In Paris, an Affordable Housing Complex Creates a New Vertical Neighborhood

Taking the train out to the northwestern suburbs of Paris on a sunny day, passengers bound for Clichy will notice a sparkling latticed world rising from the southern bank of the Seine. This cluster of buildings is Rue Camille Claudel (RCC), a housing complex recently completed by Parisian practice Hamonic + Masson & Associates. Through weightless, patternized delight, RCC refutes the misconception that affordable housing need be dull.

What appears as an act of architectural levitation is no mirage: The seven buildings that compose RCC, arranged across a 258,000-square-foot site, are raised on columns. These hoists not only enable maximum opportunity for sunlight capture throughout the complex’s 330 apartments—each with its own wraparound balcony—but also transform the cavernous underside of the buildings into spaces for interaction. Mirrors line the undercarriage, creating a kaleidoscopic world overhead.

A pathway unfurls between buildings, running alongside the architect-designed public road that bisects the site. When it fully grows in, the handiwork of local landscape architecture firm CoBe (not to be confused with the Danish studio of the same name) will add to the intimate feel of this space, even offering hide-and-seek spots for younger residents enrolled in RCC’s on-site nursery and nearby middle school. Above ground level, the feeling of being inside a city within a city only intensifies. Each of the seven buildings has its own geometric plan and axis, resulting in a diversity of forms where squat ziggurat-like structures shoulder up with funky, zigzagging blocks and slick towers.

A reaction to the city’s grands ensembles—the gargantuan affordable housing edifices that cropped up in Parisian suburbs from the 1960s and 1980s—as much as to the developer’s brief for a megastructure-like complex, Hamonic + Masson’s proposal for RCC was selected from an open competition in 2013. As built, RCC’s strategy of linking its seven constituent buildings through scale, design details, and shared open space is one of the most notable examples of new affordable housing in Europe.

For Hamonic + Masson, community is made not just on land but in the sky. “The balcony is a shortcut to liberty,” declares Jean-Christophe Masson, principal of Hamonic + Masson & Associates, at the offices of the 20-person practice in the Marais. And the firm has made the design moves to prove it: Ranging from two to 30 square meters, the larger terraces of pricier market-rate apartments ensure that the 132 affordable units—40 percent of the total spread across four of the seven buildings—get the same stunning views of the Seine to the north, parkland to the south, and the glossy skyline of the Parisian financial district to the west.

Each balcony is partially clad with patterned, perforated metal, offering some privacy in what is otherwise an intimate vertical neighborhood. In full sun, the matte-white metalwork—which the architects describe as a fusion of contemporary Mediterranean and ancient Persian design—casts an intricate pattern of shadows.

Barely six months in, the new neighborhood is already bursting with personality from residents who have made it their own: Scattered across the lightning bolt of balconies are countless trikes and strollers, grandma-chic garden gnomes, makeshift offices, even a couple of luxe terraces primed for Airbnb. “It’s completely schizophrenic, in fact,” Masson confirms with a twinkle in his eye. “To live together is to celebrate these differences—this is the true story of collective housing.”

(Published on: Metropolis Magazine )