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’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.


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.


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


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


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


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.

european questions

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City proposal for Paris

I spent the first five months of the year visiting cities in places where the absence of enforced regulation in some way or another allowed individual desires to gain momentum in changing the city’s face. Whether it was through ignoring what went on behind the façade, turning a blind eye to back alley encroachments or allowing traditional structure to top of failing roof systems, these cities balanced the challenges of a changing environment by allowing, and sometimes learning from, the gradual makeovers initiated and encouraged by their citizens.

The results are mixed. Ankara’s “loading zone” commercial streets sit alongside Chandigarh’s booth markets and Tel Aviv’s sidewalk cafes, while Cairo’s cars crush all other inhabitants of the zone of the street. Bahir Dar maintains its street grid in the complete absence of infrastructure and Heliopolis holds its commercial shifts within the framework of a separately structured façade.

As I now move through Western Europe, I am faced with an entirely different scenario. Massive housing projects, cities themselves, pepper the fringes of major urban areas, and experiments on the life and actions of the human stand as monuments to the ideas of their creators. Many of the new towns were built for the benefit of the lesser economic classes, who remain the only group significantly housed this way.

These cities do not deal with an extreme population pressure, and many of them lack the range of economic development seen in my previous case studies. Both these factors change a lot about what happens as the place ages. But I think that the most important difference is the role of the institution in the transformation of these places. Rather than allowing private changes at all scales, or catching on to trends and adopting them, the institution (city planners, think tanks, administration) is an active agent in directing the transformation. Institutional interventions happen at a larger scale, while the small scale private stuff is largely suppressed. As I move through Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Italy) I have been, and hope to further explore this relationship, to understand how the city can act as its own transformer, and what effect that has on the perception of the place.

monasteries of lake tanaa

The eucalyptus-structured buildings grew out of an older tradition of dung building in ethiopia, some monumental examples of which i got to see in the churches of LakeTanaa, near Bahir Dar. In these massive structures, the walls are constructed of dung and fiber, while the doors inlaid are of solid trunks of wood. The church is built around a square wooden box altar that is covered with brightly colored paintings, whose color has been preserved by the darkness maintained inside. The inner wall, a solid earthen ring buttressed at three points, is offset by a lightweight outer wood frame, covered by a bamboo screen which is attached by leather. It is tied when wet so that it shrinks into place as it dries. A similar detail holds the under-layer of the roof together. Although they were originally built with dried grass roofs, the monks have switched to aluminum sheets because they better protect the paintings inside.

ethiopian adaptation

I had to reroute my Eritrean airplane ticket to Ethiopia at the last minute, when after visiting Eritrean embassies in every country I entered (I am now on a first name basis with the visa issuing officers in both the US and India), I finally came to the realization that they just might not give me a visa in time to visit the country.

So I decided to take a small detour to see what I could find in Ethiopia. Though it was never fully colonized, Italy occupied the country in an attempt to expand their territory between Somaliland and Eritrea.

Italians did not create the same urban presence in Addis Ababa as they did in Asmara, so I did not get to see an example of a modern Italian colony.  However, many cities around the country were planned at least at the infrastructural level in the mid twentieth century. Because time was short and transportation in Ethiopia slow (bus journeys are often measured in days or half days instead of hours) I was only able to go to one of these cities outside Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar.

Bahir Dar was first planned in the 1940s, but its masterplan was created in 1956. Today it is considered to be one of the best developed cities in Ethiopia. While I was there they were preparing for the elections, and the UN had sent numerous delegates to observe and aid the process. It provided extra employment for locals, whose English skills developed for tourism allowed them to act as translators.

The large buildings of Bahir Dar are built with the typical concrete frame and brick infill wall, but in the smaller structures that either cling to these hulks or cluster at the periphery of the town, I observed an extremely interesting, simple construction typology that makes up the majority of the architecture in the country.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Ethiopia in the 1890s, and now has become integral to the construction practices in the country. Because it is a fast growing wood, it can be used as a quickly replenish-able building material. In rural settings, owners will grow eucalyptus hedges around there house for wind protection and shade, while using felled trunks as the main structure for their single story homes.

