Aged to Perfection pix
Chartier-Corbasson Architectes renovates a 17th-century building for Maison de l'Architecture in Paris by hardly changing a thing
Judy Fayard -- Interior Design, 5/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
In 1604, Marie de Médicis, Queen of France, laid the cornerstone for the Couvent des Récollets in Paris. Since then, the sprawling building has housed an order of Capuchin monks, a military barrack, textile factory, hospice for incurable diseases, military hospital, university teaching hospital, and school of architecture.
Abandoned in 1990, the former convent was occupied by a band of artist-squatters, who called themselves Anges (Angels) des Récollets and covered the walls with paintings, drawings, and graffiti. After a fire in 1992, the artists were evicted and the structure shuttered. Five years later, it was given to the building authority of Paris, which decided to turn one wing into a Maison de l'Architecture—a branch of the nationwide network of architectural culture centers. Karine Chartier and Thomas Corbasson, principals of Chartier-Corbasson Architectes, won the commission to transform the three-story, 13,000-square-foot space, which included the original convent chapel and library, into offices, an archive, four conference rooms, and a café.
Confronted with such reminders of the 400-year-old building's checkered history as cracked and peeling walls, jerry-built interior modifications, and recent patchwork renovations, the young architects decided to leave everything much as it was. "First, we thought it was beautiful," says Corbasson. "Second, we had almost no money to work with. So instead of repairing the walls and painting them white, we chose to intervene only at precise points."
A glass door in one of the remaining 17th-century cloister walls leads into the ground-floor reception area. Previously, crumbling sections of the large room's stonework were shored up with metal frames, which Chartier and Corbasson have left in place.
A low-hanging mezzanine, also from an earlier renovation, was trimmed in size but not eliminated because the floor space was needed. A café now occupies this long room, which received a new polished-concrete floor. The squatters' paintings and drawings still decorate the walls and the vertical wood beams, erected years ago to support the sagging ceiling. A tiny kitchen and serving bar overlook a terrace in a small, sequestered garden. At one end is a compact exhibition space, and behind that, a series of meeting and storage rooms.
Beyond the café, the barrel-vaulted chapel—now a conference room and auditorium— features tall arched windows that have been fitted with plywood shutters covered in oxidized aluminum to provide darkness for films and video presentations. Similar shutters conceal extensible lighting 'equipment housed in bays in the walls. Large rectangular floor panels finished in the same oxidized aluminum can unfold to create step seating or a raised platform. The walls, which bear traces of ancient ecclesiastic polychrome paint and the diagonal imprint of a pulpit staircase, have been stabilized with a special protective varnish, which, ironically, is normally used to remove graffiti.
An existing cement stairway, updated with a new galvanized-steel balustrade and carpet, leads to the organization's offices on the second floor. They're housed in the former convent library, a long, rectangular room with tall arched windows overlooking a garden and children's playground. The space is divided into two sections by a 19th-century door frame topped by a fan-shape arch; the doorway's blocked-off duplicate forms part of the second office's end wall. Both portals have been left in their squatter-period state of charming disrepair; one is inscribed with the word parloir, indicating that it once opened into a room for talking, "probably for hospital visitors," says Chartier.
The center's archives are stored on a balcony that runs the full length of the first office. Accessed by a new galvanized-steel stair, it's partially concealed by an openwork screen made of the oxidized aluminum that the designers use in the ground-level conference room-auditorium. Here, too, the walls are covered in the Angels' paintings or "frescoes," as Chartier refers to them, though judicious repairs have reframed them in separate squares and niches. A short flight of stairs with old polished-wood banisters leads to another, skylit office under the rafters; like the others, Chartier-Corbasson coated the floor in resin and covered its ceiling with stretched PVC to help control acoustics.
"The Maison de l'Architecture is still a work in progress," says Corbasson, as he stops to pull a stray bent nail out of one of the café's tall beams. "We've removed 500 nails, maybe 1,000," he laughs. Just like the history that can be read on the building's timeworn walls, it will probably never be finished.