As the urban-rural population split globally is projected to skew considerably in favour of the former by the end of this decade, the rush to provide high-density housing that grants an appreciable standard of living alongside amenities such as access to green public space will be a key element in future urban development within settlements across the world. While some turn to technology to meet this demand – like in the case of ICON and Lake|Flato Architects’ 3D-printed House Zero – others may rely on socially-driven schemes that follow sustainable design objectives and attempt to safeguard the interests of vulnerable sections of society, as seen in the EU Mies Award 2022 finalist, The Railway Farm by Grand Huit and Melanie Drevet Paysagiste. Although both projects differ in how they confront the task at hand, the utopian vision they depict puts forth some intriguing examples of how this complex issue can be tackled using vastly divergent approaches.
With this in mind, the town of Bruz in northwestern France is now home to a model that adheres to the aspects of the latter path – the Bruz Utopia Housing complex, situated on the fringes of Parc de la Herverie, just shy of the urban centre. Realised under the supervision of Champenois Architectes – lead by architect Pierre Champenois and based out of Montreuil on the outskirts of Paris – the complex resembles a self-contained ecosystem of community living. The firm’s residential design does exhibit many essential elements of what might be construed as an idealistic and efficient solution for the deficits in high-quality housing seen in major cities worldwide. Accommodating 87 rent-to-own flats within an imposing, geometric form, the residential building might also develop into a coveted new address with excellent accessibility to the city’s core.
Despite the severity and uncompromising form of its stone-clad façade design, the structure exerts a relatively silent presence when viewed from a distance. As the design team mentions in a press statement, “It is a quiet building set on the slope of the land, a large vessel whose bow, open to the public garden, invites residents to enter an interior world sheltered by a glass roof.” From one angle, the entire structure could be perceived as a collection of living units arranged around a greenhouse-like atrium, surmounted by an assortment of gardens and additional glass sheds along its uppermost level. Generous balconies extend from the main façade, protected from excess sunlight by white glazing along their edges. The extensive use of glass does respond well to Bruz’s climate, which oscillates between pleasant summers and cold winters.
Moving inside, residents will encounter the public garden, beneath a plethora of criss-crossing gangways which create a dynamic network of three-dimensional circulation between each wing of housing units. Elevators have been provided at opposing corners of the space, supplying avenues for universal access throughout the complex. “Here, you can walk on gangways suspended from the treetops, talk to your neighbours about the tomatoes ripening in the communal garden on the roof, and watch the Bruz landscape while sheltered from the weather,” notes Champenois Architectes. Pockets of vegetation and spreading trees constituting the landscape design within the complex are present at virtually every turn, hammering home the notion of the structure being a symbiosis of natural and human-made ecosystems. Furthermore, the sheer size of the central space has allowed for larger trees and shrubs to make their home within the building, enhancing the diversity of the landscaping in its scale as well.
Crowning the building’s heart, the double-pitched glass roof over the atrium is supported by a layered system of trusses which reference more traditional dwellings that occupy plots in neighbouring locales. The overall aesthetic throughout the interior design is quite rigorous, stern, and tinged with an almost industrial-style feel, employing metal frames and meshes freely in conjunction with exposed concrete. In this regard, the material palette veers towards a cold, dystopian feel rather than a utopian one, although the introduction of a biophilic design angle into this context does serve well to reduce the austerity of the overall composition, breathing life into the common areas.
While lower floors have blocks of housing units concentrated mainly along two sides, the upper levels host a continuous stream of apartments along all of the building’s faces, increasing the sense of enclosure on moving towards the roof and drawing the eye towards the open sky above. Spatial organisation within the units themselves is quite efficient yet not excessively utilitarian, prioritising the availability of ample natural light and ventilation for residents. “In the flats, residents always benefit from a double exposure providing sunshine and nice views,” relay the architects. Finally, the building’s roof is home to a range of winter and summer gardens “which light up at night like lanterns to liven up the town’s skyline.”
Straddling the boundaries between vibrant and steely, as well as the utopian and dystopian, the Bruz Utopia Housing complex depicts a complementary ensemble of contradictions in its materiality, design language, and scale. Yet, in doing so, its scheme truly embodies the need to harness contrasting perspectives in facing up to a defining obstacle in the next phase of urban development across the world.
Name: Bruz Utopia Housing
Location: 4-6 rue des Planches, 35170 Bruz, France
Area: 7149 sqm
Year of Completion: 2021
Client: Groupe Launay
Project Manager: Champenois Architectes
Landscape Architect: David Besson-Girard
Construction Economist: Cabinet Lemonnier
Structural Engineering Consultants: Ouest Structures
Fluids Consultants: Icofluides
Acoustics Consultants: Acoustique Yves Hernot