In the heart of the Paris-Saclay cluster – a miniature French-style Silicon Valley that has been under construction for a decade in the south-west of Paris – Stéphanie Bru and Alexandre Theriot (Bruther), in association with Adrien Verschuere (Baukunst), completed the Rosalind Franklin university residence in the autumn of 2020. Fitting the two parts of the programme – 192 social student housing units with common areas and commercial premises; a partly reversible underground and open-air car park with 491 spaces – in the same building in a U-shape around a shared garden, the project is striking for its strange mixture of aesthetic intransigence, structural commitment and spatial generosity.
The six-storey building stands along the new boulevard, the backbone of Michel Desvigne, Xaveer De Geyter and Floris Alkemade’s urban project, soon to be highlighted by the viaduct of the Grand Paris metro. And yet there is nothing frontal about this architecture, which resembles rather a large inhabited skeleton, in raw concrete, crafted horizontally by views and light. As is often the case in Bruther’s work, the project has been conceived as a stack of platforms whose occupation is made as free as possible by optimizing the construction system (but also by hyperrationalizing the fluids). Unusually for this type of programme – the very tight partitioning of the student accommodation not requiring large spans – the architects have designed this building as a large, perfectly regular structure whose 7.60 m bays are capable of accommodating three parking spaces as well as three single rooms, two studios, or even offices.
If you can do something complicated, you can do something simple
Anticipating the real-estate pressure generated by the future metro station, the reversibility of a section of the car park was part of the competition. However, Bruther and Baukunst were the only ones to make it a driving force of the project and to propose, not to juxtapose, but to superimpose the elements of the programme in a single building, strong enough to resist their unpredictable evolution. The MVRDV generation was fond of these programmatic millefeuille situations, over-expressing the composite heterogeneity in the façade. Bruther’s generation, by contrast, neutralizes it, subjecting it to a common and autonomous structural order.
The significant recess of the façade of the housing units (unfortunately not as glazed as in the competition project) reveals the continuous spectacle of the post-slab skeleton, without any primary beams, a fact which underlines as much the ordinariness of generic equipment as the learned culture of architecture, as much the standards of engineering works as the Corbusian archetype of the Dom-Ino house. The vaults of the attic, which house the upper levels of the shared duplexes, and the outdoor spiral staircases, topped by a concrete disc, help to evoke this diffuse and ambiguous modernist imaginary, both hot and cold, between the Brazil of Lina Bo Bardi and the Netherlands of Jan Duiker.
Thinking by doing
Bruther shares with Baukunst the same strategic commitment to the act of building, the same belief that it is the condition of architecture, both as a form and as a matrix of uses. But this interest in building, in ‘doing’, which, Stéphanie Bru reminds us, constitutes their ‘way of thinking’, in no way implies a return to traditional or artisanal materials.[i] In limited numbers, theirs are resolutely industrial, little transformed, and most often left raw. It is as if, by appropriating the forces of the building and civil engineering works industry, it seemed possible to infuse architecture with a tectonic, even telluric energy likely to restore its lost power to transform situations. Their masterful repurposing of the technical and functional motif of the double ramp of the car park (one to go up, one to go down) bears witness to this. Isolated, symmetrical, suspended from the structure (to be more easily removed in the event of a conversion), it gives the double-height ground floor a Chambord-like appearance.
[i] Stéphanie Bru, conference at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, 7 June 2017.