City architecture, field architecture
What is striking right away when we set foot on the side of the road that brings us to the farm is the wind.
By request from Jean Christophe Quinton, Mr Philippe let us off a hundred metres from Le Mesnil Frémentel, where we were going to tour his Maison Pliée (folded house).
We were just at the exit of the shopping area on the edge of Caen. Here the village, formed by the agglomeration of houses and out buildings around the farm, which was once isolated, now sits, almost contiguous with the city.
Mr and Mrs Philippe were married in Cagny. He is from Le Mesnil Frémentel, and his family has lived there for several generations, farming grain in the rich soil of the Caen plain.
The little village of Le Mesnil Frémentel, structured around the farm and its various operating buildings, is part of the municipality of Cagny.
Here, there has been no abrupt transformation of the fabric: large agricultural buildings, most often built of stone, organise the site. Around them, many out-buildings housed workers, and now they are inhabited by other occupants, not linked to the farm’s activities.
However, Le Mesnil seems to have quite well assimilated the major transformations of agricultural sites that sometimes abruptly abandoned villages and farms, to rebuild buildings more suited to new farming techniques, but without any connection to the land. It was easier to rebuild large barns than to transform the existing facilities. Out of concern for economics and speed, these large structures were (and still are) erected of concrete block and sheet metal, now resembling industrial buildings, in the image of the industrialisation of the sector during the 20th century.
As Philippe Madec noted, in a review prepared while he was Government Architectural Advisor,1 entitled “Agricultural Buildings”, the standardisation of agricultural buildings is even more striking as it is in conflict with the volumes and the wealth of the old built heritage, which had characteristics closely linked to the natural environment and a know-how that came out of local traditions and customs. It is also in conflict with its unity; the old housing and agricultural buildings used the same materials. All this produces a bleak landscape that neglects the villages and hamlets on the one hand, and makes holes in and disfigures the landscape on the other.
Thus, in Le Mesnil, there is no disfiguration but a slower transformation, able to absorb the new buildings, but for how long? As each generation of farmers builds a heritage on agricultural land that is yet unimproved… except for farmer operators, as workers’ accommodations.2
Here, we are far from the case of the small town of Vrin in Switzerland, which received the Wakker3 Prize for Swiss Heritage in 1998 for its meticulous integration of contemporary agricultural buildings into the centre of the village. But for the Philippe family, there was no question of building agricultural buildings of sheet metal that would disfigure the landscape. Beyond the agricultural requirements, the family is aware of the quality of the landscape and its built environment. For these reasons, when the Philippe family must leave their house next to the farm for inheritance reasons, they want to have their house built right next to Le Mésnil and have called upon a Parisian architect who is a friend of the family.
“You should organise storage in your longère (a long rectangular building) set back from the columns that support your farmhouse. This will enhance the beautiful building and better shelter your wheat.” This simple development advice dispensed a few years back remained imprinted in the minds of the Philippe family so well that when the house plan developed, they placed the order directly with Jean Christophe Quinton.
The House was supposed to include an agricultural barn to store some of the equipment and serve as a garage.
The Maison Pliée
– the folded house
On the Caen plain, it is windy. The wind blows every day, to the point of being unpleasant. Wind turbine engineers were right to establish ten wind turbines near the site.
Thus, the house will be folded to provide shelter. “The form eases some problems”, explained Jean Christophe. Here, the formal question was resolved right from the first site visit, which was marked by the persistent wind.
This intuitive response that makes reference to the archetypal shape of the farm, was then deformed, sketched, and adjusted very precisely. The “strange” shape is arresting, but by itself resolves the articulation of the various programs while partitioning off the various uses of the outdoor spaces. This work is also similar to that of Localarchitecture in Lignières in Switzerland4, which offers a successful landscape integration of a wood frame stable.
Inside, around the fireplace and stairwell, a fluid, open space was used, lit by large windows that provide many views of the environment from each room and unprecedented indoor/outdoor continuities.
