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Author(s): Atelier d'Architecture Autogéré
Contributor: Frédéric Bonnet Obras, Collectif AJAP14

City architecture, field architecture

Colombes is a dense city, whose eighty five thousand inhabitants occupy an area stretching from the port of Gennevilliers to the fringes of Petit-Nanterre, a stone’s throw away from the business district of La Défense.

To the north, near the docks, the blocks and towers of the Fossés-Jean Bouviers housing complex constitute a working-class area, which is now the subject of urban renewal1. The nearby suburb is changing fast, as the many small houses in this city are gradually giving way to developments led by investors whose operations are likely to become very profitable, with Paris so close.

And then, suddenly, we discover the unlikely sight of a wooden house built on stilts, whose terrace overlooks a tidy garden, vegetables, greenhouses; a few hundred square metres of kitchen garden, at the foot of the towers, wedged against the millstone party walls of the neighbouring plots. Our first visit happened on an exceptional Saturday as all the users of these urban gardens had invited the press, and many supporters. This is serious, and they look ready for a fight: the new mayoress is planning to remove those gardens established here since 2012 to replace them with a temporary tarmac car park: such a barren patch is already nibbling at the south angle of the site. Despite a calm atmosphere, there are mixed feelings of anger and bewilderment.

What is happening here?

Research followed by action, and vice versa

The project is the result of a study conducted by Constantin Petcou and Doina Petrescu2. The assumption of these two architects is as follows: for several years now, we know that we will eventually experience complex shortages due to global warming. Some scientists state that nothing can be corrected without a global response, based on a comprehensive political agreement which we have come to realise, even after COP21, that it is very unlikely. And if part of the solution involved the citizens themselves taking immediate action, from today, on a small scale? Which experiment will show that consumer habits can change, and that energy needs, demand for commodities, and transport flows can be reduced?

Their research is very professionally supported by cleverly illustrated calculations and diagrams, but also by examples drawn from the four corners of the world. References start with Cuba, which had to urgently develop urban agriculture when the US blockade deprived it of imports from its big brother the Soviet Union. They then shift to the post-industrial and pioneer “cities in transition”, such as Sheffield where Doina Petrescu is a lecturer, or Montreal. BedZED, Kraftwerk, Hetzel and Vauban are mentioned next to the women builders in Dakar, permaculture in Milwaukee or the trained peach tree walls in Montreuil. The authors emphasize the need for networking, the proliferation of small actions referring to the “hummingbird” effect. This activism is not limited to ecological mantras. According to the authors, we have to discard the liberal economic model based on overconsumption and the social segregation which goes hand in hand with capital gains, find alternatives to address needs, trade but also social values, our relationship with work, etc. We are far from the “environment” greenwashing practiced by big corporations.

C. Petcou and D. Petrescu then look for a site in dense suburbs, away from the well-off Parisians whose discrete revenues and independent work are drivers for productive leisure, but a little too easy maybe. Greater cultural diversity could also be guaranteed in the suburbs. There, it was thought that the higher unemployment rate than in Paris could promote civic engagement and leverage the desire or the need to be dealt a “better hand” economically speaking.

In 2012, the city of Colombes offers this site at Fossés-Jean. The site has been provided under a temporary land occupancy agreement, considerable funding has been obtained, especially by the Île-de-France region and the European Union, including a “green” MEP who is also present on that Saturday in February.

Produce, and produce together: revival of the collectives

Despite funding the research, the PUCA seemed to think that “this would never work in France”. Not surprisingly, the project’s ambitious political vision implied a particular way of working. The two architects already had experience in collaborative projects: in 2001, they initiated the ECObox gardens in the Paris 18th arrondissement and, in 2009, the “passage 56” during the urban renewal project of the Saint-Blaise area in the 20th arrondissement. The principle is simple: following the initial impulse under an associative structure, the goal is for the residents to achieve a self-managed mode, even if it means taking the time to gradually erase the presence of the initiators3. Incidentally, the firm is called atelier d’architecture autogérée (aaa) in French, which translates as studio of self-managed architecture, and it is therefore the architecture, not the studio, that is self-managed. During an impassioned interview at the firm, the architects emphasize the importance of that other “governance”, of this new decision-making process, of establishing sustainable shared practices, of drafting horizontal and more responsive policy terms; this is done without ingenuity: we guess that the exercise is difficult and that decades dedicating our available brain time to softdrinks advertisement have seriously altered our democratic abilities. But still, it seems to work. Today, R-Urban, which manages the Agrocité, is in the hands of thirty very committed people, and has over four hundred members mainly from bordering neighbourhoods. It is currently run as an association, under the French Law of 1901, which is a lightweight, flexible structure, easy to set up. Ultimately, the aim is to create a Société Coopérative d’Intérêt Collectif (SCIC), in order to be able to combine the advantages of having an associative status and partnerships with the local communities or other organisations, and get the “facilities” implemented by the collective recognised as serving the public interest. The idea stems from a fertile mix between the public sphere and the “social and united” economy, and does not deny the co-production dimension with the public authority or its role in the moderation of private interests over time. This system would provide a guarantee that the associative experience will retain its original inclusiveness and openness and will avoid turning into the always possible manifestation of a “closed social grouping”. This hybridization and solid coexistence is quite in line with the assumptions that many contemporary economists are exploring and advocating, Jean-Louis Laville among them. Associative action does not exclude other forms of activity; on the contrary, it complements them and corrects their excesses.

