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Juxtaposition - Excursion Rotterdam Academy of Architecture in Paris

25-26 September, a group of 15 first year students of the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture (RAvB) visited Paris within the scope of their academy project “Juxtaposition” tutored and written by architects Anne Dessing and Frederik Pöll. As a landscape architect and Parisian citizen, I guided and accompanied them on this trip.


The studio’ s subject is the Spoorpunt in Rotterdam. Drawing is the main medium for this studio and the given research methodology is Juxtaposition: placing in front or between of entities in order to provoke a specific contrast or relation to the subject. The studio demands a close interaction between observation and action, trial and error. Final product is a drawing, which unveils the student’s perception, the similarities and differences, the essence and the potential of the selected part of Spoorpunt.

The excursion invites the students to observe and experience several architectural projects, to analyse the relation between object and context in different historical settings, and to reflect on them in relation to their own project.

A report and reflection of this excursion two parts:

01 All is relative

We start at the baroque Chateau de Versailles (17th century) and her gardens. The relation between the garden and chateau are by itself an interesting example within the studio’s theme. But the current interventions of Olafur Eliasson, add another dimension to the extreme situation of spaces and elements, and evoke new relations between the chateau and gardens. The over dimensioned ‘Waterfall’, centred in the big pond of the garden is the superlative to the already existing and extreme grotesque yet well-proportioned baroque ensemble. It puts the gardens and chateau in a whole different perspective and almost ridicules it. ‘All is relative’ is what Eliassion seems to say. Or as he wonders himself “‘Have we all become king?’

“The Versailles that I have been dreaming up is a place that empowers everyone. It invites visitors to take control of the authorship of their experience instead of simply consuming and being dazzled by the grandeur. It asks them to exercise their senses, to embrace the unexpected, to drift through the gardens, and to feel the landscape take shape through their movement.”

Then back to reality. Or not? We visit a ‘délire’ from another era; “Le Viaduc et les Arcades du lac” from Ricardo Bofill (1982). Presuming that a bigger contrast between a baroque royal palace and a post-modern social housing project could not be possible, once arrived a question rises quickly; are they both so different?

The neoclassical ensemble, realised in purple concrete and tiles, has strong references to ‘le Pont d’Avignon’ and ‘Chateau Chenonceau’, and as well has been called ‘ the Versailles of the people’ by critic Charles Jencks.

The ensemble is situated around an artificial pond and a formal rather empty landscape, across the white neoclassical ‘ Temples of the Lake’, designed by the same architect. It is a fascinating and surrealistic setting we find ourselves in, but not necessarily a comfortable one. The place seems deserted on this sunny Saturday early afternoon. It recalls the images of a desolated film- set rather than a lively social neighbourhood. Only the open or closed shutters and some planting pots imply the actual presence of human beings.

The project is part of the 9 ‘Villes Nouvelles’, a program of the French government developed in the mid-1960s to control the expansion of cities. Bofill's intention was to offer an alternative to the modernist estates and the earlier Le Corbusier-inspired social-housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s. A man, who’s work we will visit right after.

Paradoxically the just visited Versailles, a former king’s residence, as a museum is so much livelier and part of the public domain, than Bofill’s social-housing project, inspired on the chateau’s style and structure. We wonder how the people who actually live here feel about the place, when a local pops out of the passage of the Viaduc- building. He reminds us that we are on private property, and then tells us that he has been living here for over 23 years. And he is happy; it is calm, there are no cars and in summer it is nice around the lake. True, compared with other social housing in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris this is maybe not the worst place to live…Again ‘All is relative’. We are anxiously curious for Bofill’s other social-housing project programmed on this trip.

From this concrete utopia we move on to another one, Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.

Villa Savoye is probably Le Corbusier's best-known building, besides it had a huge influence on international modernism. It was realised between 1928 and 1931 by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret according to the ‘ Five Points’; Le Corbusiers architectural aesthetic-rules. The villa had an elevated ground level, a spacious roof garden and terrace, a free floor plan without any loadbearing walls, long horizontal windows, providing light ventilation and view on the landscape, and freely designed facades as the skin of the ensemble. It is a true modernistic dream, and obviously it is a ‘must visit’ when making an architectural trip in and around Paris.

But what strikes me most is the context this villa finds itself in today, and how it blends in with the theme of the studio. Originally the house was built as a country retreat, but from the sixties on the villa become surrounded by social housing blocks.

These three projects of different times and styles, are so interestingly related. A royal palace that changed into lively public domain, a presumingly deserted social housing project that refers to a royal palace, and a countryside retreat that resolves in ’60 suburbia. Again “All is relative”.

Villa Savoye - Le Corbusier 1928- 1930 photo Anne-Fleur Aronstein  ©

02 Inside-outsides versus outside-insides

The next day leads us through an interesting series of architectural ensembles in relation to the public domain. We start at Place des Vosges, (1612). This place fascinates me ever since in 2010 it became the scenery of my daily walk to work. Place des Vosges, at the time ‘ Place Royal’ was conceived as a new city district; buildings, public space and facilities designed as a whole. It became exemplary for many residential squares in Europe. Interesting about this place is that the buildings don’t take a central position, but they form the borders of the square. All facades are symmetrical and have the same design. The arcades, with on ground level shops, cafés and galleries, form the transition between in and outside, private and public. Originally the public square, which measured 104 x 140 meters, was covered in sand and hosted equestrian shows, and other events. In 1639 a statue of Louis XIII was placed in the center. Around in the 18th century three rows of Lindens were added. In the beginning of the 19th century four fountains were placed in each corner one of the square, and so overtime transformed Place des Vosges from an open public domain into a formal and regulated enclosed French garden or 'square’. Which until today is maintained as such.