A Hybrid house: The House Barn
Beyond the strange shape that characterises the Maison Pliée, the building seems to us to recall the image of the farms that have punctuated the countryside and rural landscape since the dawn of time. However, the program, the house and barn, rapidly seems more like a house than a farm: the house has an area of two hundred square metres, while the barn area is only one hundred fifty. Either way, the architect chose to connect the two entities, forming a single building, to better state its presence in the landscape.
Two simple building systems:
From a structural point of view, the building is separated into two parts directly connected to the program.
The house is built of lightweight, single, porous concrete walls. The barn has a wood frame.
Thus, the house structure was simply created of porous concrete blocks forty centimetres thick. The blocks were assembled and cut to remain faithful to the shape of the building, like that of the openings, which are each adjusted to the views, paths, and uses of the house.
The thickness of porous concrete offers exemplary thermal performance and helps save on insulation and rain screen. It also gives a thickness that can incorporate the various sliding components, shutters, and windows.
For the barn part, a simple wood frame is repeated in sections measuring six metres twenty.
It is an intentionally rustic materiality implemented cleverly:
The vertical envelope is comprised of a single material, raw, autoclaved spruce, used for its rustic appearance, light weight, and durability. It is directly attached to a frame that is also wood, affixed to the porous concrete wall.
Wood strips measuring one metre ten, were arranged vertically, in openwork, and superimposed as clapboard.
All the care taken with adjusting the last “bed” of wood to attach it in an extension of the edge of the roof, and the treatment of the shutters that are able to hide all the openings behind a “curtain” of wood shows the finesse of the architectural skills implemented.
The architect explained to us how the plan for the zinc head-board supporting the bay window forms a slot that allows the shutter, hidden in a pocket, to slide over the top. This little signature was highlighted here through the shade provided occasionally on the facade.
Lastly to cap it all off, the gabled roof, once folded, and adjusted to the geometry of the design, creates wide facades that overlook the plain. The roof is made of flat tiles. The rain gutters and drain pipes, carefully hidden behind the wood cladding, show a complete architectural subject.
Five years after delivery of the building, the wood facades have greyed over time with silver highlights, and contrast with the sheltered door and window frames that are still gold coloured, highlighting the character of the building, which is very impressive in the neighbourhood.
And the Philippe family is proud of its house; they showed us the broad views of the garden, even though they still do not understand the choice of the large bay window… fixed, but show us their shutters with satisfaction, which can be closed at night to safely provide natural ventilation. They wish there was more storage space, but still entrust their architect with designing furniture. They are also planning to build a new patio on the North side, as it is too hot in summer in the shelter on the south side!
In the barn there are no more tractors; the couple, now retired, store their camper there, which they use to travel the world…
The farm, now oriented toward flax production, is managed by their son, who works part of the four hundred hectares for harvest for city people who now come here to buy direct.
But what does the future hold for this land, always being encroached upon and threatened by expansions and housing estates still outside the agricultural area?
While a rejection of industrial agriculture unconcerned about the environment and the health of local residents and consumers is becoming more prevalent, the advent of reasoned agriculture with a change to operating and production techniques such as permaculture5 and agroforestry6, now tend to reconcile the rural and urban worlds in a questioning of modes of production and consumption, as also attested to by the development of urban farms or the Agrocités experiment led by R-Urban, relocating each citizen as a producer, consumer stakeholder.
Now, the program itself is changing, as is its architectural transcription and incorporation into the land. Situations will now be more complex, as they are here in Cagny. Peri-urbanisation mixes agricultural areas with infrastructure and other urban activities. The farm and barn evoked an imaginary rural world where the building was set apart in a landscape only marked by agricultural practices. These vernacular architectural figures have greatly nourished the architectural imagination, but without ever being the subject of a specific order. Almost all of these buildings are still built without architects7. Constructing an agricultural building today is much more than conquering a new subject, it is a recovery.
The Farm is growing more complex: housing is considered a house set apart, less linked to production and much more to the city, to commercial areas, energy programs, and other educational areas are combined with other agricultural activities. The farm is transforming. Responding to these new programs, on sites that no longer have anything to do with the bucolic countryside or with the emblematic rural landscape are also a “front”.
- Jean-Christophe Quinton
- Cagny, Calvados
- 330 m²
- 0.4 M € HT