In some ways Sandra Planchez’s project in Nantes is unspectacular. It takes on board the slightly Flemish aesthetic currently fashionable in architecture, the dark grey brick punched through with metal-encased openings and the irregular façades and composition familiar from the pages of international design journals. And in some ways I could have picked almost any of the designs for new housing on the huge former Alstom site on Nantes’ Ile de Nantes. But the more you look around what has been a remarkable regeneration, the better this unassuming project looks.
This was the city’s heavy-engineering quarter, full of shipyards, engineering workshops, warehouses and huge industrial sheds. Some of these have survived — like the one about to reopen as the Ecole des Beaux Arts next door; others have left only traces. The problem here has been the weaving of new connective tissue around the island, the material to make a city. Despite the presence of a thriving (and architecturally brilliant) architecture school by Lacaton & Vassal and some quirky office buildings (including an emerging legal quarter), this new neighbourhood doesn’t feel at all like a neighbourhood. What the architects of Unik have done is to create a series of buildings that successfully mix uses to seed a space where it can begin to behave like a real city.
As a result, there are spaces for new shops on the ground floor (there is, oddly, hardly any retail accommodation around here), commercial space on the lower floors and a mix of for-sale and socially rented accommodation above. The whole thing is crowned by a roof garden that is shared between all the inhabitants of the building, without differentiating or limiting access, so that it functions as a real communal space.
The buildings are flat fronted but there are balconies and bridges, and the rooftops are differentiated through a more domestic articulation. Metal-clad, house-like structures are recessed behind the street façades, reducing the buildings’ mass and creating a new rooftop realm. The architects have managed to negotiate the difficult switch of scales between the industrial and the domestic, the institutional and the public.
To see how difficult this can be, it is only necessary to look at London’s Docklands or Hamburg’s HafenCity, where a desire to create urban density has often led to an overwhelming yet still somehow bland architecture, which strangles the streetscape rather than animating it.
This is unassuming, unspectacular and workmanlike, but in creating that framework, it is also modest and intelligent enough to allow the city to grow and adapt around and through it. Like the best buildings, it embodies a microcosmic urbanity. Sometimes architecture just needs to become background.
Related article: In the spirit of Jules Verne: Nantes reinvents itself through art