by the end of 1995. Built on scattered sites in many different parts of Paris, this is some of the more vital and interesting new housing built in the city in recent years and, since they are built on typically small infill sites, is in stark contrast to the large ZAC projects which have received so much attention in recent years.

Named “Toit et Joie”, (literally the joy of a roof), the Postal Service set out to provide larger, better, and more interesting housing than that available in typical city projects. The new apartments were to be larger than their public counterparts, but more importantly, in an effort to make a clean break with the traditional post office image, these new dwellings were to be different, with more spatial variety, a combination of flats and duplexes, better lighting, and more flexible plans to accommodate the changing family size of the typical postal trainee. Rather than selecting architects based on previous experience with similar projects, young architectural teams without post office work were selected to submit designs. Thirty-two teams were invited to design buildings and by the end of the fourth year of the program, over 600 apartments were occupied.

The new buildings are typically infill conditions in dilapidated neighborhoods on over 28 different sites in several different arrondissements. In addition to apartments, neighborhood post offices are located at the ground floor at several sites. Thus, in addition to needed housing, there is a larger concept to help rebuild the urban fabric with bright, new neighborhood post offices. Like the apartments, the post offices are modern, spacious, well lighted, functional centers that also promote the new image the Post Office seeks. The concept of trainees living above the public institutions they serve seems to be a part of the neighborhood rebuilding strategy, to make a critical government service more visible and accessible.

The projects vary in size from 15 to 124 dwellings. While the sites are also varied, many are small infill parcels in the typical Paris blocks that are usually very narrow and deep, and built to the heights and frontage of the surrounding buildings. Some of these long narrow sites extend from street to street while others front a street and extend into the interior of the block forming interior courts. Ostensibly to improve natural lighting, a strategy on several sites is to organize apartments along both sides of a narrow coulisse that extends from the street facade back into the courtyard.

Instead of the normal mix of different-sized apartments, found in most buildings, the post office dwellings are all either studio or one bedroom apartments. But, within these limitations of size, there is considerable variety. Post office apartments are about 20% larger than typical social housing in Paris. The larger size was part of a strategy to provide apartments with more interesting interiors and more flexible plans. The additional space can be used as a separate room for a baby or office. To compensate for the small size, emphasis was placed on the design of innovative interior features such as two story duplexes, apartments with unusual shapes and proportions, dwellings with high ceilings, unconventional kitchens and bathrooms, moveable partitions to allow tenant room re-arrangement, balconies, glass block and glass walls, and unusual windows and materials. Indeed the striking quality about most of the post office dwellings is the definite break they make with conventional Parisian housing not only in their external appearance, but also in the plan types and arrangements. The great variety of exterior materials such as metal panels, cast stone, glass block, windows of odd shapes and sizes, sliding shutters, shaped panels, brightly painted surfaces, odd balconies and terraces, and unusual forms all contribute to the very vibrant look of most of these buildings.

The failure of Modern Architecture to provide a good fit with existing urban neighborhoods was widely criticized in the post WWII era. By the late 1970’s, experiments with new housing forms were beginning to appear that allowed for the gradual rebuilding of existing neighborhoods and thus made a better contextual fit with the city. Buildings like Christian de Portzamparc’s Rue des Hautes-Forms project of 1979 and Henri Gaudin’s Ménilmontant Apartments of 1986 were examples of the new strategy and these examples became important models for the following generation of young architects like Frédéric Borel and the other young post office architects. Borel (who worked for Portzamparc) designed a group of apartments for the city (Régie imobilière de la Ville de Paris) on Boulevard Belleville in the 20th arrondissement in 1989 when he was only thirty. This project was awarded the 1990 Le Moniteur prize and was the first example of a new manner of very complex, formally diverse architecture that came to typify Borel’s work during this period. Belleville combined the compositional strategy of an accretive assembly of vaguely purist geometric blocks with a developing skill with computer graphics to produce a startling coulisse-like infill building on a prominent site along Boulevard Belleville.

Rue Oberkampf, is a narrow busy street in a declining neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement. Unlike the typical perimeter block formation in other parts of Paris, the îlot typology here consists of very deep blocks. The long site has a narrow frontage on Oberkampf of 20 meters, but is 87 meters deep and slopes away to the north. Like most of the new postal facilities, Oberkampf is the result of a long-range investment strategy to improve neighborhoods, using high-quality materials in the design of long-lasting, though unconventional housing.

Borel’s site strategy has been to create a very long narrow interior courtyard one end of which is a narrow building facing Oberkampf with an entrance at grade to both the apartments and the post office. This entrance overlooks a lower garden which is lined with offices and dwellings. This public entrance consists of a platform suspended in the void of the lower garden that provides a gathering space for the post office as well as an entrance for the housing. This space approximates a public entrance court. A bridge reaches this central platform over a lower courtyard for the use of the public spaces beneath the platform. A parking ramp also connects from the street to a lower garage. The Post Office occupies the entrance level and the first floor. This zone of Postal functions is expressed in the section and elevation with the use different materials and details.

