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Author(s): DÜNNEBACKE Niclas
Contributor: OBRAS, Collectif AJAP14

Unfaire city, so close, yet so far

Saint-Denis. In what used to be one of the last major industrial plains of the Île de France region, one of France’s large-scale urban projects stretched enough kilometres of granite curbs, silkscreened glass façades and posh headquarters to erase the memory of the working class suburb. Around the Stade de France, smartly dressed employees hurry from one train station to another. This new extension, which would have been unlikely not twenty years ago, included this part of the Seine-Saint-Denis in the capital’s dynamic growth, and gets close to the major transport infrastructure crisscrossing northern Paris, to stop there abruptly.

There are, under the bridge piers, in apparently inaccessible recesses, a few dozen people living on the margins of building sites and the neat avenues lined with Ginkgo Biloba trees. No environmental impact assessment was carried out: the noise of the trains bound for Brussels, London or Lille, the noise and pollution from two hundred and fifty thousand vehicles passing by every day on the A86 Tangentielle motorway, and the noise from the five-lane avenue Anatole France are permanent. There is a triangular area caught in the cacophony of these three transport links. The area may be where the flows of the wealthy world intersect, yet it is so far, so resolutely cut off from it. Several families live here. Some are Roma, others simply from Romania. Nearby, at the foot of the bridge piers and railway embankments, others are also living in makeshift shelters.

The non-profit association “coup de main”, itself established by Romanians, has supported the construction of an innovative shelter: self-built, and made from recovered materials and equipment. They were able to rely on the know-how of the architect Niclas Dünnebacke for its assembly.

The people we don’t see

However wealthy the “globalized” world may be, it does not offer equal housing conditions to all its inhabitants. And that’s an understatement. With a building plot tagged at fifteen hundred euro per square metre and housing sold between five hundred thousand and two million euro, there is little doubt as to the amount of wealth circulating in this region. Yet, a growing share of the population is finding it difficult to get housing and huge numbers are living in precarious accommodation, as pointed out regularly by the associations fighting to eliminate “poor housing”. The policies do not provide the most disadvantaged, those who fall victim to bad luck, who have serious lasting or temporary difficulties, Roma people but also migrants and refugees with solutions that really match their individual situation. All temporary lodgings are saturated, and sometimes hard to identify or access – someone in a precarious situation is usually unable to travel – and most are inadequate: residents can’t cook there, visitors are not allowed (as if being poorer implied giving up one’s social life), and, more importantly, they do not allow residents to find an often highly needed job near their accommodation1.

For this Biennale, we chose to show how paying attention to every ordinary situation could change everything. In this very case, we have actually reached an extreme level of attention denial: denial on the part of the administration and the State, for which any phenomenon that is not within a regulatory framework is non-existent and unjustified; the citizens’ denial of a nonetheless very present reality, stained by unbearable racist overtones.

The lack of appropriate solutions forces these populations to find alternatives. So far, twenty thousand people are living in this informal housing which they “slapped together” on public land – a very low figure, well below the 3.5 million people living in extremely poor housing conditions, and the ten million impacted by the French housing crisis2. Yet, the slums which have remedied the failure of housing policies in all the old neighbourhoods for decades do not make the headlines. Even the newly built social housing is too expensive for 20 to 30% of the population who has to settle for solutions where they often have to choose between insecure leases and poor sanitation and overcrowding. However, prime time media buzz focuses on the forced evictions from makeshift shelters, while each such occurrence costs between one and three social housing units, at the very least3. The media do tell us anything else: nothing on informal settlements and the circumstances of those who live there or on the housing crisis. This perversity of the media does not reassure us about the state of our democracy, where all political topics are presented in a sensational and populist way.

Shantytowns – let’s call a spade a spade – are therefore not a problem but the only possible answer to societal shortcomings, to growing inequalities and vulnerability. This informal response does not produce comfortable or even habitable spaces; it is unsatisfactory, but it is preferable to its systematic demolition, as argued by Pascale Joffroy, a lecturer at the École d’architecture de la ville et des territoires in Marne-la-Vallée, where she runs a workshop on the theme of “slums and squatter settlements”. Before their eviction, the residents of slums have a “home”, landmarks, neighbours, a social organisation. Afterwards, they usually have nothing left. In relation to informal settlements, P. Joffroy stresses… “that the notion that they can be respected and accepted as provisional housing, a foothold or shelter in atypical situations clashes with our rigid ideas of what is the norm, long term, personal comfort and the modern city. Between the embedded cynicism of a generic city where nothing would be possible and Messianic solutions postponed until tomorrow, we could instead call for a change in the status given to self-built neighbourhoods, allow them the necessary space and time in the planned urban fabric of our cities, and learn to be useful to them in our architectural practices4.”

