History Lessons: Combating Town Planning Problems

27 July 2010 (Last Updated July 27th, 2010 18:30)

In a search for innovative solutions to modern town planning problems, two firms in Europe have delved into the past. Josep Ricart of Barcelona's H Arquitectes and Umberto Napolitano of Paris-based LAN tell Ian Duncan how their projects are helping to revitalise the forgotten areas of cities.

European towns used to blend the domestic lives of residents with their public activities. Then the centrifugal force generated by private cars and public transport pushed residential areas outwards and commuting became the norm. Now, however, town planners are returning to the old style of mixed use developments that could have social, environmental and economic benefits, revitalising neglected old towns and post-war suburbs.

Two new projects guided by this goal capitalise on their location by implementing designs that emphasise fluidity, motion and an interaction between inhabitants and the built environment around them to foster a sense of community. Despite their very different scales, the two developments draw on historical inspiration while creating residential and commercial spaces relevant to modern ways of living.

Built on the site of an old ice factory, Housing 137, designed by H Arquitectes and winner of the fifth Biennal d'Arquitectura del Vallès in 2009, aims to breathe life back into the traditional town square of Granollers, a city of 60,000 residents located north of Barcelona. The more ambitious Terres Neuves project by LAN Architects in the Bordeaux suburb of Bègles, should completely transform the area when it is completed in 2012, dispelling the gloom of aging 1950s tower blocks. The work of Umberto Napolitano and Benoit Jallon, LAN's founding partners, was recognised in their recent "40 under 40" award from the European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies and the Chicago Athenaeum.

The Terres Neuves project will ultimately cover 6,000m² and rise six storeys. In contrast, Housing 137 stands at four storeys and has a much smaller footprint. The challenge for LAN is to create an environment from scratch; H Arquitectes faced the opposite problem, having to produce a structure in sympathy with the existing buildings while stimulating new social activity.

"Town planners are returning to the old style of mixed use developments that could have social, environmental and economic benefits."

When seeking ideas for the development, LAN drew inspiration from the traditional 19th-century échoppe bordelaise, small shops that also housed the owner and had space for a garden. "The desire to encourage a new way of life and the need to create attractive buildings that would justify the investments led our research to a hybrid typology combining the house and the apartment," says Napolitano. "This is an emerging form of intermediate housing capable of mixing a desire for privacy and the pleasure of sociability."

Blending in

Urban planning regulations in Granollers dictated the need for traditional building materials and muted design in order not to upstage the 15th-century church of St Stephen, which Housing 137 faces.

"A sense of presence was necessary but we could not make a spectacle of the building," explains Josep Ricart, a partner at H Arquitectes. "We had to beautify the square using elegance and proportion but the church façade was the one that had to stand out – our building had to be more like a backdrop."

Adaptable structural aspects in both developments allow the buildings to express a sense of life and human activity. The most striking features of Housing 137 are the window shutters. They mimic the appearance of stone and close flush with the outside wall creating a seamless façade but breach the exterior when opened. As residents use the windows the pattern changes, altering the way the structure interacts with the surrounding space.

"From the beginning we understood the building as a monolithic volume but at the same time changing every time the inhabitants open or close any of the shutters," says Ricart. "When they're closed, they are camouflaged but as they open they become the active elements in the façade."

The stone itself is not as static as it might at first seem. The permeability of the basalt means that its colour changes in reaction to humidity in the atmosphere. Ricart describes how the owner of the plot was shocked when the stone arrived at the site. It had been raining heavily and the material appeared almost black; only as it dried out was the more subtle grey tone revealed.

The firm originally hoped to use the same basalt on the shutters as the main exterior walls but it was too heavy. Instead, the architects opted for Viroc, a composite of cement and wood fibres which has a very similar appearance to the stone.

"Adaptable structural aspects allow the buildings to express a sense of life and human activity."

Each apartment in the Terres Neuves project has an adaptable loggia, which makes up a third of the floor space. In summer, floor-to-ceiling screens can be peeled back to let in light and air or closed on one side to act as a wind break. In colder weather, the space can be closed off and remain useable. Despite the buildings' stacked, container-like design the presence of exposed outside spaces helps to create the feeling of front gardens in a more traditional street.

"The relative narrowness of the buildings dictated a strategic search for compactness," Napolitano explains.

"We have worked on achieving this without sacrificing the variability that corresponds to the climate of Bordeaux. The region is temperate because of its proximity to the ocean and a reduction of energy consumption can be achieved by improving comfort in both summer and winter."

The exteriors of the buildings at Terres Neuves will blend into a single skin with windows that seem to glow beneath the surface. "What I like in this project is the relationship with the context," says Napolitano. "No more windows, nor doors. Everything is blurred, the building looks like a living machine."

The breaking down of the public-private boundary is most obvious in the creation of commercial spaces at street-level. This is achieved most dramatically in Granollers where the large glass frontages of the retail units force the stone cladding to yield and allow customers to enter freely at street level.

Green credentials

The mayor of Belges, Noel Mamere, a prominent member of Les Verts, France's Green Party has been keen to promote environmentally and economically sustainable development in the city, presenting LAN with an additional hurdle.

"From a social point of view, a system has been put in place to introduce a new category of inhabitants who will change the image of the district so stigmatised by the towers and bars of the fifties," says Napolitano. "A new economic offer will enable the inhabitants – most of them young people – to borrow at favourable rates and own their first home."

The project is not only about the buildings themselves but how the spaces between them help the community interact. Each block is constructed around a central courtyard, providing the residents with a communal outside space. There will also be spaces for terraces to be used by local businesses.

The location was promoted for its proximity to central Bordeaux and a tramline has already been constructed that will run almost to the entrances of the buildings and connect the site to Gare de Bordeaux-Saint-Jean, the city's main railway station.

"It is not only about the buildings themselves but how the spaces between them help the community interact."

The government of Granollers were similarly keen to reclaim the square as a vibrant public space. Ricart feels that it had lost its place in the fabric of the city. The challenge for the architects was to create a building that could balance commercial and residential uses while bolstering the civic role of the church and surrounding public services.

"Despite problems with accessibility and the noise typically associated with town squares, we have to make an effort to maximise the space in our cities," he adds. "Despite its central location the square had become a degraded zone, centrally located but residual; close to the most vibrant areas of the town but outside the urban activity."

While these two projects might not revitalise entire cities, by creating spaces in which public and private spheres can mix they are marked as important steps towards reclaiming neglected districts. Constructing affordable, attractive urban homes is vital if smaller cities and suburbs are to attract new residents. Both developments emphasise interaction between inhabitants and their surroundings and demonstrate how design can help to retrieve seemingly lost modes of living.