Frank Lloyd Wright begins his book The Living City (New York, 1963) with the story of the sedentary and the nomad, of those who withdraw into the depths of the cave and those who seek shelter beneath the light canvas of a tent. ‘I imagine the ideal of freedom which keeps breaking through our present static establishments … is due in no small degree to survival of the original instincts of the nomad – the adventurer: he who kept his freedom by his undivided prowess beneath the stars rather than he who lived by his obedience and labor in the deep shadow of the wall.’ This division between the wall’s protective shadow and the necessary opening to the stars seems to have been Badia and Berger’s guiding principle in their project for the Société des Autoroutes Paris-Normandie (SAPN): an administrative centre with living accommodation for employees, discovered along the motorway near Yvetot.
The SAPN is a government body that has financed and laid out this stretch of motorway connecting Paris with the Normandy coast and the Channel, and now manages and maintains it in exchange for payment of toll. Unlike other Sociétés d’Autoroute, which house their staff in the nearest town, SAPN has already had built more than one modest residential estate for its employees next to the motorway. And this, evidently, is no easy task for the architect.
The site near Yvetot is unique – Normandy’s coastal landscape, which intersperses meadowland with woods (to be geographically precise, the land of Caux between Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe) – and problematic, being sliced through by a major traffic node (a motorway with toll booth and slip roads, together with a trunk road for heavy traffic). The brief was multi-faceted, calling for space for offices, maintenance and security, and ten houses for staff. Both context and brief presented the architects with no end of dilemmas: how do you insert a contemporary building in the countryside? How do you create a living environment for ten families at a spot well off the beasten track? How do you ensure that the buildings open towards the landscape yet are spared the sight and sound of the motorway? How do you create an image and an identity for this company? (In France, the companies that manage motorways have an image problem as they tax the motorist heavily and, rightly or wrongly, are held responsible for building up the countryside.)
The first decision Badia and Berger took was to base their project on the notions of landscape and territory. The buildings are situated at a level lower than that of the wooded slopes, which screen them from the din of traffic. Which explains why the roofs, the only component visible from the motorway, have received especial attention. The various parts of the project – a rectangle for the offices and garages, a circle for the salt bunker and another for the ten dwellings – are laid out like a small country village, from which they distil certain typologies though without lapsing into parody or pastiche. For example, the administrative centre is ranged round an inner court farmhouse-style. The offices of black brick and concrete, inspired by thirties modernism, throw up a symmetrical front on either side of a central entrance (the state police on one side, offices on the other). A double row of garages edge along the sides of the courtyard which doubles as a petrol station. Their roofs have the undulating form of corn waving in the wind. At the rear, the courtyard is terminated by a concrete wall.
Immediately to the east of the administrative centre is the circular salt bunker (salt is used to keep the motorways free of ice in the winter), modelled on the covered markets which often occupy the centres of village squares. And, seen from the motorway, the pointed ‘clock tower’, clad in wooden slats to allow in air and light, acts as a formal, expressive landmark.
West of the centre, sheltered by the hills, are ten houses, the project’s key component. They are arranged like an encampment, in a circle surrounded by an access road and an unfenced orchard. These houses are identical rectangular wooden boxes, simple and austere, and all face the same way: backs to the north and the audio-visual pollution of the motorway, fronts to the south where the private gardens and a children’s playground are situated. Protecting them from sun and wind is a horizontal awning which softens the steeply raked roof and gives the dwellings the characteristic silhouette of ‘huts’ or ‘Japanese houses’. The awning is clad in the same material as the roof: zinc with a black patina recalling the slate roofs characteristic of the region. The undersides of the canopies are clad in Red Cedar panels, as are the facades. Aluminium sections divide the facades into planes, framing the panels and drawing into the pattern the shutters fronting the French windows and the windows on the first floor. For all its restraint and severity, this graphic image calls to mind the region’s half-timbered houses though without compromising the modernity of the solution.
The entrances to the houses are set in the short sides of the rectangle, east or west as the case may be. Here, the awning swells into a large pentroof supported by four pine columns to form a gateway. An eye-catching oblique wall of white brick separates the private from the public domain. The wall cleaves the wooden box to scoop out an opening for the entrance, on the south side it forms the boundary of the adjoining garage. On the north side, it continues as the outer wall of the living room, which in turn is connected to the wooden box by a glass front on the garden side. Inside, the logic of the wooden structure is everywhere in evidence, rhythmically articulating the space. Capitalizing on the limited width of the house, the rooms are not centralized in their arrangement as is customary, but configured as an enfilade, chopped up by sliding panels that can open to provide two parallel perspectives along the south and north elevations.
The intimate entrance gives direct access to the living room and contains the staircase to the floor above. A small canopy creates a sheltered passage between kitchen and garage. The living room itself is a central area with fireplace linked to the upper floor by a void.
In a country where urban architecture tends towards pastiche and simulation, this rural project is notable for its ground-breaking and expressive qualities. Not only that, the architects have been sparing with the means at their disposal and have paid considerable attention to the landscape and to the lifestyles of the residents. The use of wood, for example, does not accrue from technical or symbolic considerations alone. As construction, wood combines industrial production with craftsmanship, lightness of structure with solidity of the whole. As material, wood blends the architecture into its geographic context, while lending the architecture a sensitive and sensual character. As vocabulary, wood exudes simplicity and gives the forms and spaces their characteristic expression, rhythm and graphic pattern. Finally as structure, wood lends the spaces a flexibility and fluidity that is by no means the norm these days.
In short, the architects have forged in the shadow of the wall, a link with the sky. In the case of the houses, which need to be intimate and introverted in a bustling environment lacking a social dimension, the architects have also taken into consideration the other, collective, facet: the adjoining geographic context and the wider cultural one of the region.