Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Hygienic Housing (Part 2)

What is the connection between the designer of the most elegant brothel in Paris and an organ player at Versailles Cathedral? The answer is Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin, a two-man design team who together worked on one of the most original building designs ever constructed in Paris. What is even more exceptional about their construction is that it was built as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), and was created to serve the needs of the poorest members of society.

As noted previously, most of the HBM constructions in Paris were built in a ring around the city. They were generally solid, brick-built buildings, drawn to a similar plan and therefore looked largely alike. However, in smaller units where space was at a minimum, occasional more original designs managed to make it off of the drawing board, and this was certainly the case at the Rue des Amiraux, behind Montmartre.

The arrival of city authorities in the provision of social housing, and the large investments that went with this had inspired architects and designers to outdo each other with new ideas in an attempt to win the hefty contracts. The guiding principles behind the constructions, to house the working classes decently and to promote a healthy living environment and lifestyle, already gave ample inspiration to the architects, but this particular development zone, requiring a building to fill a ‘U’ shape with three facades on two different streets, was an awkward one that needed something ingenious.

Sauvage and Sarazin knew they had the solution, having already completed a similar building (Rue Vavin, 75006) which was the prototype of the construction they planned to build here. The design was in a pyramid shape, with each floor having stepping terraces and large windows that were designed to let in as much sun and air as possible. The most interesting aspect of the design was that the shape left a large internal space, an area that could be used for the encouragement of a ‘healthy lifestyle’. Sauvage wanted a cinema to fill the gap, but the city of Paris insisted on a swimming pool. The design was accepted and the building was opened in 1925.

Original designs from Henri Sauvage

The two men were intensely proud of their revolutionary design. They were so sure were they that it would be copied that they patented the design and created a company to deal with the expected flood of commands, something that never materialised. This is surprising in many ways. The building is still stunning today, dressed in pristine white tiles, with long running balconies interspersed with tall stairways and lift-shafts. Being built largely around a framework of large posts and reinforced concrete it was also a very lightweight structure which required minimal foundations, something that made it relatively cheap to build too. The Paris Metro style tiling ensures that the building is washed clean with each rainfall and it looks to be a thoroughly healthy environment, especially with the swimming pool which today is a municipal facility. It remains a mystery to this day why this was the last such building ever constructed.

The second question to answer is how the designer of a brothel could also be involved in the hygienist movement. Interesting as it may sound today, the two were in fact closely linked. Brothels were legal operations in the early decades of the 20th century, with Sauvage’s creation, Le Sphinx being given permission to open "dans un but de santé publique" (in the interests of public health). Each establishment was closely monitored, with all visitors carefully listed, and regular health checks being obligatory for all who worked inside.

Sauvage himself was a very interesting character. Initially a follower of the Art Nouveau movement and a friend of Guimard, his works were in fact precursors of the modernist movement, albeit with persistent decorative touches. He was an eclectic designer and architect, working on hotels, car parks, and part of the famous Samaritaine shop, always in changing styles that made him very difficult to classify. He died relatively young, aged 58, just two years after his most famous construction was finally terminated. Wild he may have been, but his legacy in the city is a gift of eternal elegance.

On the same theme:
- The story behind the HBMs in Paris
- An unusual school unit

11 comments:

Peter said...

One again a very complete and interesting post! I knew about this building and had in mind to one day to make a post, but now I think it's hardly necessary ... or maybe I will make a short (exceptionally) post and refer to yours! I agree, this is a fabulous building which has resisted against time. (This is not always the case with the buildings from the 20's.)

Gina V said...

Very cool building - reminds me a little of the work of Robert Mallet-Stevens, a contemporary who built a street's worth of houses in Auteuil.
Do you know if they are working on the Samaritaine yet - I heard a hotel conversion was in the plans?

Starman said...

I suspect their failure to command any other commissions was somehow political. For some time, I thought, because of its name, the Samaritaine was a hospital.

Adam said...

Peter - There's always room for two! Anyway, I don't think my photos really do justice to the building, something that I think you would do much better. If not, there's always their protoype building in Rue Vavin!

Gina - I wasn't familiar with those buildings but looking now, it's true that there are many similarities - white walls, round staircases. I guess the big difference is that Mallet-Stevens was building for the middle-classes!

Starman - most probably. Your point about the Samaritaine name got me wondering where the name came from. I've now learned that it was named after a water-pump that used to be on the Pont Neuf!

Squirrel said...

these posts just make me want to spend some time walking around Paris....

Peter said...

I actually took some photos Rue Vavin recently, but the street is narrow and it's rather difficult to take photos that give justice to the nice design. (Furthermore, although I couldn't see any missing tiles, there must be some risk of falling tiles, so there is a protection net on the lower floors, like what we saw on the Opéra Bastille.)

CarolineLD said...

Another fascinating look at some amazing public housing, thank you!

ArtSparker said...

What an intriguing building - elements of the facade appear to be attempting to break free, and there is a suggestion of narrow windows on castles for defense in the elongated element. A lively pile.

P.s. your print is on its way.

shanol said...

your blog is a very interesting resource on Paris quirkiness. ive bookmarked it and ill be back soon no doubt

House Hunting in Paris said...

Adam - today when I was meeting with a realtor in the 6th I happened to ask him about the 26 rue Vavin. He said that 3-4 years ago he sold a big (150-200 m2, can't remember) apartment in that building for around 1-2M (also can't remember the exact price). Even though it was renovated by some famous architect and "nickel", the apartment was on the market for OVER A YEAR. The main problems were the appearance of the building (subway tile doesn't appeal to everyone, you don't say) and what he claimed was the poor construction - he said everything echoed, the walls were thin, and you could hear every little noise floors away. That killed my dream of living there on the spot! Anyways thought you might be interested...

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