From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. Rue Franklin was first broadcast on 5th November. You can listen to the audio here.
Tourists to Paris flock to the terraces of the Trocadéro to get the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. But a few steps away stands an equally remarkable structure, an apartment building on Rue Franklin that was completed in 1903.
Its jaunty bay windows and decorative floral tiles make it stand out from its neighbours but peer a little closer and you realise that the frame of the building is entirely exposed. While this was common in industrial buildings and indeed celebrated in Eiffel’s famous tower, this building went one step further: it used reinforced concrete. This was a revolution for domestic architecture and the first of its kind in the world. Banks refused loans on any of the apartments, fearing its collapse, but the lack of load-bearing walls allowed its rooms to be light, open and thoroughly modern. It helped change the course of architectural history.
It’s the work of Auguste Perret, an architect who was trained at the conservative École des Beaux-Arts. He worked with his brothers in their building firm, eventually setting up office on the ground floor of this building, the young Le Corbusier working there briefly in 1908. His hands-on building experience gave him a particular interest in different building techniques. Like many architects of the time, he was fascinated by the use of new materials like steel and concrete which were rapidly transforming the architectural world. Concrete had long exerted a hold on the French. In the 1860s, a gardener called Joseph Monier created tubs for large plants using concrete poured into a mould lined with woven iron mesh, and the Monier technique went on to be used in the manufacture of concrete pipes and bridges. A few years later, François Hennebique created structural beams made of concrete that were strengthened by metal rods running along the bottom. They were used to reinforce a building frame but were always tucked away out of sight. Anatole de Baudot used visible concrete in a notable church in Montmartre but he couldn’t help making it look like Gothic stonework. Perret’s concrete is defiantly concrete.
The apartment building at Rue Franklin challenged local building regulations. Its upper floors were stepped back but it was still a ten-storey building with a roof garden. Rather than plunging a light-well through the building, Perret modulated the façade using deep bay windows that allowed spectacular views and drew light deep into the rooms. Thanks to the frame, the windows were the largest that regulations allowed, with concrete panels filling the spaces that were not glazed. These were then covered in majolica tiles by Alexandre Bigot, the darling of the Art Nouveau ceramic world, which appalled purists who thought Perret had pandered to fashion.
Auguste Perret was one of the true pioneers of reinforced concrete, even giving it classical elegance in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, where Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ sparked a riot in 1913. The interior of his church of Notre Dame in Raincy of 1922 is an astonishing work of lightness and beauty, a contrast to the futuristic monumentality of his church of St Joseph in the port city of Le Havre, much of which Perret rebuilt after its devastation in the Second World War. What Eiffel did for iron and steel, Perret did for concrete. And his building in Rue Franklin took architecture into a new realm, even though it was hiding in plain sight.
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