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Architecture: the art of making do with

The exhibition “Conserve, adapt, transmit” presents 44 Parisian projects under study or in progress, all of which have in common that they are composed of existing buildings, within the walls of the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, which is itself in the process of transformation.

Making the city about the city: just twenty years ago, this slogan put you in the conservative, even backward-looking camp. To be resolutely modern was to destroy without trembling, to throw down the old world to build a new one. Alexandre Labasse, director of the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, which is organizing the exhibition “Conserve, adapt, transmit”, bringing together some forty transformation projects underway in the capital, recalls that the Voisin Plan, presented by Le Corbusier at the 1925 Decorative Arts Exhibition, planned to raze the center of Paris to the ground in order to build a modern city made up of eighteen towers of about thirty stories. Visible on the Net, a video reconstruction by the German architect Clemens Gritl plunges us into this provocation that has remained in the imagination as a repulsor of modernity, an exaggeration of ideas that would be realized in a less ostensible but just as brutal way after the Second World War.

Exhibition ``Conserve, adapt, transmit``, representation of the Parking Lebouteux, 75017 © Salem Mostefaoui

The destruction of Western city centers by urban planning has led to heritage protection measures that are sometimes considered excessive. Between total destruction and absolute conservation – both of which have never happened – an intermediate path has emerged since the mid-1990s, that of “making do”, as outlined in the Pavillon de l’Arsenal exhibition “Architecture 1 + 1″ in 1996. Twenty-seven years later, more than 70% of building permit applications are for conversion projects,” observes Alexandre Labasse. The sign of a change of era and of architectural practices that are evolving massively, as much by choice as by necessity.

Transform everything


What will be transformed in Paris in 2022? Visitors to the exhibition will be struck by the diversity of the heritage and buildings. Some projects involve changes of use, with offices being converted into housing or mixed-use programs, such as the headquarters of the Assistance publique-Hôpitaux de Paris converted into housing, offices and services by a team of architectural agencies (Perrault, MBL, H20 and Nicolas Dorval-Bory). The transition from the individual to the architectural collective is another witness to the changing times. From the business building converted into a coworking space (rue Joseph-de-Maistre, by Vincent Eschalier) to the military hangar reassigned to the reception of migrants (La Boulangerie, by François Brugel and Atelier Rita), the programs reflect contemporary practices and crises. They bear witness to the latest industrial transformations, with the conversion of buildings that distribute electricity for the metro or the city (the Cerisaie substation by Ciguë, Vétillard and Neufville-Gayet), or the decline of the automobile industry, with the transformation of garage buildings, the subject of a previous exhibition at the Arsenal curated by the Data agency, which transformed the garage on rue Lamarck.

In situ exhibition "Conserve, adapt, transmit" © Salem Mostefaoui
Exhibition "Conserve, adapt, transmit", representation of the Garage Lamarck, 75018 Salem Mostefaoui

A final batch of projects brings buildings built in the 1960s up to date. More than a facelift, they give a new lease on life to complexes that have become obsolete in terms of equipment, performance, space, functionality and image. What is less perennial than modernity, as emphasized by the operations of the Poissonniers tower (AUC+Fagart & Fontana, Paris 18th) or the rue Bayen (Baumschlager+Eberle, Paris 17th)?

In situ exhibition ``Conserve, adapt, transmit`` © Salem Mostefaoui

The law of carbon


These projects, which will be delivered in the next two to three years, have recent precedents, such as the conversion of the former prefecture on Boulevard Morland by David Chipperfield into housing, hotels, offices and eight other programs, and the renovation of the Bois-le-Prêtre tower by Lacaton et Vassal. The good health of the Parisian real estate sector facilitated their realization. The lack of available land encourages them, as well as the conservation of building rights that have disappeared from contemporary PLUs, but it is above all the environmental agenda that imposes transformation, previously an often losing hypothesis to demolition.

Exhibition "Conserve, adapt, transmit", representation of the Pavillon de l'Arsenal, 75004 © Salem Mostefaoui
Exhibition "Conserve, adapt, transmit", TLM representation, 75019 © Salem Mostefaoui

L’intégration de la donnée carbone dans les projets d’architecture commande la conservation de la structure pour réduire les émissions de CO2 de 250 kg/eqCO2/m2, sur les 750 émis lors de la construction d’un bâtiment neuf. Suivant les cas, la préservation de la façade et l’amélioration de l’enveloppe permettront de réaliser d’autres économies d’énergie et de CO2. Cependant, nous n’habitons pas des bilans carbone, et l’intérêt de ces opérations tient aux améliorations spatiales et fonctionnelles qu’elles introduisent dans des bâtiments existants. Plus de lumière, plus de confort, plus de considération pour les espaces intermédiaires des courettes et des terrasses et, lorsque les façades ne sont pas transformées trop profondément, la valorisation d’écritures architecturales récentes mais mal considérées… La transformation de l’existant, une pratique constante de l’architecture éclipsée durant quelques décennies, revient au cœur de la création avec des effets parfois spectaculaires, à l’instar de la transformation sur le Front de Seine de la tour Cristal par l’agence danoise BIG. Comme le design ou la mode, l’architecture réapprend à faire avec.

Olivier Namias

“Conserve, adapt, transmit”, until March 5, 2023 at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, 21, boulevard Morland, Paris IVe