Face reality, understand, meet, listen. This work may still be marginal but it is vital. As pointed out by Cyrille Hanappe, Master studies director on the “architecture of resilience” at the École d’Architecture of Paris-Belleville, we must recognise the existence of slums in French cities, and stop viewing it as a distant topic, confined to the poorest countries on the planet. There is a vast knowledge of the subject, and associations as well as academics have long been involved: in particular, Colette Pétonet, Jacques Dreyfus and John F.C. Turner paved the way5. The schools of architecture, together with some urban planning and geography faculties, are also contributing. We will mention, in particular, the creation of an “Atlas de la Jungle” (“Atlas of the Jungle”) in Calais, coordinated by the Perou collective, with the support of eight schools, including the Institut de Géographie Alpine of the University Joseph Fourier in Grenoble and the Master’s directed by Cyrille Hanappe. The latter team produced an extraordinary record of this moving and tragic reality, in which however and as emphasized by Sébastien Thiéry, the humanity and urbanity in society prevails over the wildness of the situation. Schools, mosques and churches, restaurants and inns, shops and small urban activities are popping up under the frail tents. A new form of wealth arises from living conditions that are actually extremely harsh.6

Informal settlements, architects… and others

What is the role of architects when dealing with these informal settlements? Various perspectives and standpoints coexist, between a fascination for the shantytown which would be “the key to future urban planning”; the patient observatory of situations (healthy, and often multidisciplinary like Perou in Calais); direct intervention to build, often with the help of students, one-off shelters or equipment; more thorough planning to organise camps, keeping in mind soil quality, water run-offs and access roads; more discreet presence to help out with self-building, repairs, etc. These approaches are complementary and, depending on the case, one is more suitable than the other. Pascale Joffroy set up the association Système B, which, a stone throw away from the School of Architecture of Marne-Vallée, has focused on improving access and the water tightness of the shelters, but especially on establishing a parallel nursery school in a similar informal construction style, allowing mums to leave their children and go to work. Cyrille Hanappe built toilet facilities with his students on the Ris-Orangis camp, and, after the surveys carried out with Pérou in Calais, is now dedicating himself to accommodating the refugees in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk. Many would like to emulate the ground-breaking programme run by Rural Studio in the depressed Alabama countryside. In France, where shantytowns remain
limited, situations vary and only improve with an approach adapted to the context.

We chose to describe a middle position, where architecture plays its role without obliterating people’s informal contribution and their ability to recycle materials and self-build. As in the other situations explored for “New Riches”, the architect is not alone. The residents are directly involved, with the support of an association, and the community is never far away.

However informal self-building and camp management may be, however energetic the association’s actions, and however creative the residents’ involvement, we argue that the living conditions there depend to a great extent on the position taken by the public authority. In the present case of Saint-Denis, the municipality provides the “coup de main” association with land which stabilises the legal status of residents, even though we cynically criticise it for its poor location7. A more positive attitude towards slums should not allow us to underestimate or forgo the need for public action. Here, as in other examples given in “New Riches”, the invention of other more direct methods, the contribution of citizens or self-built structures do not release the community and politicians from their responsibility.

In Saint-Denis, the “coup de main”8 association had on this site provided by the town several “Algeco”9 construction modules which were quite run down and had been donated by a construction company. It wanted to set up housing for the Romanian and/or Roma families. As stressed by the architect, the purpose is not only to provide shelter and rather decent amenities (kitchen, bathroom, toilets, running water and heating), but also cultural and social conditions, to “acclimatize” people afflicted by great hardship, and sometimes withdrawn, to the constraints of life in a community, to sometimes confrontational contact with others. The idea is also to break the “vicious circle” by which young children living in the most difficult conditions tend not to fit in, and to help them, through this type of relative socialising, get the skills for a less precarious future life. Not an easy task.

In agreement with “coup de main”, a workshop is led by Julien Beller, an architect and lecturer at the Versailles School of Architecture. Beller already evokes the idea of a double façade made of recycled elements. Students offers to cover the Algeco modules with a salvaged tent. This project is not easy to set up: the big top is actually quite a technical and sophisticated structure that is not necessarily suited to the resources of self-building. The leaders of “coup de main” call Niclas Dünnebacke, an architect involved in the “Architectes Sans Frontières” association. He confirms the difficulty.

Time passes. Suddenly, the “coup de main” association is given the opportunity to recover five hundred double glazed timber windows of assorted sizes but good quality from a building renovation site. Dünnebacke is called back. A decision has to be made quickly, and they decide to accept the offer. They now have to put together a project, which is dubbed “passerelle” (footbridge), to emphasize the integration goals. This work benefits from the tight collaboration between the leaders of the association (including Juan Oswaldo Rodriguez ) and the architect. They visit several settlements, including Montreuil. There are many doubts. They discuss the project organisation: several modules will be used for common purposes, like the kitchens and dining rooms, always to integrate everyone’s life with a collective organisation. They still need to figure out how to build it and what to do with the windows.

