The Maison du Peuple in Clichy, a masterpiece from the immediate pre-war period (Bernhard Furrer).
Memorial Care – an article about the Maison du People, in Clichy
by Bernhard Furrer

MEMORIAL CARE
BY BERNHARD FURRER

A threatened icon

The French authorities’ dealing with the Maison du Peuple in Clichy show a poor sense of responsibility. The masterpiece of the pre-war period has not only been drastically altered and is hardly maintained anymore; what is even more incisive is the project of a high-rise building, which is to be superposed onto the filigree building.

The Maison du Peuple in Clichy, a suburb of Paris, is one of the pioneering works of French architecture of world renown. The construction was triggered by the desire to cover the market square of the socialist-led community; between 1935 and 1939, the architects Eugène Beaudouin[1] and Marcel Lods,[2] the engineer Vladimir Bodiansky[3] and the designer Jean Prouvé[4] realized a magnificent architectural machine with a huge festival hall and other spaces above the market square.

A masterpiece

The Maison du Peuple houses a large market hall on the ground floor. Above, there is the high space of the festival hall, which comprises a stage. The two floors above contain office space.
The steel construction offers high flexibility. The glazed roof above the upper floor can be rolled away on rails and the festival hall, which extends over the entire width of the floor plan at around 1200 m2 can also be used under the open sky. With a room-high, glazed sliding wall,[5] the middle part of the hall can be transformed into a more intimate room for lectures or movie screening.
Even more convertibility was possible. The floor of the hall, which was used mainly in the evening, consisted of single elements[6] that could be dismantled within 45 minutes and stacked in the stage space.[7] A large opening was thus formed, which directly supplied the market hall with light and air in summer.[8]
Not only is the Maison du Peuple incredibly flexible but it also makes consistent use of the possibilities of prefabrication and, for the first time in France, features a curtain wall with modular panels of great elegance. The joints of these elements are folded forward at 45° and give the facades a strong profile. Slim window elements illuminate the festival hall. Important are the canopies, which visually accompany the roads with differentiated cantilevers. Inside, the striking stairways lead up to the light- flooded festival hall, where celebrations, political meetings, lectures and cinema screenings were held.
Together with a clear urban position and a stringent architectural design, it is the consistent application of new technologies and the best use made of their possibilities that constitute the pioneering status and outstanding value of the Maison du Peuple.

The interior after the aborted renovation work (Le Parisien, 1 March 2017).

A careless handling and approach

Despite its worldwide recognition, the exemplary construction was not maintained and in the course of time drastic interventions were carried out. The closing of the opening which had connected market hall and festival hall in 1979 is particularly serious. The opening was closed with concrete, the mobile floor elements were disposed of.

After decades of back and forth, the building was registered as a Monument Historique in 1983. A restructuring campaign was launched in 1995. The exterior was repaired[9] and also inside some damage was fixed. For financial reasons, however, work was suspended in 2005. The upper floors have been closed for years and only the market hall is still in operation.[10]

A monstrous superstructure

It should be expected that the registration as Monument Historique would the building be protected from further impairment. However, in 2016, as part of the Métropole du Grand Paris initiative, the Mayor, who currently is a member of the right-wing UMP,[11] requested an additional development of the Maison du Peuple area. An investor[12] got involved and Rudy Ricciotti’s[13] project was selected in a competition.[14] The plan is to superpose a tower of 96 m height on the southwestern part of the Maison du Peuple. The tower is to be clad in a facade structure of fibre-concrete, behind which apartments and a hotel are planned. A luxury-class market is planned for the old building and a branch exhibition of the Centre Pompidou is planned for the upper floor. The change to the zoning plan necessary for the implementation of the project was decided in summer 2018.[15]

The Maison du Peuple is not unchangeable. On one hand, like any monument, it must be restored in a conservative manner, on the other hand, however, functions that have become obsolete today must be redefined. In doing so, it is indispensable that both the authentic substance and the original appearance be unrestrictedly maintained. This is a decisive prerequisite that must be adhered to for every listed building. A skyscraper above or near the Maison du Peuple would destroy the monument irrevocably.