The project initiators dwell on the following political dimension: How do we decide? How do we share? Which rights do we make available and to whom? How do we guarantee the public interest in the long term? And so on. The challenge definitely is to ensure the “revival of the collectives”4, a new wealth that does not rely on a monetary system, questions the cult of property in our cities where ordinary speculation has become a popular sport. We have our work cut out to succeed, because we are living a paradox: at a time when associative projects involving sharing and self-management are emerging, never before have property rights – relating to land and real estate, but also to knowledge, data, human genome and the living, etc. – and the financialization of everything associated with those rights, been defended and reinforced in such a way5. We speak here of a battle “front”, when the opposing forces are uneven: the real enemy on that front is a liberal world, aware of its strength, silent but monstrously aggressive. Modest and fragile in appearance, R-Urban is a grain of sand in the well-oiled machine, a proof that frugal sharing remains an alternative outcome, and democracy its condition.

A productive public space

And it works. Two hundred varieties of naturally organic vegetables are grown here using traditional techniques or permaculture. Greenhouses are set alongside furrows and paths teeming with children, workers or idle neighbours. The “cabin”, initially built to accommodate winter activities, has become a landmark in the neighbourhood, a community centre, a cultural centre, a place for alternative trade, a forum, a training centre. At the beginning, consultations were held with local residents who come from different backgrounds. Everyone came to realise that a way of life that had become very urban did not hide the fact that most populations often had rural origins, a particular relationship with the land, whether they stemmed from Europe or Africa. Prepared food, vegetable sales of objects made by the association created de facto alternative trade that has employed a number of residents. Built on stilts, the “cabin” also accommodates a workshop and stores recycled materials: in addition to agricultural production, everyday objects are repaired there, as people pool their physical strength, their expertise or their scrap. Actually, Agrocité is only one of the sites managed by R-Urban in the Colombes area. On another site, the association has also set up a “RECYCLAB” where reusable waste is collected, sorted and recovered. In 2015 on the site of Agrocité, nine tonnes of compost were produced from the domestic waste of the members of the association; R-Urban is testing a local ecosystem that goes well beyond urban agriculture: waste, know-how and domestic and professional skills, tools, inventiveness, and crops are developed, shared and made available to the group.

A significant portion of the wealth of R-Urban is not hard cash: the public land made available by the town hall (even though the value of this “asset” can be estimated, as evidence by the plans of the new town council…), but especially people’s spare time, their personal investment, the exchange of know-how. The beehives, for example, were set up thanks to a resident-beekeeper who got involved in the association. We are presented with a different concept of work, which tries not to separate daily life, political life and productive life: together, manufacturing and culture become poetic, in the noblest sense of the word. Not that conflicts or problems go away, but they escape the hierarchical relationships underlying “the world of work”. R-Urban does not create a multitude of jobs, but by reducing needs and the costs of certain common commodities, it multiplies access to them: the gain here is in the money saved in not partaking in frantic consumerism, without ever giving up on the little pleasures and conviviality.

The construction of Agrocité required some clever thinking. Because it constituted a new kind of public space, the draconian rules applying to a “public space” would not have allowed the construction of this building with as much flexibility, and within a very limited budget altogether – or with the same poetic result, one suspects. The building is also officially a workplace, the HQ of the association, a private place receiving guests, and so on. Neither the ceiling made from simple boards, nor the flooring of wooden planks purchased for less than two euro per square metre from a cinderblock manufacturing company, nor the wood stove, nor the barely touching large sliding doors would have been selected in ordinary procurement. And yet, this is what it is. And what better public space for an urban renewal project (projet de renouvellement urbain (PRU6)), not mentioning the fact that it is also productive… No “official” red tape would have obtained such a result. Agrocité is a gift towards the transformation of this district.

The Citizen, nature and the value of land

The Paris metropolis has expanded across the most fertile land in France. And yet, agriculture as a resource is rarely considered in the plans on the “Greater Paris”. The liberal idea of wealth always puts other activities before agricultural production. Not long ago, the state sterilized hundreds of hectares to accommodate Disneyland Europe. Soon, near Charles de Gaulle airport, EuropaCity, a huge retail complex will do the same on the Paris silt, according to a futuristic marketing campaign driven by Bjärke Ingels with his usual uninhibited verve7. Yes, more money… Paris does not have the exclusivity of such paradoxical destruction. Didn’t Milan not even a year ago open an exhibition on the subject of food which was built on an exceptionally fertile alluvial plain? We should heed the warning signs of struggling European farmers trapped in massive industrialization and who are heavily indebted to produce uneven quality, often at the expense of the living environment. Can we give back to the land its productive value, in a sustainable way? Nobody claims that Agrocité supported by R-Urban will solve this agricultural crisis. But at the heart of one of Europe’s top agricultural regions, it is going down another “path” – quoting the term coined by the philosopher Edgar Morin.

Besides the potentially primeval, intimate pleasure felt in gardening, kneading, hoeing, watering, observing and picking crops, beyond the collective enthusiasm and associative agitation, this experience is a political manifesto. Just when many of us wonder how to better live together, exchange, share, how to rebuild our relationship towards work or consumption, there, precisely in those political events we haven’t finished scrolling through, bringing the focus on this little corner of the Paris suburb to invite the stakeholders to join in the debate is utterly refreshing and inspiring.

- Atelier d'Architecture Autogérée
- Réseau R-Urban
- Agrocité : cultures maraîchères, serres, atelier, magasin, centre de recyclage et de compostage, centre culturel
- Colombes
- 2014
- 2300 m²
- 1.5 M € HT