Typically a 3’ by 3’ gridded frame is first built, which outlines the main structure. Sometimes a front or side porch is also delineated. Then the walls are filled in with eucalyptus trunks that are tied in place. Finally, dung mixed with grass fibers is applied to the eucalyptus, to create a smooth surface. Further layers of dung are added as needed. The roof, originally of grass but now often of galvanized iron sheets, can be constructed as soon as the frame is finished.

The beauty of the system is that at any point in construction, it provides adequate shelter. Layers of dung can be added each year, since families will have a steady supply, if they own a cow or buffalo. The structure is based on the capabilities of the eucalyptus, using many small timbers, rather than relying on the span of a few.  The structure is also simple and flexible, which allows owners to create many variations.

But the introduction of the eucalyptus species has created a major change in the landscape.

medinat nasr: isolated zoning

Medinat Nasr (Victory City) was designed in the 60s to relieve pressure on Cairo. The city was divided into zones by function, with towers placed in open space for residents.

Though it was built as an expression of Egyptian capacity and urban expansion, architect and educator Ahmad Hamid, with whom I spoke in Cairo, sees this place as a European experiment. According to Hamid, the architect who designed it was a disciple of Udo Kulturmann, architectural theorist and critic from Zurich, and it was his ideas that influenced the form of the place.

Source: Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious

Source: Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious

Medinat Nasr today feels very different than the rest of Cairo. From what I saw, changes in the architecture have remained in the architecture, but the population pressure in the city has drawn commercial space up into the buildings. The main attraction in Nasr is the immense mall and theme park, which contains a hotel. Cairenes sometimes stay there to shop over the weekend.

Another force that has created isolation in the city is the presence of embassies, who have cut off the open areas to securitize their space.

the overpopulation of mohandiseen

In many ways, Cairo exhibits the extreme examples of how fast a city can change. Concrete frames filled with slightly crumbled red brick and topped with ragged rebar are sprouting in every pocket possible. Older buildings bulge with the signs of an ever louder commerce, shouting out for the pedestrian’s attention, who often now sits inside one of hundreds of cars that use the paths for parking and reroute other forms of traffic. In its recent history, Cairo has dealt with its bursting population often by adding satellite cities at its edge, to relieve pressure on the center. I managed to look at 4 of these cities while in Cairo, which span the course of the 20th (and a little of the 21st) century: Heliopolis, Mohandiseen, Nasr City and 6th of October City. I have already described Heliopolis and the others should come later.

Mohandiseen is an upmarket area on the west bank of the Nile. Begun as a garden city suburb to support Cairo’s growing population, the area was filled with green lots and bungalows: a smaller version of the town layout in Tel Aviv. But Cairo grew right around Mohandiseen, and property values sky rocketed. Now it sits in the middle of the city, and most of the bungalows (really all except 3 or 4) have been bulldozed to make way for taller, bulkier, more lucrative projects.

This once-planned city is now a district driven by commerce, played out at all scales. On the major commercial streets, even the second generation brick buildings have given way to glass. Oversized ads cover facades and the structure for signage creates a new skin on buildings.

Small shops soak up the street front (and sometimes first story), severing buildings from their bases. Most of these buildings, once residential, now house a mixture of offices and homes, often just across the hall from each other! When the shop is smaller, or the space isn’t enough, structures also grow from the sides of buildings, moving out through side lots, eating the parking areas and jumping into the street.

And to support the people’s patronage of a growing commerce, cars reorganize the street. Streets become parking lots and parking works as a road divider. Pedestrians watch out!

The plan in Mohandiseen hardly remains, aside for the structure of the main streets. But the place does feel different than other areas of Cairo, if only slightly. But who knows…maybe 10 years from now this area will again be entirely remade.

Finally I wanted to point out the perhaps obvious effects of occupation on an apartment building.