The midcentury modernist housing development has long been the subject of criticism. In particular, high-rise apartment blocks, generally clustered closely together and housing low-income residents, have been characterized as anonymous, isolating, monofunctional containers, and in an effort to ameliorate social problems among the residents many have been torn down. Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal are among the increasing number of architects who reject calls for the demolition of modernist housing projects. Their research demonstrates that renovating these structures rather than rebuilding from scratch can entail significant cost savings and is beneficial in allowing residents to stay in their apartments. In 2005 the architects won a government competition to remodel a public-housing high-rise on the boulevard Périphérique, the highway that circles the city of Paris.
Based on previous research and their interviews with building residents, the architects focused on expanding spaces and increasing natural light to improve living conditions in each apartment. Their design calls for the addition of a new exterior structure—a glass shell of balconies that completely envelops the existing building, breaking up the monotony of the facade and providing the building’s insulation—as well as a series of individualized floor plans for the interiors, increased common space, and a more accessible building overall. The work is being done in two parallel phases: as the prefabricated, modular facade structure takes shape, the apartment interiors are modified and new openings created in the old exterior walls. Further, the architects are proceeding with the work in such a way that residents can stay in their homes or move within the building into one of eight spare apartments during construction. By adapting an existing structure to the present-day needs of its users, Druot, Lacaton, and Vassal are giving new life to a problematic and oft-criticized housing type, with implications that reach far beyond Paris.