residential towers and disappearing platforms

Le Mirail is most famous for its towers. Rising above the rest, branching out at 120 degree angles, they are the trademark of the district. Of course, the area has many other types of housing: from four story midrise complexes to clustered townhouses there actually is great diversity. The townhouses are especially exciting; intricately arranged to support a number of sizes of private and semiprivate courtyards, alleys, pathways and even car parks. Now delightfully overgrown, you can see that these places were designed with some sort of plant takeover in mind: on the ledge of every roof sit cast concrete plant boxes whose flowers and vines cascade over their brim and fall along the wall.

But let me get back to the star residences: the towers. The townhouses function (beautifully) as residences, but are semi-autonomously conceived as residential villages in proximity to a commercial center. The towers, on the other hand, were designed to function seamlessly with commerce centers below.

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 107.

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008).

A basic tower block consists of a vertical access core flanked by two apartments; one on either side. Every four to six floors, a piece of the apartment floor area is sacrificed for a public corridor that runs the length of the façade. This corridor sometimes is evident on the backside of the building by the presence of balconies. The smaller space made opportunity for the design of duplex apartments. In other cases, (higher up in these non-elevator-equipped high rises) smaller apartments or studios were designed. This vertically accessed apartment block can be attached, stacked, mirrored or rotated, so long as the public corridor remains continuous. When the block is rotated, it leaves a space for an elevator, another more public stairwell, or even the meeting of two corridors. These corridors were intended to be streets in the air, while other function horizontal access was eliminated by placing apartment entries inside the stair wells. These stair wells in buildings designed by Candilis are actually quite pleasant, due to the skylight that allows daylight down almost to the full depth of the section, the silver lining in the funding shortage that prevented the installation of elevators in that shaft.

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 200.

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 126.

On the expansive facades of these structures you see only minor changes. Balconies are peppered with satellite dishes, a few enclosed by safety railings, and aging paint peels at will. The greater moves have happened where the towers meet the ground. Originally surrounded by an elevated deck, these pedestrian walkways kept residents away from streets below and the high speed traffic that accompanied them. The problem was that the people also needed to get to cars, and the point of transfer—the parking lot underneath the deck—became extremely dangerous. It was not just the fault of the architecture; a lack of security played into it, but the dark unlocked space away from public eyes didn’t help. After increased crime, the city tore down these decks. Although a quick improvement in safety, with the deck destruction, a big piece of the logic of the place fell apart.

Now, a few isolated platforms cling to their towers and lay empty. Occasional walkers come out to sit, but mostly it is just grasses that actively use the space, digging through and slowly tearing apart the aging concrete slabs.

**Addendum**

I have added an urban section that describes the original building platforms and pedestrian connections they accommodated, along with the current situation of the structures.

Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 159.

le mirail: architectural institutions

One of the mainstays in Toulouse le Mirail’s commercial existence the University of Toulouse le Mirail, which brings over 30 000 students into the northernmost neighborhood (le Mirail) almost every day during the school year. As these students are from relatively diverse economic backgrounds, they support a commercial area around the metro station near the school.

The metro, which I will discuss more later, brought a lot of activity into the region, rescuing the neighborhoods from complete despair. But its effect on the university developed an interesting (and not so positive) twist, according to architect and professor Remi Papillault, who works in le Mirail, teaches at the university and has conducted many studies on the area. Because students can now get to the center of Toulouse in only 10 minutes, there is far less incentive for them to stay near the university. While once they studied and lived here, now they just study, and instead rent apartments in the city center. Their freedom has changed the commercial offerings in the area, which are almost exclusively daytime venues.

university plan

source:

Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 138.

bird’s eye view

source:

Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 138.

Tectonically and spatially the university, and its nearby architecture school, are quite interesting. The university is conceived to be somewhat reminiscent of a medina, and its car-sized hallway network extends through all the buildings, enclosing doorways and surrounding well hidden courtyards.

university of toulouse le mirail, architecture school

source:

Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008)

The architecture school operates with a similar, though more complex structure. Filled with ample communal space (the building was designed in 1969), its post and beam structure intends to allow moveable partitions to be easily removed or added, should the need arise. This skeleton extends even outside the mostly daylight building, dissolving into the green park space that separates the architects from the rest of their university colleagues.

Many thanks to Vanessa Fernandez, a professor of architecture at University Toulouse le Mirail, for organizing meetings for me and taking me around the campus!

the house of the mad man

It is the local name for Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation (or Cité Radieuse). Inspired by a culture of resistance to architectural innovation that endangers the typical southern French style, this building is known by most residents as the butt of a joke. But the building, one of France’s first high-rise social housing complex, has what I would call the typical complicated relationship with the legacy left by its mid century maker.

To preserve or not? In this case, the answer is obviously “yes,” but it brings to light some of the issues I have found elsewhere in cities that need to carefully craft the potential straight jacket of preservation controls.

From the outside, nothing can change. Residents must maintain even the paint colors on their balconies, and cannot add or delete any façade elements. Inside, anything goes. I was told that if the residents have the means, they update their apartments extensively. Unfortunately I could not access the apartments themselves, but I was able to explore the residential hallways and the commercial “street” inside the building. Hallways maintain their original aesthetics, though some of the functional elements, like two way grocery delivery cupboards, no longer operate.

The commercial street contains some shops, but they are nothing like the shops intended. A gourmet Le Corbusier themed restaurant takes advantage of the beautiful view on the Mediterranean while an architecture bookshop anchors the neighboring commercial wing.

So, the shell of the building is preserved, the apartments even in their alterations make use of the innovative duplex design, but the commercial functions fail to maintain any vitality with respect to the daily uses of inhabitants.

Beyond the building, the view of its copies, mostly designed quickly and cheaply to create cheap housing, presents another scenario, one the France has been attempting to deal with almost since its inception.

Here the social housing projects, or cité in French, suffer from two major issues: strict regulation and thin socioeconomic diversity. The first prevents both residents living in undifferentiated apartments and entrepreneurs in repetitive shops from changing things to fit their needs. The second stems from the French policy of pushing its lower income residents to the fringe of the cities, into these large housing projects with little commercial attractors to bring in other civilians even on a daily basis. The lack of a diverse economic environment prevents a difficult situation for commerce to grow.

As I post more on my time in France I will deal with both of these issues in more detail. In Marseille in particular, the haphazard placement of the high-rises away from viable public transit and major commercial centers has further reduced their capacity to adapt to the city’s growing economy.