As much as this urban chamber still is an open space within the dense urban fabric of the Marais, it is hard to ‘experience’ this space as a whole. The strong urban ensemble has gradually defragmented into three zones: The buildings with the arcades (1) are detached from the place by the large circular ‘streetscape’ (2); roads, parked cars on both sides and narrow sidewalks. And the actual ‘place’ (3) which itself has transformed into the French garden. Strong architectural landscape elements make the space behave as a building with walls; the monumental fence and three rows of clipped lindens, corridors; paths and doors; gates and finally a room; the open space with a carpet of grass and gravel. Hereby part of this once open volume has become a mass within an open space.

With the spatial transitions also use and appropriation changed. One is guided by entrances and a linear path structure. Until 2015 it was not allowed to walk, play or sit on the grass. In the evening the square closes and becomes a forbidden island. This nocturnal transformation reduces the open public space to the circular in-between space fully dedicated to traffic and parking.

In a city so highly populated and densely built as Paris, people are more and more in need of high quality public space, which they can use, more freely, and in different ways. I am currently researching the potential use, context and organization of these 17th-18th century public spaces. In order to develop a series of interventions which will improve the use and relation between building and public space within the historical context of these urban ensembles.

To the South Place des Vosges connects to the ‘backyard’ of Hotel Sully (1625-1630).

Like with Place des Vosges, here the relation between mass and volume also plays an important role, but typology and scale are different. Where as Place des Vosges is an urban ensemble, Hotel Sully was designed as a private residence. However the same spatial principles were used; precisely planned buildings define the spaces and facades of the two courtyards. The building has a double orientation, providing daylight, internal routes and corridors as well as views on the different courtyards and places. The courtyard is connected to Place des Vosges by a little red door, which is part of the Place des Vosges ensemble. Via a small transitional hall, one arrives in the garden of Hotel Sully. This makes the ‘backyard’ in formal French garden style and the double orientated architecture a worthy ‘second’ entrance to Hotel Sully. Entering Hotel Sully from the busy Rue Saint-Antoine, one goes through a beautiful sequence of increasingly bigger urban chambers, with at the end, through the backdoor, as ‘grand finale’ Place des Vosges.

Palais Royal (1626-1880) is in various ways related to the previous two projects. It is a great example of the 18th century redesignation of Parisian urban heritage. Built as a royal residential palace, it transformed into a public domain when in 1784 Louis Philippe II expanded and redesigned the complex of buildings. A ‘grand ensemble’, of 60 houses with at ground floor shops and galleries, was built around the existing palace garden and transformed it into a public urban courtyard.

The expansion of the palace connected and united the place, the courtyard and the cortile as a whole.

The arcades that surround the gardens housed boutiques with, cafés, salons, galleries, shops, museums, theatres and brothels. It became a very popular scene for ‘Mondain’ Paris, and was frequented by different classes, from the aristocracy to lower order.

These days the Palais is mostly known for the context related contemporary sculpture by Daniel Buren ‘ Les Deux Plateaux’ (1986) in the Cour d’Honneur, and the gardens as a calm green oasis in busy Paris.

When we compare Palais Royal to the previously visited Place des Vosges, we see a lot of similarities. They stem from the same era and evolved both in the 18th century. The same architectural spatial elements are applied, and even in programme they are a like. The essential difference lies in their initial typology of space, garden versus square, and especially how they relate to their larger urban context.

The buildings, which enclose the gardens of Palais Royal, are orientated towards its interior space.

Via the arcades one enters this ‘green interior’. Only the sober outside of the ensemble relates to the surrounding urban fabric. The facades on this side are closed and sober, the building block turns it’s back towards the urban streetscape.

Place des Vosges, is the inside-out model to the ‘closed box’- typology of Palais Royal.

Palais Royal is turned from, but embedded into, the urban fabric. As where Place des Vosges opens up, and connects by its axes, to its urban context. In this series of visited projects, Hotel Sully is almost an in-between typology. The double orientated hotel surrounds the place in ‘front’ and frames the garden in the ‘back’ with the orangery. It connects through an interior passage to Place des Vosges, and on the other side blends in with the facades faced to the streetscape of Rue Saint-Antoine.

All together are these three projects all fascinating and diverse examples of inside-outside sequences in within the urban fabric of Paris.

Time to continue this morning walk, next on the list; ‘Galérie Vivienne’… another inside-outside.

Fulll list of visited projects :

Chateau de Versailles (17th century), Les arcades et viaduct (1982) Ricardo Boffil, Villa Savoye (1930) le Corbusier, Rue Mallet-Stevens (1930) by Robert Mallet-Stevens, Maison la Roche Le Corbusier (1925), 25 rue Benjamin Franklin (1903) et Palais Iénà (1937) by August Perret, Palais de Tokyo (1937) Dondel, Aubert, Viard and Dastugue, renovation by Lacaton et Vassal (2002-2012), Places des Vosges (1610), Hotel Sully (1630), Les Halles (2016) Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, Palais Royal (1626-1880), Les deux plateaux, (1986) Daniel Buren, Galerie Vivienne (1823), Place Vendôme (1702), Les espaces d’Abraxas, (1983) Ricardo Bofill



Julie Guillot-Harrold, les Arcades du Lac: l'esprit des lieux, Miroir n°6-7, 1993, Jump up, Jencks, Charles 1982. Architecture Today. Harry N. Abrams, A Utopian Dream Stood Still: Ricardo Bofill's Postmodern Parisian Housing Estate of Noisy-le-Grand, by James Taylor-Foster 2015, wikipedia, The Enclosed Garden, Rob Aben Saskia de Wit 1998, 010 publishers, Plan de Paris, dit plan de Turgot 1734-1739, Louis Bretez

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