Built by the city of Paris in one of its more deprived arrondissements, the Pajol sports centre reflects an attitude to the provision of public buildings that puts the UK to shame
Disembarking at the Gare du Nord, I find it a novelty not to be trekking into the centre of Paris for once, but north into the terra incognito of the 18th arrondissement. Yet to be subjected to the “boboisation” — rapid gentrification — that other parts of the 18th have witnessed, the Pajol neighbourhood certainly lies off the tourist map. Its population remains largely immigrant with Ganesh temples and south-east Asian food shops on every street attesting to the particularly high number of settlers from Sri Lanka.
Dominated by grands projets, histories of recent Parisian architecture have paid less attention to areas like this but a visit quickly makes clear that the city’s commitment to architecture extends beyond the building of monuments.
The ZAC Pajol masterplan, which has been entirely funded by the city of Paris, is a case in point. Occupying a strip of brownfield land that edges a vast expanse of rail yard, this soon-to-complete zero carbon development is providing Pajol with a new civic heart. Its focus is the conversion of two substantial buildings, both dating from the 1920s: a postal sorting shed, which has been transformed into a secondary school and college for 600 pupils; and a customs depot that is currently being adapted into a youth hostel and concert venue. These are joined in what amounts to a 500m crocodile of development by two new structures — a small office building serving start-ups, and a sports centre.
This latter project, which opened to the public earlier this year, is the work of Brisac Gonzalez. While the practice is based in London, it has devoted considerable energy to pursuing work through the French competition system, an effort that has been rewarded with the construction of Le Prisme, a multi-functional hall in Aurillac and victory last month in a competitions for a mixed-use development, also in Paris.
“We now have a pretty good understanding of the way the system works and what the expectations are,” says practice partner Edgar Gonzalez.
“In particular you learn that someone will have been working on the programme for six months before the competition — making sure that everything fits on the site. The brief is always very exact and you learn not to fiddle with it.”
That recognition stood the practice in good stead on the sports centre competition. The ZAC Pajol masterplan by the French architect Galiano Simon determined exactly the building’s location between the two retained structures, so as to define a new public space framed by all three. The permitted volume was also fixed. The roofline had to marry up with that of the school and the footprint scarcely exceed that of the brief’s largest element, a 49m by 26m sports hall.
“We began by saying: ‘we’re not going to do architecture’,” explains Gonzalez. “We’re just going to put the programme in the box and see what happens.” What emerged was a building on three levels, the lowest being invisible from the new square as a consequence of a 4.5m level drop from road to railside. The middle level therefore serves as the point of entry, with the large sports hall and the smaller venues — a judo dojo and dance studio — sandwiching it above and below.
While that configuration was in large part shared by all the competition submissions, the winning design was unique in the relationship that it struck between the interior and the public square. Other competitors proposed the introduction of windows to the elevated sports hall, but Brisac Gonzalez recognised this as a luxury to which the budget would not extend. It opted instead for a solution that relied solely on top-light, raising the question of how a very substantial expanse of unfenestrated wall might be animated. Its attractive answer takes the form of a decorative treatment.
The sports hall is faced in grey precast concrete panels, but set within them are vertical strips of aluminium of varying width. Gathered into clusters, these present something of the appearance of passing clouds, their fugitive character being enforced by the material’s responsiveness to changes in light conditions.
Source: Geraldine Andrieu
The level below, by contrast, is faced on all sides by a band of continuous floor-to-ceiling glazing. Incorporating a multigym, changing rooms, and a youth facility that has its own entrance off the square, the plan is densely compartmentalised, but cutting through the middle is a foyer that opens out towards the expansive view of the rail yards beyond.
The permeability is more than just visual: benefiting from a notably light level of security control and the liberal provision of seating, the space has a vividly public character and crossing it, we find that we are able to continue out onto a recessed terrace that extends along the full length of the east elevation.
This is the one space in the building that was not anticipated in the original brief.
“I don’t know if we created it or found it,” Gonzalez admits. From here, we can look down onto an external area reserved for skateboarders or enjoy the piano nobile-like relationship to the vast scene of trundling TGVs spread out in front of us. It may not exactly be a picture-postcard vista, but by framing it so panoramically, Brisac Gonzalez has validated it and revealed an excitement that might otherwise go unnoticed. The terrace has no fixed programme but the practice envisages the space facilitating the development of an apres-sports culture. It is also generous enough to run a dining table down its considerable length and will be rented out for parties and receptions, consolidating a sense of the building as a resource for the whole local community.
A desire for inclusivity informs the use of a palette of pastel colours across wall surfaces and joiners in the circulation spaces and changing rooms — a strategy that Gonzalez describes as a means of “reducing testosterone levels”.
Source: Geraldine Andrieu
The dojo and salle de danse are generic but handsome rooms, benefiting from walls of well finished in-situ concrete. The sports hall offered greater opportunity to cultivate an architectural expression. It is crowned by an array of gently lapping skylights, each of which is framed between an arching upper chord and a horizontal lower member. Invisible from within are the photovoltaic on top, which generate enough power for the building to be able to sell energy back to the city. Both the walls and ceiling are entirely lined in open-jointed larch boards, packed behind with acoustic insulation.
Three different stains have been used to subtly divide the vertical surfaces into strata but no less significant in determining their appearance is the reflection of light off the vividly orange-coloured floor: the whole space is washed in a gentle glow.
The architect expresses regret that management considerations prevented the creation of a stronger interface with the neighbouring projects. The school games area lies directly to one side and a covered park within the demise of the hostel lies to the other. We are presented with views of each through full-height glazing at ground level but physical access is denied. Nonetheless, the mix of programmes across the site presents valuable synergies and once the hostel is completed ZAC Pajol is clearly going to prove a very distinctive urban quarter richly characterised by its young demographic.
To a British visitor, what feels very remarkable is that such a substantial piece of urban renewal has been undertaken without recourse to public-private partnership. One can imagine all too well that if these facilities had been realised in Dalston or Ancoats, an enormous density of private sector housing would have also been crammed onto the site in order to raise the necessary section 106 payments. In its untroubled generosity, Brisac Gonzalez’s building reflects cultural commitments that on this side of the channel are becoming an increasingly distant memory.
Architect Brisac Gonzalez
Client City of Paris
General contractor Rabot Dutilleul Construction
Consultants Structure: VP & Green Engineering;
Services and electrical: INEX;
Acoustics: Point D’Orgue;