A new take on infrastructure
« We do not quite understand this passion for our village. We just did the job properly »…
This is how one of the councillors of the village expressed his astonishment during our visit. Chaliers,built on an outcrop overlooking a bend in the Truyère River, one hundred and eighty inhabitants, thirty of whom are permanent residents of the village, has just completed recovery works on its main street. And, indeed, there is hardly anything to see. Yet, it is precisely this subtlety which makes it a lesson in architecture, a quality which we quickly guessed was shared by the architect, the mayoress and the municipal council, and the residents.
FOCUSING ON THE LAND IS A POLITICAL ACT
Coming to Chaliers through the winds- wept highlands of Margeride, one discovers at every turn a bridge, a retaining wall, a simply anchored masonry element to hold the soil, channel water, and prevent it from flooding the road and disintegrate the slope. These mundane structures are one or two centuries old. They follow and support the road and we take their presence for granted, despite their bulky volumes. Those milestones of modest yet precise infrastructure works contribute to the enhancement of the landscape we travel through. As the legacy of constant regional planning covering all areas, even the most remote access roads, these works also show the amount of focus aimed at the land, its topography, and available resources. This precision was not only the result of know-how. It was also driven by a political vision: as if no plot of land in the territory that is “the nation’s common Heritage” could be forgot- ten. Equal territory rights have recently been added to the title of the ministry in charge of their spatial planning. However, already back in the Renaissance as the territory was gradually being developed, this focus was revealed in the same sensitivity implemented in major cities as well as in the plains, the Alps or the inaccessible bends of the Massif Central. Andrea Palladio did not mention any- thing else in his “Four Books of Architecture”, detailing the care that should be given to roads, bridges and roads. In France, we find the same precision in Riquet, the work under- taken by Colbert, and later Perronet and the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées (school of Civil Engineering). The engineer, landscape designer, or the architect? Not important when the political project involved a design of equal focus.
Since the modern world seems made of scissions and sudden drops, and widening gaps, this claim to focus on the land is only modest in appearance: in fact, it is a strong political act. A small site in term of quantity – 180 inhabitants… –, almost invisible on the map, is actually part of the same world and we stand together in solidarity with it. In this sense, the Chaliers project fits within the engagement of contemporary architecture to refocus its attention equally on the differences of major cities: Rafael Moneo in Ullastret (Catalonia) since 1987, and Alvaro Siza and Roberto Collovà in Salemi (Sicily). The countryside is another “battle front” of Architecture. Some modern architects were dedicating themselves to the fields, like Albert Laprade and his patient records of vernacular architecture now replaced by the low-end products of a disembodied industry, or Charles-Henri Pingusson in Grillon2. Today, the schools of architecture are at the forefront of this research, widely anticipating future issues. In this respect, we can mention the work of the EVAN group in Clermont-Ferrand, which, for the past twelve years, has been researching the development of rural areas in Auvergne, or the Atelier Rural of ENSA in Saint-Etienne, which has been experimenting for several years on transforming the Ardèche highlands. Gradually, these ideas are being compiled into a text corpus, while trying out methods and measuring possible interventions, and offer often clueless elected officials an opportunity to reflect on the development of their territory.
CAPITALISING ON TECHNICAL FACILITIES UPGRADES IS A NEW WEALTH
Dwindling public investment are prompting actors to join forces and pool resources in order to optimize every expenditure and, based on the original need, offer additional dimensions. This is what Chaliers has taught us. It started with the upgrade of the sewerage system. Reorganising household waste collection is then added to the project. Simon Teyssou points out that wheelie bins in a modern village are a bit like yesterday’s communal oven… Then, the municipality decides to take advantage of the fact that the whole area will have to be excavated to redesign the open spaces. This new layout provides the three main buildings of the village with a new dignity, and magnifies the scenery of the Truyère meander as the view unfolds, unobstructed: a landscape which only had to be harnessed as the dramatic common thread in the village’s everyday life. Nothing changes, and yet everything is different.
