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Tête en l’air

Where you live makes such a difference.

The environment where you live feeds your vitality hence, a worn down cramped and dirty place drains you energy almost as quickly as you can find it. And yet, for many, this is all they can afford.

Tête en l’air is a social housing project in Paris, making cool architecture affordable. Built entirely in wood, the photos are amazing. It feels more like a community, than a social housing project.

What’s especially interesting is that Paris isn’t built out of wood. It’s mostly limestone – they even refer to it as “Paris Stone”. It’s quite an experience walking through Paris – the streets feel warm and ancient surrounded by stone buildings that when you go up the Eiffel Tower, you can gaze over a whole city built with this kind of rock.

Imagine a crisp morning, as the sun is coming up, it shines on these stone buildings, which are just waking up as the sun reaches higher. The coffee is bitter and dark, but that fits with the biting breeze off the River Seine. It also fits with the response you get if you ask a Frenchman a question in English expecting him to understand you. Of course, they do understand you, but if you try to ask in French first, they usually smile at your pathetic attempt and cheerfully answer in English. Especially after accidentally asking, “Where is Rue de Rivoli?” and mispronouncing it as “Rue de Ravioli”.  I’m sure the polite French man who responded to me in perfect English has long forgotten, but my wife has not. This is what happens when you marry someone with a near-photographic memory. You almost need a second warm croissant, fresh out of the oven, to breathe some life back into the day and to recover from the humiliation.

Most of the limestones in Paris comes from a number of quarries in the Oise Department, 25 miles North of Paris. (A department in France is equivalent to a county in the US). Oise has a beautiful country side with rolling hills and home to some fantastic castles,like the Château de Pierrefonds, which you may have seen if you watched the Highlander, or the Man in the Iron Mask.

The other aspect of Tête en l’air that caught my eye was the spaciousness – there is a sense of breathing room in the complex. I’ve visited Paris multiple times, and more than once stayed in hotels where the beds had less than 1 foot of space between each other, and the walls with no place to set down a suitcase; and then you have to climb over the other twin bed to reach the bathroom, and sit sideways on the toilet because the room is so narrow. The beds aren’t even 6″ long, which means your feet dangle of the end of the bed if you’re tall like me; making it hard to rest up after a day of walking around town.  Maybe that’s changed in the last 10 years, but Paris is one expensive city, and space is a premium – so spaciousness in social housing seems to be a real gift.

The project isn’t just affordable architecture. It’s something that stands in contrast to the rest of the city. It’s designed to come from a renewable resource, projecting the message: “It’s about sustainability and looking forward to the future”. Society has become highly productive in terms of building, creating and producing; but sometimes it feels that we’re wired for progress on an individual level instead of taking care of people beyond your social circle. Such initiatives take a lot of effort from a number of dedicated people, to enable everything to come to fruition. That’s why projects like this light up my day – seeing good design that creates a healthy living space applied to social housing – it’s an accomplishment from a diverse group of people, coming together to make life better for those who are struggling the most – the sort of project that we should be celebrating and promoting.


Also published on Medium.

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    Ha I think I like Rue de Ravioli better.
    Hmm coffee and warm croissants fresh out of the oven – more or less the reason I’m going to Paris in May… that and the onion soup. Paris really does have an essence and its own atmosphere that is absolutely unique to it, more so than other cities I think.

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