Le Sémaphore de la Gafette


What a paradox!

The city of Port-de-Bouc, at the meeting point of the Rhone and the Mediterranean, is suffering from impact of major infrastructures (trains, highways, oil and chemical industries). It create an ambivalent landscape: this territory is today one of the largest industrial areas in Europe, while remaining a privileged place to enjoy the sweetness of the South of France. It’s usual to meet people fishing at the foot of abandoned factories, or swimmers contemplate the incessant ballet of supertankers. The site of La Gafette, where is located the project, is symbol of the evolution of this territory, neglected and polluted; worn for decades by industries that have become obsolete.

At the same time, a “new industry” is emerging, driven by instantaneity and technology. Urban logistic allows to distribute products ordered on the Internet from the other side of the world; and the possibility to create and send home-made objects to anyone from a living room, help the development of micro-companies as fablab or innovative activities … This “21st-century industry”, more sustainable, brings the desired dynamism to influence on urban politics of wastelands rehabilitation.

And at a time when ecological considerations seem more important than ever, the question of the future of these former industrial sites is essential to rethink a more sustainable city. Especially since these issues will arise at much higher scales when huge industries dispersed on the planet will begin their already programmed decline.

Architecture before the city

The project tries to connect these 2 potentials, a site and an activity, so that everyone benefits to the other. Logistic industrials and innovative workers are gathered around a tram-train line (taking over the old railway that served the factories). It creates a microcosm that will engender a new dynamic into a territory that need while offering the generous, flexible and economical spaces that this new active class is looking for.

The project defends the idea that a classical urban intervention (a masterplan leading to a multitude of architectural operations realized in a very short time) cannot find its place in an industrial scale and (for the moment) hard conditions. The challenge here is to bring a “first stone”, a small gesture able to reconnect the site to the territory and engage its future appropriation.

The project must be a signal for this territory, and relies on semaphore’s typology to « enlighten » the City on his future: “Look, there is something happening near the city center! Yes, it’s the old industries that we live again! ” The project thus reverses a difficult context to develop a singular way of making the city: inhabit what is habitable today to prepare the development of the city tomorrow. Architecture BEFORE the city.

Permanent and changes

According to Perret’s thought, architecture is placed at the meeting of Nature and the many changes that Man seeks. Permanent and evolutionary, it anticipates its own mutation and tries to surpass the rhythm of “1 building = 1 time = 1 use” which has so marked the landscape.

The project presents a “double-architecture”, articulating on a tower: a permanent frame, in the form of a “grid to live” in white concrete, minimizing the points of structure to allow a total flexibility of spaces; and habitable modules (set on the Small-Office/Home-Office system), built in a dry process (mainly wood) to easily meet all uses; and largely open to the Mediterranean landscape.

These modules are organized around a vertical street, an extension of the city within the project: indeed, if we cannot use the “original” ground that is too polluted, the idea is to offer an intermediate space that will play both the role of public space and building landing ; but also polyvalent or sportive areas, observatory, amphitheater, … This forms a “shared economy”, between an economically disadvantaged city that will benefit from attractive collective spaces; and workers who will enjoy this extension of their habitat around a meeting place.


What prompted the project?

When you visit the project area for the first time, there is a kind of “violence” that marks you. Intense pollution, the city is fragmented by the highway and pipelines, its centre is deserted; and all these singular situations that shock: children bathing in front of oil factories, people fishing at the foot of supertankers, …
And at the same time, there is a beauty that amazes you. The landscape may seem brutal, there is a kind of force that we feel in people, in nature, a kind of reaction that I wanted to capture.
That’s what motivated all my intentions. How to act for these people and for this territory who are suffering but who want to react? How can an architectural intervention may be a way to give value to this place?

How important was the research into the site and its history? What means did you use to access this information?

This site wasn’t easy to understand because nobody knew it! However, I discovered that it was one of the major places in the history of Port-de-Bouc, cradle of all the activities that have changed the city. But the huge impact of the last industries has made the site desert … and we forgot it. The work was therefore largely documentary, to highlight a panorama of the site; in terms of history but also landscape, uses, society, politics, economy … All this gave an exhaustive view of the stakes of the site across all scales, and over times, past or future. I found very interesting to go far in the analysis, because architecture can play this role of memory which is missing on this site. Thus, the whole strategy of the project stems directly from its past and its history, which it questions, prolongs or contradicts.

