A considered invention
An additional facility
Poitiers, a city of art and history, or even “the city of one hundred bell towers”, is the old capital of the Poitou-Charentes that owes much to its geographic location, perched on a broad promontory upon which the historic city, known for its stone buildings, grew. Then it expanded in both directions to the surrounding plateaus, which were less restricted, with a set of rather heterogeneous neighbourhoods taking shape over time.
Like many French cities, it is working to enhance and balance its territory. Proud of its attractive centre, it is enhancing and preserving this driver of a significant tourist economy while at the same time seeking to develop a broad network of facilities to balance its neighbourhoods and encourage new Poitiers residents to establish themselves across its entire territory.
La Gibauderie is one of its neighbourhoods that is distant from the centre, combining individual houses, small communities, and large public parks, whose residents formed an association in 2003 to organise and offer activities. City hall decided to support this initiative by helping them build a new facility at the centre of the neighbourhood.
This facility’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it was initiated, designed, and prepared by its future users, extending the work started in the 1980s by a neighbourhood committee of school children’s parents who had a survey conducted to identify the neighbourhood’s needs. One finding was that associations lacked places to meet, for a long time being content with a room loaned by the nearby departmental archives.
Also, when the municipality offered to finance the facility, the association took responsibility for designing part of the program by identifying the many activities that the building might house. The request was both abundant and simple: to welcome all ages to a single building for many activities, often at the same time.
The architectural team of Hervé Beaudouin and Benoit Engel was selected to build the new building, by choosing to construct a building on the scale of the neighbouring areas in a context of small, low buildings. A set of trapezoidal rooms with gently sloping roofs accentuates a long interior street, sometimes open to the park, sometimes providing access to activities, sometimes expanded for a shared space, while a large wall protects it and outlines an entrance door with a slight curve. In addition to the remarkable use qualities there was a material, sector, and know-how construction goal.
A construction goal
The community centre is a local facility co-financed half and half by the city and the Council General (departmental government body); for this reason, it had a budget that was neither exceptionally high nor especially restrictive.
In the Poitiers context of primarily stone construction, the team wanted to build a large masonry structure: part of the project in stone, part in single-wall brick1, an additional richness but also a difficult challenge to meet in a still tense economic context, similar to many public projects without real support.
The architects’ construction goal rapidly ran up against this reality, which led them to divide up the innovation effort: a bit of unique design (banked stone) among a lot of commonplace design (traditional masonry).
The artisan wall was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called “desert concrete”2. A supporter of an architecture that he called organic, Wright was always seeking to incorporate materials provided by the site into his projects.
Instead of creating stone beds across the entire width of the wall, a common masonry technique that is both tedious and uses a lot of materials, the technique used here consisted of arranging stones only on their front sides and arranging them precisely in a formwork. This technique optimised the quantity of material used and also considerably reduced the assembly time.
“The stones were left “raw as extracted”, and not washed. Washing by the rain helps give a nice natural colouring to the ensemble. However, it is neither a stone wall, nor a concrete wall, but a bit of both, which gives it a certain iconoclastic modernity”. This technique was developed and improved over several of the architects’ projects.
One of the virtues of this implementation lies in the fact that it allows re-use of the stones found on the site, which are now arranged clearly, while other solutions hide them; in the renovation of the Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel in Ronchamp, Le Corbusier chose to re-use stones recovered from the original building, once hit by lightning and then destroyed by German artillery during World War II, which fill the concrete frame covered with white lime.
A need to reassure to ensure
A railing that has become an obstacle or bible, French construction standards can hinder innovation and even though improvements may occur3, the weight of novelty is often a heavy burden to carry. Many operations diverge from the beaten path with the consequence of significant financial and technical additions such as characterisation by an ATEx4 or support from innovation centres for projects with broader possibilities such as in Tendon for beech wood and for which the design exceeded the project alone.
At La Gibauderie, the context is completely different. Banked stone is a so-called “non-traditional” technique, but engenders few risks for the stability of the structure specifically due to its implementation. The client accepted its use thanks to decisive feedback from the team, which had already tested it on the expansion of their office. It was all a question of assumed, or shared5, liability.
Project materials, company know-how
New or recycled, natural or artificial, invented or traditional, each architectural project consumes materials and even though most new buildings are built in standardised 6 ways, architects are no more restricted to the catalogue than they are to imagining the skin of a concrete structure characterised by engineering firms and industrials.
At a time when environmental concerns tend to significantly change common construction methods, each project is an opportunity to more reasonably use the available materials. Using stone for a contemporary building at La Gibauderie is not a nostalgic approach, but the ability to raise questions about the sectors and know-how that frame our action while incorporating the limits of their adaptations.
The question of using stone and other natural resources (wood, straw, earth) has been heavily structured in recent years and it is important to specify here that various approaches are being developed.
Some are recognised for their reactivating work such as Gilles Perraudin for solid stone7 or Le CRAterre8 for raw earth buildings. This background work helps practices evolve in France and abroad and encourages different building methods.
Others are structured by agreements within the trade to help create opportunities to support sectors such as wood and straw, over almost the entire country9.
Rarer are those who attempt to sidestep the already existing sectors by working differently with what they have: the project in La Gibauderie is of this type.
In the architects’ words, one of the biggest difficulties is convincing companies to change their habits and to experiment with new know-how. At the time of the first tests of banked stone, it was possible to test this method on several construction sites with the same company.
But, this rewarding feedback from tests, discoveries, adaptation, directing and allowing for guidance10 is not possible on a public project, due to the requirement for competitive bidding. To protect against this restriction and take comfort in the approach used is rather rare: the contractor who refined the technique with the architects came to train the company responsible for the project at La Gibauderie (and thus potentially a competitor on other construction sites). This was a rare case of transmission and healthy rivalry that we would like to see spread.
Learning and transmitting know-how are indispensable as the loss may be very hard to make up for, and knowledge may take a long time to rediscover11.
A report on the anniversary of the opening of the La Gibauderie centre was an opportunity for feedback from the users about the architectural offering, after a few years of use. The reaction was unanimous: “A friendly, effusive, welcoming, comfortable centre where all live in community harmony”.12
And when one sees all the work required to build the banked stone wall, it is appropriate to ask what the users might think of it. “All the same, this great wall”: its uniqueness was surprising, and even troubling upon delivery and pushed by a few reactions on the spur of the moment the client attempted to soften the great monolith by removing a few stones here and there to allow birds to nest in the holes. But this highly exposed entry wall intended to provide protection was clearly not the best perch. With no animals in site, these few holes remain, asking: was it a construction error? Or did something become detached? Or did the mason forget about them after a bit too much to drink at lunch?
The legitimate uncertainty over its novelty disappeared with the daily use of the facility. During our tour, the sweet smell of cake escaped from the open door when a group of leaders and volunteers were working to prepare pastries and other festive foods for their weekly meeting.
In this way, one can measure the quality of the work carried out on the interior spaces that allow the associations who requested space to flourish, regardless if one of them stands out in its presence in the landscape. Even better, the effort of considered invention has become an identity. We were hardly surprised to see that city hall, wanting to complete the entrance to the site, which the community centre shares with a school, had a small entrance doorway and reception area built, consisting of two banked stone posts, without holes…
- Beaudouin & Engel
- Ville de Poitiers
- Maison des habitants de la Gibauderie
- 700 m²
- 0,9M€ HT