Retirement Home by Vous Êtes Ici Architectes


7 May 2013

"The project became exciting when we started to treat the building’s exterior as a wooden skin and the interior as its organs. So we cut holes in the facade that are coloured yellow. It's like how you might slice into a fruit and discover a different colour flesh under the peel."

So speaks Alexandre Becker, one of three founders of the French studio Vous Êtes Ici Architectes, discussing the studio's recently completed retirement home in Morangis, Paris for which he served as project architect.

The structure is built according to a Y-shaped plan in pale Siberian larchwood. The building's plan is simple, arranged into three wings so as to allow ease of maintenance for the small staff who will man the space when it opens at the end of the month, Four storeys tall, the building's facade is pitted with holes cut into the building, which allow natural light to flow into correspondingly placed salons and breakout areas.

"The corridors in this type of building are usually very sad places," says Becker. "Some of the old people hardly move about at all in the building and it can a problem just to get them out of their room. So we made these little salons that punctuate the corridors to bring the outdoors to these people. They can walk a few metres, sit down and have a view outside."

Each of these holes are ochre coloured, a vibrant shade that competes against the pallor of the uncoated larch. The larch will be allowed to age naturally over time, darkening to offset the richness of the yellow cutaways. The choice of wood, Becker says, was driven by a recognition of its familiarity to the building's residents.

"The area where we built the home in has nothing lovely about it," says Becker. The building is surrounded by scrub fields to the west, with a high school to the east and housing developments to the south. To the north is Aéroport de Paris-Orly, France's busiest airport for domestic flights. "It’s all very grey and so we wanted to create something rather lovely and bright. The yellow, from our point of view, is sunny."

The building's interior is purposefully basic ("The real architectural effort is on the outside," says Becker), featuring wide corridors, bedrooms, dining and activity rooms. Above the third floor, which is dedicated to patients suffering from neurological diseases, are two roof terraces: "A place to go and get sun to prevent the sensation of being contained."

The project's birth however was a complicated one. Rather than a single client, the plan arose through cooperation between a private developer, a specialist in residential and retirement housing and the town of Morangis. "Even I barely understand exactly how it works," says Becker.

The complicated nature of the project's organisation bought with it its own challenges. "With all those people acting on the project it gave us so much more work," says Becker. "You have to do more lobbying and similar political things. You're running around all the time.

"We suffered collateral damage. The future director of the retirement home joined the process four or five months before we delivered and came up with his needs for the building. So we then had to suddenly change things. That’s tiring. Architecture, we say, can be war."