In the 1st century BC, Roman author Vitruvius wrote the only surviving architectural treatise from antiquity known to man. This founding text resumes the fundamental principles of his art in three words: usefulness, stability, beauty. Fast forward fifteen hundred years, and one of his successors, the Italian Leone Battista Alberti, took up this credo, awarding it a more humanist tone, where stability and beauty are replaced by comfort and pleasure. The founding principles of human-centric architecture existed, but to the benefit of who exactly? At that point in time, almost nobody, with the exception of the nobility and upper echelons of the clergy. Everyone else had to make do with only basic shelter, which was more likely to be a cramped and unsanitary place both to live and work. It took until the 18th century, when the Age of Enlightenment became more widely accepted, for things to move on. Enter Nicolas Ledoux, in Arc-et-Senans in the department of Doubs, eastern France. 240 years after its construction, his Royal Saltworks (Saline Royale) is a utopian manifesto, quite unique for its time, offering clean, bright and decent workers’ housing – a first step that would pave the way for others to follow, albeit several decades later. The industrial revolution spawned the mass construction of workers’ housing estates, designed specifically to house workers with a part paternalistic, part health-driven approach.
In the early 20th century, the concept of affordable housing and the basic right to a home became a reality. But in the heart of the towns and cities, progress was slow: in 1926 in France, one-third of residents living in cities with a population in excess of 50,000 were forced to withstand overcrowded conditions, deprived of the most basic comforts. Somewhat paradoxically, it was the 1930s depression and notably the Second World War that provided the necessary catalyst. At the end of the conflict, huge swathes of France were in need of reconstruction. The French Government had no alternative but to tackle the problem head on, and in so doing initiating the boom in social housing. Built as cheaply as possible, these blocks of flats were nonetheless rigorously designed to meet residents’ needs. The notion of well-being had now made its mark on architect design briefs. Beacons of rationalism, more than 60 years after the buildings first opened, Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, or Radiant City, constructed in Marseille and also in de Rézé, still perfectly embodies this seachange towards human-scale architecture. And its sense of purpose has not diminished in architectural tenders of the current day, featuring more restricted spaces to make life more interesting, communal areas, services, internal streets, schools and even a gym. In essence, miniature vertical cities burgeoning with life. And what is left of this spirit of reconstruction today? “Let’s be realistic, faced with the urgency to provide France with low-cost housing, well-being didn’t always feature during the period 1960-1990”, explains Nicola Delon, co-founding principal of Encore Heureux Architects collective. “But for a number of years now, it has been making a major comeback in housing projects, in major amenities and also among urban planners”.
At Encore Heureux, this notion of pleasure has been cultivated to greater or lesser extent for the last seventeen years. Inspired by the ecosophy of philosopher Felix Guattari, the agency collective advocates an approach where function and sense are one and the same, where historical tradition and contemporary usability go hand in hand with a rigorous environmentally-conscious approach. Their portfolio is scattered with buildings naturally orientated towards joy, such as cinemas, cultural amenities and even a play area in Marseille, each constructed with the same attention to detail. Housing and tertiary buildings also feature, driven by the same sense of purpose to provide residents with a greatly enriched experience. Which is exactly the objective of the renovation project of Hutchinsons tyre building. “This project was of particular significance since Gustave Eiffel was responsible for its creation! It’s not easy to follow a name of that calibre”, admits Nicola Delon, “but we wanted to align its prestigious heritage with contemporary approaches, integrating vast, open, modular spaces and a grand central staircase like an amphitheatre, fitted with a toboggan no less!”
For the agency founded in 2012 by architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul, “being well” remains the focus of its work. For Duthilleul, joy is a simple and complex state resulting from the interaction between humans and their physical surroundings, which could be other humans, a landscape or a confined space. “The idea that a place can inspire joy is expressed using every string to the architect’s bow, including shapes, rhythms, materials, scale and of course light”, he points out. “It’s also about articulating intimate and community space in perfect harmony”. In this respect, railway stations and iconic buildings, Duthilleul’s two pet subjects, provide “test beds” for experimentation. “For Belfort railway station for example, we created a vast, peaceful belvedere where travellers can quietly contemplate the countryside. And when we designed Saint Francois de Molitor church in Paris, we wanted to bring communion to life. While contemplation and communion are not the usual usages of contemporary architecture, when given the chance to rewrite the rules, buildings take on a whole new dimension.”
Enhancing man’s interaction with the environment is complex enough when constructing a single building, but what happens when the project escalates to the scale of a town? “There are even more parameters than in architecture”, points out Laetitia Lafont, urban architect developing large-scale urban projects in Metz and Savenay.“A lot comes down to the materials we use – asphalt for green routes through parks and in negative and positive spaces – light, but also the interaction with the surrounding fabric, a town’s different uses and social ties and traffic, which are two major elements forming the pulse of a city. A joyful area is not necessarily a place where everything looks great and is manicured to perfection, but instead where residents can use the space however they wish and spend time around others.”
The idea that a place can inspire joy is expressed using shapes, rhythms, materials, scale and of course light.
With just a few cable lengths separating the two islands in Japan’s Seto Internal Sea, Naoshima and Teshima are entirely dedicated to contemporary art. A businessman’s dream at the end of the 1980s, these open-air museums are also a living environment where visitors are free to communicate with nature and reconnect with their inner peace.
Founded in 2004 by Nicola Delon and Julien Choppin, Encore Heureux, is a collective of committed architects who combine great levels of sensitivity in every aspect of ecology with a spontaneous, willingly light-hearted approach, and who focus on inventing new usages. Above, one of their creation for the Hutchinson Tyres Innovation Centre, the 507 Fab House