In Bourg-la-Reine almost by accident, I spot a building that makes the detour seem worthwhile. As I pull out my camera and start taking pictures, a window opens behind me and out pops a head. “Do you know what that building is?” it asks.
The head belongs to an ancient lady, perhaps as old as the building itself. I shake my head, and she begins to tell me its story.
The house was built by an entrepreneur called François Hennebique at the beginning of the 20th century, and was possibly the first such private residence to be built using reinforced concrete. It was designed to be not only a home to his extended family, but also to act as a showroom highlighting the many possibilities offered by concrete constructions (and therefore by Hennebique's own company).
Hennebique was passionate about the material, famously declaring that ‘on peut tout demander au béton armé, et il peut tout reproduire’ (you can ask anything of concrete, and it can reproduce everything). He may not have been the original inventor of many of the procedures he employed with concrete, but he was most certainly the best businessman in the field and also a fine marketing man.
As will become quickly clear, he was also a man of many snappy catchphrases, and this house was the key to one of those – “Travailler en ville, se reposer à la campagne” (work in the city, relax in the country) he said, describing his reasons for building a home outside of the city in which he worked (nb – a future post will deal with the Paris offices of his construction company).
Difficult as it is to imagine today, this house was indeed originally a country residence, albeit one which – importantly – was situated close to a train station, and thus accessible in less than 30 minutes from Paris. Built alongside the railway line, it also acted as a permenant advertising structure for people passing by on trains.
Despite Hennebique’s claims about wanting to relax in the countryside, perhaps his real reason for building a house in Bourg-la-Reine was to escape the rigid and restrictive planning reglementation in Paris. Hennebique wanted to build something extraordinary, and this house is certainly an eccentric construction.
The rule he most wanted to bypass was the one restricting a building’s height, principally to incorporate the 40 metre high water tower that still stretches above the building today (known locally as ‘the minaret’). The tower was not just an extravagant folly, but also a fully functional feature, and was used to water the crops on the various terraces which would supposedly help the home to become partially self-sufficient.
Along with the tower, other features such as the curved terraces and cantilever beams seem to exist only to show off the possibilities of concrete. The rest of the design is in accordance with Hennebique’s motto – and another catchphrase - "fleurs, lumière et aération" (flowers, light and ventilation), with the large windows and rooftop terraces bringing it into line with other hygienist constructions of the era.
“There, you’ve had a personal guided tour” says the old lady, before carefully shutting her window. She’ll return to her quiet life, waiting for the next curious visitor to stop outside, whilst I’m left to ponder on what has become of the building today.
In truth, though striking, the building is not a complete success, and is even ugly in parts. It is of course no longer a single home, and has been divided into apartments, apparently some of the most sought after in the town. To give an idea of the scale of the original property, one article reports that an entire family today lives in what was Hennebique’s dining room, and another is lodged in his living room.
The building was finally given protection in 1972, but not before a shamefully ugly extension was added at the front in the 1960s. Perhaps this addition, more even than the decline of Hennebique’s own construction business, shows how low the stock of concrete had fallen at the time. His house still remains to show the heights it can attain.
La Maison Hennebique
1, avenue du Lycée-Lakanal
RER B, Bourg la Reine