Architects: Dominique Coulon & Associés
Location: La Courneuve, France
Architects In Charge: Dominique Coulon, Olivier Nicollas
Assistant Architects: Sarah Brebbia, Benjamin Rocchi, Arnaud Eloudyi, Florence Haenel
Area: 6,500 sqm
Photographs: Eugeni Pons, Olivier Nicollas
Structural Engineer: Philippe Clement, Cécile Plumier, Frédéric Blanc
Mechanical Engineer: Marc Damant, Annie Pikard
Landscape: Bruno Kubler
The scheme reorganises the neighbourhood on the basis of the right-angled intersection of two historic axes, one leading from Paris– from the Saint-Michel fountain – to St Denis’ Cathedral, the other starting from the cathedral and heading towards St Lucien’s church. This crossing of X and Y axes highlights the surfacing of various traces – ruins of a Gallo-Roman necropolis stand where the scarred landscape bears witness to the demolition of the ‘Ravel’ and ‘Presov’ blocks of flats, dynamited on 23 June 2004. As if the map had marked the territory with a tattoo.
The group of schools occupies a trapezoid-shaped plot of land obliterated by the non-aedificandi area corresponding to the location of one of the two buildings that were demolished. Dominique Coulon stays in line with the scheme and the intentions of Bernard Paurd, but seems to consider this scar as the substratum for an act of resilience – a psychological process analysed by Boris Cyrulnik that makes it possible to overcome traumatic situations – rather than the stigma of an irreversible situation. He thus returns spontaneously to his work on twisting shapes, a theme that recurs constantly in his projects.
Despite its sliding volumes, folds and asymmetry, the building gives a first impression of an enclosed shape with few openings. The primary school classrooms, superposed on the site, only opens up to any real extent to their gardens at the side. Although on the outside the verticality is dominant as a result of the many indentations that break up the façades, it is paradoxically the horizontal aspect that is more evident once through the entrance. As if an infinite universe was opening up inside a strictly defined area, welcoming a heterotopia reserved for the children. An initiatory place where the pupils can be cut off from the adult world, so that they can adopt the necessary distance and momentum the better to dive into it in due course.
Particular attention seems to have been paid to passages from one space to another, to thresholds: entering the school, taking off your coat and hanging it up before going through the door into the classroom and sitting down in front of the teacher; laughing as you leave the classroom, and shouting out in the playground at playtime. That is how the building works, from the entrance onwards, in a subtle two-fold movement of advance and retreat.
The classrooms, corridors and playgrounds of the ‘Josephine Baker’ schools stretch out and break up around an indefinite body, a body in perpetual transformation, a body of feelings ready to be touched by the slightest ray of sunshine and to perceive a thousand opportunities for play in the slightest variation in the weather.
The use of natural products – such as linoleum on the floors, and wood for the door and window frames – and the attention paid even to the smallest details contribute to making the building an almost luxurious place, a place hailed enthusiastically at its inauguration by a population of parents and pupils who are keen to turn the page of the demolitions and look resolutely to the future.