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.