What is your hope for the project in 50 years time?

To be surprised! This is the particularity of this project: to not know what it will become, and that’s what interests me – to question the city and its development. Unlike today’s major urban projects where everything seems already fixed, the idea here is to offer a flexible equipment to a society that is constantly evolving. And thus, to accompany the urban evolution of the site without getting ahead.
I draw this project as a tool: generous volumes to receive all kinds of programs, a permanent frame and easily modifiable facade or partitioning systems, … So, I hope that in 50 years this building hosts programs that do not exist yet, that the facade I designed have evolved 2 or 3 times, … And beyond, that the architecture is enough strong to support these changes and stay coherent with the site.

What about the space and context where the project is situated?

If I hope for an unexpected future for the project itself, the main objective is clearly defined: that the city fight its decline and the constraints it undergoes by reinvesting spaces abandoned over time.
On a larger scale, the project is facing the Lavera industrial area, one of the largest in Europe, and when this industry will be obsolete as it has happened in La Gafette, what will we do? I hope this project is a first step to question the future of all these industrial sites and show that they have all the potential to revitalize cities.

Are you interested in exploring the use of these potentially derelict sites further?

Indeed, I have often researched projects subjects that questioned environments that you first want to flee. What motivates me in these situations is that hard conditions highlight the complexity of the site. Because they are neglected, forgotten or avoided, it’s necessary to search on all facets of the site to find some basis for the project. We often think that because there’s nothing, it’s easier to set any volume or use … On the contrary! These sites suffered too much and are too important for the city; that they don’t support architectural “grafts” as well.
For me the aim is then to reverse these hard constraints to create a positive architecture, conscious of its context and what it will be able to value here. I find projects stronger, more appropriate to the site.

How important were the plans and section as tools through which to develop the project? What was your work process?

Plans and sections were precisely essential to find the right inscription in this empty site. Things as simple as defining public or private spaces, implementation of the different flows or accesses appeared singular here. The issue was to of qualify spaces that drowned in each other. And rather than placing an architecture from existing limits as we would classically do, architecture has come to define limits by its own constitution.
The process was to constantly question the coherence of the different scales, from 1/200 000 to 1 / 20th, to find the right balance between urban impact and the response to smallest needs of the public I want to attract. And so that everyone benefits to the other. There has been a lot of back and forth on the proportions of the project: on the overall framework to suit all uses, on the size of homes so that everyone can live or work comfortably, or on the volume that it gave to see in the context far away.
In fine, plans and section told the story of this small scale of micro-enterprise which lives in the very large scale of industrial territories.

What informed the use of the classic methods of representation as means to reveal the project?

The project play with complex themes (economy, politics), in a complex context and through a so much complex strategy; mixing different actors, different uses and different scales. The idea with this very sober representation was to be effective to immediately understanding the aim of the project; without drawing too much to leave the appropriation necessary for the acceptance of the project by the inhabitants and the site.
In fact, I was inspired by a book wrote by Auguste Perret, who guided me during all my studies: in Contribution to a theory of architecture, each page has one or two sentences max. Perret knows how to be precise enough in his terms to make each word indispensable while avoiding over-justification; and thus give the reader a complete appropriation of the content to adapt it into different situations.
The different graphics have a very “technical” side, intended to make viable the project proposal. This gives a kind of assembly manual : elements such as construction process, materiality or uses are thus designed to be permanent or voluntarily obsolescent, depending on the case.

Did you ever think of challenging the format as to reflect the proposal - potentially through an app?

I think that the architectural rendering of this project is only one of the possible representations, simply because it’s the representation I know the best. But I can easily imagine that the idea could be developed through discussions, photos, tourist routes, exhibitions, documentaries … and so, why not an application!

What is for you the architects ultimate tool?

His spirit and tenacity! Architects have this heavy task of thinking about the framework in which society will evolve. And you have to be tenacious to create a project by looking for all the characteristics of a site, its history, what it can become, who lives in it, what program to install, why this today, why it tomorrow, … This is fascinating and rewarding to put all your will to transform sites and contexts by creating buildings that will become life places of peoples.