Every day, on hundreds of sites, technical needs could be leveraged to enable such transformations: flood barriers, new road traffic flows, spanning a river with a bridge, network repairs… So much wealth swallowed up in structures that have no regard for their location, so many actions serving only their own interest. It is up to designers, but also elected officials and residents, to demand more. Cost-efficiency which is imposed by both a shrinking budget and ecological issues (redundant systems should not be allowed to multiply) points towards a different way of laying out structures, to pooling resources, and taking advantage of every earthworks, every investment to enhance the places.
This wealth is available everywhere, provided we know how to harness it. For example, risk reduction offers plenty of opportunities to create public spaces, new bonds between urban areas and the cycles of nature. This is the case of Pierre Lafon who develops the banks of the Vilaine River in Redon and Saint- Nicolas de Redon in Brittany. A system has to be found to reduce the effect of rising waters on the river banks. Rather than a massive, inaccessible wall that might have increased the current strength, the architect proposes strips that break the flood, while becoming a long promenade between the river and an uninviting road, thus reinventing the shape of the levee and the rip-rap. In Saint-Esteve-Janson, Chiche and Dussol span a bridge over a ravine and a square planted with holm oaks. And suddenly, in the heart of a southern village characterised by the banality of its housing estates, we find a magical place, in woods bringing cooling shade to the thalweg furrow. We are optimistic: we can capitalise on the need to upgrade technical works, make sure that every euro invested in a structure leads to an enhancement, an opening, a way through. Frugality does not mean we should forgo action.
The implementation of these public spaces in Chaliers is not the result of a pre- defined order, but of a slow process: it took eight years for the project to take shape. Little by little the village has drawn the attention of all kinds of people: some sketches by the State consultant landscape designer Alain Freytet, which emphasised the landscape of the rocky outcrop and the bend in the river, then a “village heart” approach promoted by the departmental council, with the support of the Conseil d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et de l’Environnement of the Cantal area. Then the Bâtiments de France Architect insisted on the quality of the buildings found in the village, some of which are listed. This preliminary, collective work afforded the elected officials the necessary time to decide not to limit the work to burying and upgrading the networks, and to allocate part of the budget to public spaces as well. These exchanges led to a number of intentions, allowing everything else to fall into place. It was necessary to organise refuse collection and reduce the excessive number of structures housing technical installations whose ubiquitous presence impacted views of the scenery and even hampered the street’s daily activities; to ensure vehicles were in the right place, always making sure views were not blocked; to emphasise outstanding buildings, including a listed 18th-century mansion and the town hall. This prolonged timescale also made it possible to prioritise actions, plan the work in measured stages, consider the future development of each of the village’s hamlets, to which the town council associated future actions, making sure nobody would be left behind. This strategic patience was instrumental in getting the residents on-board with the project. According to an elected official, residents or visitors are all enthusiastic and proud, but no one has ever associated the comment “this is so beautiful” with “it must have cost a lot”; a proof of success in a town with limited resources…
The initial directions were arranged into a well-tuned music score, which seems obvious with hindsight. Nothing is that simple, however. In many situations, the result would nonetheless have involved excavating and patching up the backfill with tarmac. In many other cases, the goodwill of the initial ideas and insightful diagnosis would however have led to a very generic result, or to additional effort drowning all the detailed focus in excessive monumentality: sometimes, doing too much is worse than doing nothing.
In this case, the project leads by example, an impeccable demonstration judging by the perfectly balanced effort implemented for its completion. Always virtuous, public policies are expected to raise standards. Yet, there are so many good intentions regarding “landscape quality”, “heritage values”, the “quality of facilities” that they sometimes hide the fact that the actual changes made to the places are second-rate. We do not always do what we plan to do. Words are not enough; we have to know how to act. That is why the Chaliers project is a lesson: it modestly shows us that the proof is in the pudding. There you go, it’s done. And it is right. The whole outcome is the result of a constant commitment on everyone’s part: elected officials and technicians, residents and administrations. The joy of a collective oeuvre, but where the role of the architect, of “design”, is anything but trivial. It takes great skill to lay out the structure in such a natural way that it seems to disappear.
