CourtyardPerimeter block, infillSlab, point-access
De Meaux
Piano, Renzo, Building Workshop | Paris, France | 1991
Image of De Meaux
View along rue de Meaux

ProjectDe Meaux
ArchitectPiano, Renzo, Building Workshop
Address64, rue de Meaux, (19th)
Building TypeCourtyard
Perimeter block, infill
Slab, point-access
Number of Dwellings220
Date Built1991
Dwelling Types40 diff. types of flats, typically 2-3 bra. flats
No. Floors5
Section Typeflats
Exterior Finish
precast concrete, terra cotta, metal windows and blinds
Construction TypeR-C frame w/precast conc. ext. cladding with glass inserts
Ancillary Servicesbalconies, a few shops along the street

This project is an unusual example of an architect who enjoys an international reputation for the application of advanced technology to large institutional buildings, applying this expertise to the design of low cost housing. While the complex is similar to other social housing being constructed in Paris, the application of a prefabricated system of exterior panels made of fiberglass-reinforced concrete and terra cotta cladding is a radical departure from typical habitation bon marche construction. This courtyard group of 220 apartments is an infill project in a district of typically varied blocks in a very dense part of the 19th arrondissement and was designed for Regie Immobiličre de la Ville de Paris (RIVP), one the city agencies responsible for the construction of social housing. Although the prefabricated panels used for exterior cladding are very different from older buildings in the neighborhood, the new buildings are still responsive to the existing context. The height and alignment of the neighboring buildings is respected and the new project is divided into discreet elements that refer the original parcelization of the block and continue the line of storefronts along the street. The creation of an inner landscaped garden court is an idea derived from the typical block typology-solid along the street and open space on the interior of the block-here is defined as a private space for the residents.

The 6-story high street facade continues the height of adjacent buildings except for the tall mansard roofs and attic dormers and is organized as three discreet point-access blocks defining two open portals to the garden. The end blocks are wider than the interior garden and extend beyond the width of the garden walls to connect to adjacent buildings and spaces and to provide space for light and some security for dwellings facing to the sides. The street facade is composed of alternating 3 and 4 bay modules reflecting the very modular plan organization and the system of exterior panels which are attached to the traditional concrete frame. Two 2-story high entrances in the end blocks are the entrance for the parking at one end and a gate for a maintenance area for city vehicles at the other. This two story high zone, alternates between continuous glazed and screened openings with the plane of glass recessed behind the zone of the surface panels, and the terra cotta panels which are used on the upper floors. On the four dwelling levels above, narrow windows alternate with wider solid panels so that the pattern of solid used on the bottom floors is reversed on the top thus minimizing the number of windows facing the street. While most of the apartments in the building are designed to have frontage on both sides of the building, in the 6-story wall along the street, is a double-loaded type and dwellings face either the street or the garden.

The garden forms a tranquil inner realm removed from the hustle and bustle of the street. 120 birch trees form a diaphanous canopy of foliage above a flagrant mat of honeysuckle that is interrupted only by narrow paved walks. The courtyard steps gradually about one full level from front to rear. The seven story walls at the sides and rear of the courtyard are organized around lobbies facing the garden wand two apartments per floor organized in an alternating pattern of structural bays, wide for the living areas and narrow for sleeping and service zones. The sides of the courtyard walls step in section to the exterior edge of the block thus providing small terraces. In contrast to the closed nature of the street facade, apartment windows, open porches, and the glazed and screened glazing of the stairs dominate the garden. There are 40 different apartment types in the building including a row of duplexes on the top floors and studio apartments with mezzanines along the first floor. The dwellings in the stepped section range in size and have small terraces on the outside edge of the block as the building steps back, and small "loggias", screened porches off the living areas facing the garden. The modular quality of both the plan organization and the system of prefabricated panels is very apparent on the garden facades and results in a repetitive but varied composition.

While the general fit of the complex to the site and the landscaped garden were important innovations, it is the application of the exterior panel system that draws most attention to this project. The Piano Workshop was experimenting with prefabricated panels for use as an exterior cladding system in the design of the IRCAM building next to Centre Pompidou at about the same time. Using fiber glass reinforced concrete panels (GRC) that were clad with thin terra cotta slabs, the architect was able to design a panel with very thin proportions that could be applied in several different combinations and that had the flexibility to define windows, terraces and blank walls, using the rich color and texture of terra cotta as the primary exterior material. The panels were applied to a typical concrete framed structure providing a very economical exterior wall system. A similar panel is used at Meaux. The GRC panels are cast on a 90cm x 90cm module which is expressed as a grid of thin fins 3 cm wide and 30cm deep. These panels are applied to the structural frame and thus reflect the plan organization of large and small bays and the expression of a repetitive frame. The GRC panels come in several different types and can be applied as either a single or "double skin". Where there are windows, the 90x90 module is expressed as an open grille. Where the wall is opaque, the 90x90 panel is covered with thin terra cotta panels, 20x40 cm in size which are hung from clips cast into the GRC panel and applied without mortar. Insulation and finish wall materials are applied to the inside of the panel. In addition to the different grilled panels, several other accessories were designed to improve the functionality and flexibility of the system including several different windows, a separate glazing system for large openings like the shops at the street and the stair windows, balustrades, window blinds and security screens at the ground floor, entrance canopies, and terrace awnings. The panels can be applied either in a single layer where the window and terra cotta panels are applied in the same panel, or in a double layer where the exterior panel forms a combination of open grill (used to cover the "loggias" and stair windows and shop windows) and terra cotta panel and the glazing is a separate layer applied inside the panel. In the single layer, the GRC panel makes a flush exterior surface while in the double layer the GRC panel is articulated as a separate attached element with the little diagonal fins (petit airlerons) along the edges of the panels.

One of the main tenets of Modern Architecture was the use of industrialized building systems in the construction of housing. While this goal has seldom been realized and most institutions responsible for building low income housing prefer to stick with conventional construction methods, concrete technology has changed greatly from the dreary applications of prefabricated concrete panels typical of much European housing of the 1960's to the much more sophisticated examples of the 80's and 90's. Applying GRC technology, Renzo Piano has taken the prefabricated panel to a new level of architectonic sophistication and excellence. It is a credit to the RVIP that this experiment was allowed in the arena of HLM housing in a tough neighborhood in Paris.

Jean Michel Hoyet, Contemporary Architecture in Paris, Tech. & Arch., Paris, 1996, p. 146.

Lotus International, 1994, no. 83, pp. 42-55

Techniques et Architecture, Sept., 1991, p. 39-42.

Le Moniteur Architecture AMC, May 1991, pp. 55-61.

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