Rendering of the project for a skyscraper elevated above the Maison du Peuple (Press kit, 18 October 2017).

Many open questions

The events related to the Maison du Peuple raise many fundamental questions. Among these, the fact that a mayor closely associated with the construction industry is ready to disregard the value of a registered monument may well be the least incomprehensible.

It is very strange, however, that an urban initiative such as the Métropole du Grand Paris accepts the proposal to develop a large-scale project that heavily affects a registered monument. A veto should have been applied at the very beginning of the process already.
Furthermore, it is disturbing that a renowned architect accepts to destroy an acknowledged architectural monument in its architectural and urbanistic value. Any architect who is somewhat familiar with the development of recent architecture would have to refuse, out of respect and decency, to develop a new building project in this place.
The behaviour of those responsible for the preservation of historical monuments at all levels, i.e. the Ministry of Culture, the Direction régionale des Affaires culturelles DRAC and the Prefect as representative of state regulations, is utterly incomprehensible. They would all be obliged to take a firm stand at a very early stage and stop the proceedings. Monument preservation is only credible if it raises its voice early and unmistakably and clearly defines what is permissible in a registered monument and what is not.
At the time of writing, the hope remains that such a determination will be made.

 

This text is the translation of an article published in the Swiss weekly journal tec21 – Schweizerische Bauzeitung, 15/2019. We are grateful for the publisher’s consent to this reprint.

About the author:
Bernhard Furrer
Prof. Dr. Bernhard Furrer
Architekt ETH-Z   SIA   ass.BSA
Dalmaziquai 87, 3005 Bern
Telefon + 41 76 321 60 93
benc.furrer@bluewin.ch
www.bernhard-furrer.ch

Endnotes:

[1] Eugène Beaudouin, 1898–1983, renowned architect and urbanist. Together with Marcel Lods, he realized important projects for developing prefabrication such as the Cité de la Muette in Drancy 1931–1934 or the open-air school in Suresnes 1934. After World War II, professor at the École d’architecture de l’Université de Genève EAUG. With Alberto Camenzind and Pierluigi Nervi he built the Bureau International du Travail in Geneva 1969–1974.
[2] Marcel Lods, 1891–1978. In the pre-war period, research for a new lightness in architecture, exemplarily shown in the clubhouse of Roland Garros airport on La Réunion in 1935. After the war, realisation of numerous residential buildings and several churches.
[3] Vladimir Bodiansky, 1894–1966. Ukrainian engineer. As an enthusiastic pilot interested in lightweight constructions. Constructor of production halls. Temporarily employed by Beaudouin and Lods, later by Le Corbusier.
[4] Jean Prouvé, 1901–1984. Important French architect and designer. Designer of many pieces of furniture that have become classics. As a designer he was interested in stiffening metal profiles. Cooperation with numerous important architects such as Bernard Zehrfuss, Oscar Niemeyer, Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier.
[5] The coupled single elements of 1.04 m x7 m with slim profiles are moved by electric motors.
[6] The 5.4 m wide, 7.5 m long and 16 t heavy steel structures were covered with sheet metal panels at the top and bottom, the floor covering consisted of linoleum glued onto an asphalt layer.
[7] The resulting opening was secured by hinged railings.
[8] The galleries on the upper floor accommodated those market stalls where no food was sold.
[9] The facade panels are already rusting again.
[10] Before and after the renovation work, various more or less adequate conversions were proposed.
[11] Union pour un mouvement populaire (Union for a popular movement), to-day: Les Républicains.
[12] Duval Développement Île-de-France.
[13] Prefect of the Ile-de-France region, Initiative Métropole du Grand Paris, Société du Grand Paris: Inventons la Metropole du Grand Paris. Press kit 18 October 2017.
[14] Architect Rudy Ricciotti with LBA (civil engineers) and Holzweg architects.
[15] It is denied from different sides.