Art Sites France
Most dominant are two huge cylinders sheathed in stainless steel except for a horizontal band of windows near the bottom. Raised off the ground (supported by concrete columns), they terminate in a sloped roof at the top. A third, glass-sheathed cylinder, nestled between the other two and much smaller in size, serves as the entrance hall for the whole building.
Behind is another window-walled structure with one side — the side fronting the river — slanted out and configured as wide steps so that offices on all levels overlook and open onto plant-laden terraces.
Though each side and part of the building is distinctly different, common threads and harmonious repetitions hold it together. Its compelling design is innovative and unusual but very appealing.
(Strasbourg: Avenue de l'Europe. Bus 30 or 23 from Place Broglie or Rue du Vieux Marché aux Vins, exit Orangerie. Located 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) northeast of the city center, across from the lush Parc de l'Orangerie.)
Bus Stop, 1987
Inspired by the crocodile — the Nîmes city symbol — Philippe Starck designed this bus stop as a long, winding line of dark green seats slithering out from the front and back ends of a monumental shelter. The seats are small, solid cubes, and the shelter is a covered, open-sided cube.
Both are of crocodile-green marble. All is pristine and simple, though the necessary accouterments — a bus schedule panel and public telephone — are incorporated into the pillars of the shelter. It's an attractive and functional design and a excellent exemplar of public art.
(Nîmes: Traffic island, Avenue Carnot, corner of Rue Notre-Dame.)
If you're expecting a chic, upscale building, like Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier in Paris, you'll undoubtedly think you have the wrong address. The location is an industrial district, the street is a busy truck route, and Némausus is the name for two exceedingly eccentric structures having the earmarks of cruise ships, jet hovercrafts, or the viewing stands at a racetrack.
They are nearly identical, situated parallel to each other and perpendicular to the street with a plot of land planted with sycamore trees in between. It won't take long to realize that these strange-looking forms are apartment buildings — 144 units of public housing. Curiously, the city of Nîmes includes this site on its tourist maps but strangely lists it in the category "Leisure, Sports, Transportation"!
Commissioned by the socialist mayor of Nîmes, these long, six-story housing units are totally constructed from inexpensive, industrial materials: corrugated aluminum sheeting on the exterior and staircases; perforated and galvanized aluminum for the footbridges; and within the interior, office-type glazed room partitions, simple gray plastic flooring, and bare concrete walls.
Only the prototype for accordion garage doors, which form the entire facade on the south side, can be called a luxury item. These were included because they opened the full width of the apartments, thereby extending the living area onto the terrace-balconies.
Materials, like all else in the project, evolved from a refusal to accept the conventional restraints and inadequacies of public housing. Nouvel's top priority was to create the largest possible living space. He not only did this but also provided numerous features rarely found in public housing: cross ventilation, spacious balconies, large bathrooms, double-height living rooms, and 17 different apartment types.
The structures still look good, showing little wear and tear and no graffiti. What's more, the residents are enamored with their units.
The buildings are raised up on red-striped concrete pilotis, floating over a sunken, barely visible parking lot. Cantilevered roof screens act as sunshades for cantilevered terraces whose oblique-angled walls are constructed with the same screening.
The terraces ingeniously serve as walkways along the north facade and as private balconies on the sunny, south side. Because the walkways are wide and open, they function as convenient and safe play areas for kids. By placing them, as well as the stairs and elevators, on the outside, thus eliminating internal circulation areas, Nouvel was able to increase the area of the units by almost 30 percent.
Expanding on ideas set forth by Le Corbusier regarding mass housing, Nouvel, with Jean-Marc Ibos, has created "machines for living." Designed as a modern industrial object, they offer a very appealing alternative to block housing.
(Nîmes: Avenue du Général Leclerc. Bus 2, exit Némausus. To walk: from the train station go right on boulevard Talabot; turn right onto Avenue du Général Leclerc — it angles back behind the station and then straightens out after a juncture with boulevard Natoire; continue down the street (5 minutes); the site is on the right.)
La Fontaine Stravinsky, 1983
This fountain sculpture (located on the south side of the Centre Pompidou in Paris) is a spectacle of squirting water jets, colorful figures, and gyrating, swirling sculptures. It brings together 16 objects: assemblages created by Jean Tinguely from wheels, ancient and new motors, corroded iron works, and other meta-mechanical parts; and fanciful painted figures by Niki de Saint-Phalle.
Inspired by the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, the artists gave the different elements of the fountain names like key to the earth, nightingale, snake, firebird, spiral, life, elephant, death, ragtime, and love. The scene in the plaza is a perfect side show with its conglomerate of cafe-table people-watchers and profusion of camera-happy tourists, frolicking children, and stray or pampered dogs.
(Paris: Place Igor Stravinsky. Métro: Hôtel de Ville, Les Halles.)
Sidra Stich is an art historian, travel writer, and author of art-SITES Britain, art-SITES Spain, and art-SITES Ireland. In 2002 she will publish art-SITES Paris and art-SITES San Francisco.
This article is excerpted from art-SITES France copyright © 1999, available from art-SITES Press and Amazon.com.
Note: Photos in the book are in black and white.
Némausus public housing in Nîmes, by Jean Nouvel.
Photo: Sidra Stich
Map of Nîmes showing work by Starck (7) and Nouvel (8).
Image: art-SITES Press
La Fontaine Stravinsky in Paris, by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle.
Photo: Sidra Stich
Map of Les Halles, Paris, showing La Fontaine Stravinsky (9).
Image: art-SITES Press
art-SITES France is one is a series of travel books with special attention to architecture.
Image: art-SITES Press
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