A Tight Squeeze
The school site is about 330 feet (100 meters) long and between 33 and 66 feet (10 and 20 meters) wide. With little room to work with, the architect had to make the school building a link between two neighboring but very different urban structures.
Designing for a small site in Paris is a challenge because of numerous building regulations. For example, classrooms need to be oriented toward public space, and neighboring structures have to retain a clear view of the sky at an angle of 45 degrees from any point on their property. Indeed, during the planning process, the urban regulations and the shape of the site became the major determinants of the final shape of the school.
Margot-Duclot placed the 20,000-square-foot (1850-square-meter) school at the corner of the block on two thirds of the site, leaving an open space of 130 feet (40 meters) for the courtyard. The main building is about 200 feet (60 meters) long and varies from 33 to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters) in width.
The school required nine classrooms, sleeping rooms, two playrooms, and a lunchroom, for a total of 18,000 square feet (1700 square meters) of space. Because the school needed 11,000 square feet (1000 square meters) of outdoor space, and the building site was only about 16,000 square feet (1500 square meters), the yard had to be split into several levels.
Fitting into the Neighborhood
At first glance, the building stands out because it is only half the size of the surrounding buildings. It appears small and simple, with clear horizontal lines and large windows, without spectacular details or eye-catching colors. But at the same time, it connects with its environment through materials such as the polished concrete of the facade and the zinc-covered roof.
The base of the building is made of burstone, with a color and structure reminiscent of the mortarless stone walls of southern France. The architect selected burstone as a reference to 19th-century statesman Jules Ferry, the founder of the French public school system. The stone represents the strong base of an education that is granted and controlled by the state. This kind of stone had been used for a long time for the bases of the public buildings but has now become quite rare. The southern countryside motif is strengthened by floral drawing on the courtyard wall.
Despite the simplicity of the southern facade, it is well planned and detailed to moderate incoming sunlight that could overheat the classrooms. Each interruption of the straight verticality of the facade is designed to let in light while blocking the direct sunlight without using external shades. Shades are not welcomed by the city because it is trying to lower building maintenance costs.
An Internal Logic
The interior concept of the school is based on the circulation pattern and the building structure. A main corridor down the middle of every floor connects the various functions with the main entrance, the two staircases, and the outer courtyards.
The main entrance to the school is situated at the center of the building, off the private street, and has an exterior, covered waiting area, because parents are not allowed to wait inside the building. The entrance is connected to a central hall, which is the building's hub. All circulation between the different functions of the school goes through this hall.
The hall rises through the first two stories and receives indirect daylight from the skylights of the second floor. A large mural by the artist Yvan Messac, a friend of the architect, decorates the hall. It represents the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Great Bear and the Little Bear) in the night sky. In front of the mural, two stone sculptures also represent the bears.
The actual division of the functions over the four stories follows a simple logic of accessibility. The smallest children stay on the ground floor, the older ones on the next floor, and the oldest on the floor above. The housekeeper's apartment and the mechanical and electrical equipment are on the top floor.
The structural system consists of simple precast concrete beams and columns. Four lines of columns organize the building, two lines along the main corridor, and two lines — offset from those by 24 feet (7.2 meters) — just inside each facade, standing independent of the wall system.
All the interior furnishings, such as tables, chairs, coat racks, and restroom fixtures, have been designed and selected to ensure the comfort and freedom of circulation for the children. All the classrooms face south and are protected from direct sunlight by the facade. The classrooms are about 18 feet (5.6 meters) deep and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, thereby facilitating flexibility of use.