The formal organization of a front pavilion that establishes a public realm facing the street that also forms a gateway to a second building enclosing a private realm around a interior garden/court is a formal idea perhaps derived from Renaissance precedents, but more specifically, the formal courtyard typologies of the French hôtel. The sequence of spaces and elements from the inflected, symmetrical upper part of the Oberkampf façade and the sectional development of the entrance spaces, to the defined interior garden/courts is quintessentially hôtel-like in character. The outward thrust of the street façade contrasts with the inward movement toward the garden creating a developed dialectic between façade and court. The raised platform overlooking the exaggerated perspective of the truncated, encapsulated courtyard below, forms a framed view of an exotic miniature landscape planted with bamboo, lined with the reflective shiny surfaces of the flush metal walls and populated with two miniature vertical residential towers that stand as objects in the garden

In addition to the façade/court dialogue, Borel uses an unusual collection of forms, details, and materials. The concave symmetry of the upper street façade is also an assemblage of all kinds of architectural forms: fins, slots, cantilevered balconies, huge 3-story high framed openings, and recessed glazed slots. This complex layered construction levitates above the open entrance seeming unsupported either at the base or the sides and extends outward beyond the virtual boundaries of the street surface. The recessed lower floors are finished in dark stone and glass block, in contrast to the rich pallet of materials of the upper floors: limestone, painted metal panels, stainless steel, glass block, flush frameless glass, aluminum curtain walls with alternating clear and translucent glass. Similar varied materials are used in the structures lining the garden including polished black granite, plaster, the flush metal walls on the western wall, and a variety of window types; vertical and horizontal slots, flush and recessed glass, corner windows, curtain walls, and clerestory windows. The use of curved and shaped surfaces, fins, a turreted roof element, wings, the deflected granite wall to the right of the entrance and the curved projecting crown at the top and generally, the reflective, flush, machined quality of the exterior finishes of Borel’s buildings give them an almost aeronautical quality. Repetitive structure and bearing walls have given way to an architecture of surface, stressed skin, and floating elements; sections of wings, ailerons and giant vertical rudders that seem to defy structural analysis. Exterior walls have a fuselage-like quality and principles of statics seem to have been replaced by those of lift and speed resulting in a certain sense of les facades technologiques.

Oberkampf follows the solid-void massing of adjacent blocks. Typically the deep block is developed with an 8-story building fronting the street with narrow lower wings extending along the sides to the rear forming a long open space on the interior of the block. This space is divided into two courtyards that are separated by taller elements that project partially into the courtyard space. In Borel’s interpretation of this court/garden typology, two narrow, free-standing, truncated towers separate the two courtyards defining a forecourt that is overlooked from the entrance terrace along the street, and a rear court that is more private and residential and partially shielded from view by the towers. The two towers are taller and thus partially extend the height of the street block into the space of the garden. This combination of spaces and architectonic elements defines a sophisticated scenographic tour that is developed in plan and section. Beginning with the symmetrical raised street façade and the open public entrance loggia overlooking the garden, entrances to the Post Office and apartments above, the stairs connect to the garden level, and through the garden itself. The bridge and light-well in the ceiling of the loggia, the forced perspective of the flanking walls of the garden, the path through the lower levels of the garden, the two towers that form an aperture between the two garden spaces and a glimpse beyond to the rear terraced garden all contribute to this visual promenade

The 80 dwellings in Oberkampf represent an unusually diverse range of apartment types and sizes, reflecting the complex massing and plan organization of the site. In addition to the flats on the upper floors of the 8- story street block, there are several other discrete building elements that line the sides of the garden. The street block is organized around a truncated central light well as a point-access block. The service core for this element has a plan that looks like the cross-section of an airplane wing at the bottom three floors transforming into a stair and elevator block on the upper levels. Long narrow extensions of this central block, reflecting the spatial divisions of the street façade, extend into the courtyard forming an 8-story element on the west and a lower 4-story block on the east. These two narrow blocks face the garden and are connected diagonally by a bridge at the 4th floor. The two small towers are 7 and 8 floors high, supported on single piers above the floor of the garden, and are independently accessed with only one room per floor. The buildings around the rear courtyard terrace in section and are 3 floors in height but step up to the height of the taller elements lining the garden. The side wings define a variety of very long narrow apartments that face the garden. The towers contain studios and apartments and are several floors in height.

Oberkampf might be seen as the deluxe version of Belleville with an even more elaborate and perplexing facade, a neighborhood post office instead of street-level shops, and an even more elongated, deep site that encloses a landscaped garden. The garden is lined with a bewildering accretion of disparate forms, spaces and materials, with flying bridges, reversed truncated polygon towers, and various repetitive aeronautical forms. The other Post Office apartments really don't approach Borel’s virtuoso performance or his manipulation of an elaborate pallet of forms and materials, and indeed, many seem to be concerned with making a more compatible contextual relationship with the surrounding city. Still,the exuberant quality of Oberkampf seems to set the tone for the whole Post Office 1500 dwellings program.

Andrea Gleiniger, Gerhard Matzig, Sebastian Redecks, Paris Contemporary Architecture, Prestel, Munich, 1997, pp. 104-111.

Herve Martin, Guide to Modern Architecture in Paris, Éditions Alternatives, Paris, 1996, p. 84.

GA Houses, No. 42, June, 1994, pp. 148-55.

Architecture d'aujourd'hui, 1994, Sept, No. 294, pp. 72-77.

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