More for less: An optimistic strategy of renewal in sombre times

The publication PLUS: Large Scale Housing Development – an Exceptional Case makes a convincing argument for the renewal of big housing complexes in France. In the Dutch situation the PLUS strategy can complement the current, one-sided discussion on the renewal of the post-war city.

Above: example from catalogue

Middle: transformation of an apartment

Under: transformation of a block of flats

The interventions are illustrated in the book in the style of a catalogue according to a ‘cut-n-paste’ method using photos and diagrams: the images show possible transformations inside the home (living room, kitchen, bathroom) and outside the home (communal spaces). The result is a new architectural image on the outside and a higher standard inside. The projects in six French suburbs demonstrate that the catalogue of structural interventions can be deployed differently (i.e. in a specific manner) in each project. A photographic analysis is first used to examine the problems in each location. The photographs show that removing some façades and interior walls will enhance the quality of these complexes. Moreover, the authors explain that for the cost of demolishing a home and building a new one (€167,000 per home) one can renovate three homes (€60,000 per home). This sum includes doubling the floor area and adding terraces and balconies. In other words, the total budget needed for demolition and new construction can be much more intelligently spent on preserving what exists, long-term maintenance and the addition of collective programmes such as a swimming pool, a crèche, a cinema and a roof terrace!

This is optimistic news in sombre times. Owing to the current economic crisis, attention will shift more often to transformation, renovation and renewal instead of demolition and new construction. Innovative and creative solutions are therefore needed, and PLUS is a good example of one. In the Dutch context the PLUS strategy can complement the current, one-sided discussion on the renewal of the post-war city. This strategy makes it possible to work on the job of restructuring at different scales, such as the urban scale (as is common in the Netherlands) and the scale of the building ensemble. PLUS is optimistic and appealing and seems so obvious that you wonder why it is not applied more frequently. It is not a complicated process but involves one client and a convenient assignment. It is a feasible alternative that can be implemented straight away. It makes use of the potential available within a neighbourhood by strengthening the involvement of residents in their immediate surroundings in order to experience the residential buildings as collective objects once again.

This bottom-up working method does prompt a note of criticism, however. How far can you go with this strategy of ‘inside-to-outside’ (of making more volume)? What does that ultimately mean for the open space between the residential buildings in the neighbourhood? For it is precisely the continuous open landscape between buildings that is so characteristic of these neighbourhoods. In other words, what are the urban consequences of the PLUS strategy? Druot, Lacaton and Vassal engage in a form of urbanism in which total plans, composition and planning play no part. They start with one residential building, followed by another one, and then probably the whole neighbourhood. They appeal for a step-by-step strategy applied to a specific situation. The meaning of these renovated residential blocks for the neighbourhood as a whole is unclear. But what is certain is that the final proposal for each building is a convincing answer to the question of whether there is any alternative to the complete transformation of post-war neighbourhoods or banlieues. The PLUS strategy will help power this process of renewal.

the PLUS strategy

How can we achieve this amidst the concrete colossuses in the banlieues? The PLUS method is simple:

1. Open up the façade and demolish a number of interior walls

2. Add a zone of around four metres to the building in the form of a self-supporting (lightweight) structure

3. Add transparent, glazed outer walls

4. Enlarge rooms by merging them together, opening them up or connecting them to one another

5. Create more through-views inside the complex from communal spaces such as lifts, landings and entrance halls.

In their practice, the three authors – French architects Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal – work on making careful and continuous changes to the existing city. To them, total demolition followed by new construction is not an option. The alternative involves making ingenious facelifts geared to creating exceptional residential quality. Alterations to buildings give them and their immediate environment a new appearance. The strategy works ‘from inside to outside’ and always involves the use of existing elements that are transformed or to which new pieces are added. It is a strategy of ‘more and not less’. With the aid of a catalogue full of structural interventions, the three architects show six projects to back up their argument. The result of these transformations is an attractive picture of a modern, lively banlieue, a French suburb.

The underlying question is how can you increase the residential quality in these big housing complexes and enhance the appearance of the banlieues. The view of the designers is that you can only do this by marketing property more effectively. This entails raising the residential quality in these flats to a higher, more luxurious standard. According to Druot, Lacaton and Vassal, a luxury home is essentially a big home. That is why the PLUS strategy is based on increasing the floor area, sometimes even doubling it. PLUS demonstrates that much bigger homes can be created by renovating existing flats (at least, in the French situation). The banality of the current, dead-end situation in the banlieues can therefore be transformed into one with exceptional potential. In the process, architectural tools are deployed to create homes with a distinct quality: a spacious living room, a large terrace and a fantastic view of the city and the countryside.