A DISAPPEARANCE EXPLAINED
Everyone notes the discreet input of Simon Teyssou. As with the rest of his work, the architect’s personality and intentions do not override the project’s own strength. Like the multiple bridges and retaining walls seen on the surrounding slopes, which were most likely never designed by an architect, or even an engineer, the paths and stonework seem to naturally sit on the rock face, entering gaps between the village houses, most of which are vernacular. Teyssou also questions the role of the architect in the lives of these towns with few resources. Complete control is sometimes necessary – which is the case here, obviously –, but, on occasion, shouldn’t the architect reduce his or her input to a few pieces of advice, tap into the available know- how, rely on pragmatic and cost-saving solutions, and refer to alternatives which are very often found in close proximity, in vernacular architecture? The architect’s ability to build with little resources may also change, develop design methods, and increase responsiveness. Rather than putting his or her mark on things, he or she should, as time goes by, fit in the continuity of the places… and disappear. Out of professional ethics, or as a political choice.
But is it easy to disappear?
A close survey of the project reveals the efforts required to achieve such a degree of restraint. Grading is flawless. Whether plane or concave, surfaces follow both the water run-offs and the horizontal lines that emphasise the views of the river bend. This adjustment is impeccable, as it fits on inherited pavement that followed the undulating path laid on the ridge of the rocky outcrop, barely retained here and there by a low wall or terrace. The correction is never excessive: the idea was not to create a monument here either. The roadway maintained by two gneiss edges is narrow; the street is ostensibly shared by pedestrians and vehicles, but pacified by its small width; grassed verges reinforced with gravel allow two vehicles to pass one another if need be, at crawling speed, while drivers can greet each other – as we picture it. The street stands out from the scattered alignment of houses, and leaves a wild public margin with variable width. Gneiss rock pertaining to the site’s geology and which sup- ports the buildings and has often provided the stones for their construction, emerges from that fringe; so does an abundant vegetation originally planted by the project designers and gradually reclaimed by residents. The thresholds of houses with whimsical heights fit into this margin, as their stone slabs create as many steps and culverts as they are families. There are three mineral esplanades in front of the three key buildings of this street stretching all the way to the cemetery belvedere. The southern edge of these surfaces is sufficiently thick as it overhangs the slope to suggest that they are walls, where one can sit down facing the landscape that they under- line. No railings: here, one has to resist the dizzying temptation of standard guard rails, even if one realises that everything is comfortable and strangely reassuring, despite being on the edge of a precipice. Cars could be parked everywhere. Yet, apart from the median square whose tapered light concrete steps help achieve easy parking by reducing the cant, the other esplanades are car- free, as if it went without saying that a mere machine could not be left in this wonderful hiatus between a stone façade and the landscape. That is done spontaneously, without posters or signposting, by the sheer force of the layout. The stone selected for the project is gneiss, the same as for the ordinary village, even if it has to be brought from the south of the Limousin region, two hundred kilometres away. Granite appears in front of the maison de maître – the only house built with this stone. Again, everything is measured precisely: the village does not suffer from the excessive use of footpaths, gutters and stone slabs, benches and street lamps, that architectural language borrowed from the 19th-century city which is now stifling so many towns because of its expensive ostentation.
In short, this perfect fit, and the almost vernacular character of the project as it integrates the village’s banality, is the outcome of very clever work, and a fight: against habits, standards, but also against the discipline itself. That’s why we still enjoy reading the books of Palladio or Alberti so much: even centuries apart, with very different societal issues and another economy, the questions they asked then are still relevant today. In Chaliers, for example, they help us determine the exact boundary between what we have to leave and what we have to build, to ensure that meaning will be restored to the modern village.
The village councillors are proud. And rightly so. It remains to be seen whether this will be a success. According to the mayoress, these efforts were motivated by the hope of attracting visitors, but especially, and above all, new inhabitants. We do not know if the strength of the place will do the trick. Doesn’t this brave and innovative achievement constitute a condition for this rebirth?
- Atelier du Rouget Simon Teyssou & Associés
- Commune de Chaliers
- Public space
- 2500 m²
- 0.5 M € HT