The repurposing of a space in the historic center of Paris into two apartments gave architect Vincent Parreira’s office an opportunity to work on a small scale in an exceptional context.
Despite determinist formal and constructive features, this remarkably adaptable Haussmannian building has withstood repeated repurposing, though at the cost, it is true, of sometimes heavy interventions. The central framework of Haussmann’s Paris, the Opéra-Madeleine district has been transformed without changing its appearance: thus, number 17 Boulevard des Capucines is occupied with a vast program of the most up-to-date offices. Three addresses further down the boulevard, Vincent Parreira’s office just converted a 19th-century photography studio into apartments. If these premises have a far more modest surface area than the giant neighboring office building, the intervention is nevertheless significant. The clients, two siblings, own these two contiguous apartments, which share the same architecture and program, i.e., short-term rental properties. Access to these two prestigious apartments is via the former service staircase and the corridor leading to rooms formerly allocated to domestic personnel – yet another sign of the total transformation of uses and distributing architectural hierarchies so dear to the Second Empire bourgeoisie. Each apartment is a duplex, whose bedrooms and bathrooms are located on the lower level, while the reception area with its drawing room and kitchen are situated on the upper level, under the glass roof of what used to be a photographer’s studio. The upper level enjoys double exposure in both apartments. The views from these two vantage points reveal two quite different faces of the Parisian panorama. On the drawing room side, the view includes the gold and prestige of the Opéra Garnier, and the layout of the façades of the Grand Hôtel. From the kitchen side, the view opens to the chaotic landscape of Paris behind the scenes, its rooftops cluttered with all the required service elements – air conditioning systems, fire escapes, smoke dampers, etc. – of this functioning urban décor.
Glass roof structure
An important part of this project involved the replacement of the glass roof, requiring an important effort in terms of design, follow-up and budget, comparable to one for a single-family detached house, according to Vincent Parreira. The new roof has the exact same dimensions of the one built in 1899, and respects the placement of the glazed parts on the façade and roof. In spite of this continuity in dimensions, the architect of the “Bâtiments de France” (official architectural review board) had to be convinced of the justification for such a project, as the project’s architect sought to develop a very contemporary style, rather than reproduce a more traditional structure. Double glazed, anti-intrusion, low-e, slightly reflective glass has been inserted into the molded metal frames. Vagaries emerged as the work progressed, of the sort specific to any rehabilitation project. The studio had suffered a fire and water damage, which resulted in a deterioration of structure of the floor, rebuilt along with the glass roof, whose structure also serves as the structural framework and façade. In this context, the cost of the works was evaluated according to different parameters, the scope of which goes well beyond the mere supplying of construction materials and their assembly. This accounting includes the accessibility of the construction site, project scaffolding, the protection of existing structures, the time frame required for obtaining the building permit in the context of a landmarked district and an intervention in an occupied environment of offices and shops. All the above are part of a greater than average construction budget to be sure, but hardly an unbridled one, Parreira insists. Two main companies oversaw construction, a general contractor, able to select its sub-contractors, and an ironworks, in charge of building the glass roof. This combination ensured the quality of the structural work and of the very refined details of the finishing work as well, the point in the project where the positions concerning today’s dwelling are most clearly expressed.
The architect’s lifestyle proposals are most fully realized in the apartments, which, intended for a single occupant or a couple, are unencumbered by issues of privacy or access to services raised by the presence of several autonomous and independent occupants. Thus, Parreira was able to take liberties in the partitioning of the spaces through his use of transparent glass and one-way mirrors. Glazing offered the possibility of partitioning a small area, or enlarging the space by hiding the disorder of a bathroom. “The bedroom is placed behind a transparent glass wall. Privacy is achieved not by means of a wall but rather with a curtain, through which shadows can be perceived. As for the large mirrored section, a distant wink at wink from afar to the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles, he generates an ambiguous situation. Is it a glass wall, or a closet? The idea it might conceal a shower never even crosses one’s mind. There is of course a bit of a theatrical game of appearance/disappearance, and the will to always be able to engage with the entire space.” The existing staircase was preserved and treated as a quirky object whose material and structural presence is somewhat out of place. It provides a link with an upper floor as open as the lower floor is private. In the drawing room, the occupant is seemingly in a display case, thrust into the urban space, and could also create the feeling of being the focus of a show, or of playing a part in one of these action crime movies which often end on the ocean of zinc and slate of Parisian rooftops, as seen in Frantic, Fantomas and Peur sur la ville... The deliberate decision not to install a curtain or shutters, justified by the particularity of building opposite: the façade of a grand luxury hotel whose clientele is merely passing through and rarely in their rooms. The built-in elements of furniture – storage cabinets and built-in banquette running along glazed façade which can serve as seating or a shelf – leave the space free of superfluous elements, which highlight the exceptional elements: leather curtain separating the kitchen and the drawing room, or inserts, also in leather, forming seating in front of the parts that can be opened in the glass façade, and the context overall. “Sitting on the bench, you are completely carried away by the sky” Parreira concludes, describing his project, a distant descendent of the Bisteigui apartment, which Le Corbusier endowed with a room that had the sky as its ceiling.