le mirail: regulated change

In Le Mirail, a look at the past and present (with thoughts for the future) has illustrated a planned city that was really only half-finished. Since this particular concept depends on the connectivity of all the pieces, it is hard to pin the issues of the place on lack of appropriateness of the plan.

Problems here are both architectural and institutional. While the architectural issues can be (and are being) addressed through a careful observation and response to trends within the satellite city, there are larger institutional issues that need to be resolved just to allow these architectural changes to take place. The biggest is a blind organizational structure that over-regulates stifles meager attempts at revitalization.

The changes that happen are largely dictated by regional or even national policies that have little to do with the particular situation of the city itself. And since Toulouse has followed France’s de facto policy to put all immigrants and low income group people outside the city, in this case in Le Mirail, the area has little economic diversity, no voice and hardly any extra energy to spend on group dynamics and political struggles. Therefore, all major changes have been regulated from above, and with the exception of the metro system, have had mediocre effect in changing the place, for better or worse.

One particular issue I see in designs to update or fix Le Mirail is in their scale. Every change, from the demolition of the pedestrian deck and French town replacement in Bellefontaine, to wholesale destruction of the towers themselves, is massive. At the same time, incremental interventions are smothered by strict regulations and expensive renovation requirements.

But let’s say that the government of Toulouse decides to defy France’s pro-demolition policy and rework Toulouse-Le Mirail, details first. What are some of cues in the way the place is now used that can inform its evolution?

The 3 metro stops in the area have reconnected Le Mirail to the city center of Toulouse, its first move away from isolation. In some way, the underground connection has replaced the lost pedestrian deck, by connecting people, and not their vehicles, to the three commercial centers. Although the university housing may have suffered from loss of students to city center apartments, the rest of the region only stands to gain business from this connection. Each area already has a commercial center that is somewhat active, but could expand a great deal even to meet the needs of inhabitants.

With regard to buildings, it is easy enough to add pieces, though few residents have done even that. However, because the structures were built with load bearing concrete panel systems, it is difficult to subtract anything from the mix. While anything besides aesthetic touch ups would require major work, projects to update these towers could focus more on strategic demolition, or the implementation of a second structural system to allow partial removal of the first.

The vehicular system needs attention. Designed to separate people from cars, the roads wrap the residential edges, cutting off this piece of the urban fabric from the rest of the city, which by now has grown out to it. A disorienting hexagonal system discourages non-residents from using the roads as thoroughfares, reinforcing the enclosure. Since the elevated decks have already mostly been dismantled, it is time to reconsider the ground, and pedestrian relationships alongside and between the roads. Already some sidewalks have been laid, but the path network can be much richer…it is already growing if you pay attention to the dirt tracks worn through lawns.

ground space

Designed into parts of the plan and increased by platform dismantling, open spaces at the ground have infiltrated and perhaps intend to take over the now semi-urban plan.

Concrete Logistical requirements grouped cars at the edges of built complexes.

Concrete (interspersed) gardens and paths are designed near high towers.

Concrete block construction is revealed in the destruction of a wall.

Concrete (breaking) pre-cast benches pepper the landscape.

Concrete (breaking) paths through the planned gardens in Reynerie.

Concrete roads leading to the towers, flanked by parking lots.

Concrete (overflowing): Despite ample space, cars park in green areas.

Permeable paths worn between housing clusters.

Permeable (growing) unused garden spaces slowly grow wilder.

elevated deck islands and commerce anchors

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), 154.

In the islands of pedestrian decks also float a few commercial habitats. Clustered around metro stations, they already have an elevation change on their side. I looked at two of these clusters in Le Mirail and Bellefontaine. Reynerie’s metro stop opens into an enormous expanse of concrete.

bellefontaine:

Bellefontaine’s deck consists only of a day care center with a bridge over the road to the metro tower, and a temporary ramp down the backside of a grocery store. The ramp itself is fascinating. Comprised of a series of octagonal plates clamped in place, there is beauty in the quickly constructed joints whose intricate appearance stands out amidst a backdrop of prefab concrete slabs. The remainder of Bellefontaine’s shopping area was torn down and replaced, for what city described as safety reasons.

the surface of le mirail:

More complete and more vibrant is the commercial island at le Mirail metro stop. The pedestrian moves slowly up through this maze, beginning first in shaded seating under trees at the ground level, then rising through ramps to the next terrace and the last, at each point walking on the roof of shops whose facades had vied for attention one level before. Without realizing, the pedestrian crosses over a bridge that brings her not to another deck, but to a hill in a park that meanders back to the ground one block south, in Reynerie.

underneath le mirail:

The surface of this commerce island is pleasant & active, drawing a passerby through almost unintentionally. But the spell breaks the minute the observer steps down a staircase and confronts the wall of the compound, or a chain link fence. Below lurks the post office storage and logistical division, carefully cut off from visitors. So while the design easily creates an activated public surface in the air, it does so by sacrificing the ground. In this case, I believe it was intentional: the carefully articulated elevated surface honed the pedestrian atmosphere while the ground organized logistical systems, whether it was mail trucks, garbage collectors or personal automobiles. The original drawings show a clear distinction between logistical space and inhabitable space.

section perspective

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), 201.

commerce section

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), 202.

Again, I feel the point that is missing is the transfer. People using mail trucks, going to their cars, will walk outside the designated public zone. So will those who need it as a short cut—provided it is safe. For that inevitable but maybe unintended use, these buildings need a better sense of “back”—one as considered as the front.

details:

One boon from taking the side stairs: I got to see through the brick and concrete faced structure into the real building skeleton (which, admittedly, was more concrete). The façade which seemed carefully composed of structurally efficient prefab concrete beams, is actually only 2 inch cladding filled with half inch brick cladding. The structure is, unsurprisingly, a simple reinforced concrete frame.

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!