Clever tinkering

Whether this is due to the initial training in Stuttgart of this German national (from Westphalia) now settled in France, or the result of his exchanges with the association remains unclear, but the “Passerelle” demonstrates great inventiveness in terms of construction. It embodies the joy of intelligent vernacular architecture, of optimization, of perfectly matching decisions, of measured details. Niclas Dünnebacke had already explored the benefits of such a streamlined approach: from 1992 he settled in Stralsund, in the north of the former East Germany. This was a fertile “breeding ground”, where everything seemed to be suspended in time, awaiting a decision as to whether it should be demolished or maintained – unlike in the West, where everything was either levelled or entirely rebuilt and very neat. Consequently, in this fragile environment with scarce resources, “the architect’s stance could not be colonizing, but rather based on patient discovery,” in his words.

The association stresses two primary difficulties of this Dionysiac site: protection from the cold (in the existing modules the electricity bills are too high), and protection from the noise.

The architect therefore suggests that the industrial modules be clad between two layers of assembled windows, forming a double skin, and a reliable roof made from onduline be placed over the whole cluster to protect it, as the algecos were leaky. In the south, the recreated glass wall is separated by one metre from the facade of the two levels of modules, leaving a gap to dry clothes and if need be, on the ground floor, grow some vegetables – or even store goods as is done now; the architects admits that it is a little “boxy“. Since the windows are insulated, they effectively protect from the noise and cold.

How can the windows be assembled? Dünnebacke comes up with a simple solution: the assembly of the frames with boards nailed to both sides, and a clever distribution of heterogeneous geometries to limit rejects and falls. This double trick is directly inspired by the work of the English architect Walter Segal,10 a pioneer in self-build housing. The fastener system used to secure these wooden pieces to the metal frames of the algecos is basic, yet robust and impeccably resolved. In order to cover the two levels of Algeco modules, the roof is composed of salvaged wood trusses and onduline sheeting, a lightweight and economical material made from waterproofed cardboard. The gutter plank crowns the south wall, and its rubber covered piping – five hundred euro in supplies, one of the project’s rare expenses – is wide enough to enable access with ease.

Apertures have been created at the base of the wall to avoid overheating in the summer. Convection happens at the top, under the trusses which have been opened at the back. In winter, sand bags simply close off the air intake at the base, and a tarp protects the roof from the rain at the rear of the crawling space. A little anecdote: these tarps displayed along the Thalys train tracks are former gigantic hanging banners from the Centre Georges Pompidou which were donated by an acquaintance provided that they would not be arranged in such a way as to lead to believe that an exhibition that had long been dismantled was still being shown.

Simple and effective, the system is the epitome of smart construction. It has allowed the residents and other members of the association to build it, with the occasional support of Emmaüs builders. It harnesses with restrain the know-how from vernacular (light timber construction) as well as erudite architecture (Segal and his Japanese influences). It suitably implements the systems of earlier passive architectures (David Wright) to reduce the effect of outside influences such as weather, and mitigate the possible energy losses for the families living there. Ruggedness is not the only feature distinguishing the passerelle from “la maison des jours meilleurs” designed by Jean Prouvé for Abbé Pierre in 1954. The building is built in a very pragmatic way, to match the situation and the resources available at the time. It does not claim to be a general, reproducible solution. It does, however, come from a similar focus, where architecture has a role to play.

The Passerelle, a bridge

The Saint-Denis “Passerelle” undoubtedly plays its role as a bridge in integrating the families it shelters. But there is a lot more to learn from it. With regard to architecture, this “lesson” takes us in two directions.

On the one hand, it questions our views on informal settlements. Even though some may find that this construction is a little too controlled, we see it as healthy engagement, which, not content with merely observing with fascination the resilience of the most vulnerable populations, provides them with know-how, and some useful ideas that can be shared, disseminated. This project introduces a new form of vernacular architecture, between the master carpenter and the inspired handyman: home-grown and knowledgeable.

It also confronts us with the contradictions of contemporary housing production. No, neither industry, nor public policy, nor increased building standards, and much less the aberration of generalised and compulsory Building Information Management (BIM) will make it possible to accommodate all populations. No, some of us just cannot live in the predefined and stereotyped cells that apartments have now become as a rule – and we could say the same about houses that all look alike, and are built for a couple of professionals with children, a dog and cars. No, the radical separation between home and work prevents the emergence of a whole series of activities. The housing crisis is not only due to the excessive pricing and bad location of that housing, but also to the fact that its overall design remains rigid, and that its systems are not varied enough to keep up with societal changes.

Yet, these “informal” settlements are telling us something: could they help us think differently , move on and go forward?

- Niclas Dünnebacke
- Coup d’Main association
- Emergency housings « La Passerelle »
- Saint Denis
- 2013
- 800 m²
- 0.08 M € HT