DIJON – A cubic social housing complex by O-S Architectes blends in perfectly with its surroundings. The white concrete façades with gaps for a garden and parking lots correspond neatly with the urban narrative of the neighbourhood which is dominated by a succession of small buildings and private homes.
The three young architects who form the practice have been delivering elegant buildings with simple forms for more than ten years. With projects like their cultural centre in Saint-Germain-de-Aparon, which is situated between a dance school and a cemetery, or in Saint-Berthevin, where the cultural centre directly connects to the local church on the city’s main square, they have proven to have a rare contextual sensitivity. The architects’ language is one of no frills, which to some reveals its beauty only at second sight. It is not just the result that distinguishes O-S Architectes, but their approach too.
When asked whether a building’s social or aesthetic quality matters more, the collective chose to keep only the words ‘social’ and ‘quality’ after discarding the rest of the question. Aesthetics, they say, is the unconscious result of other considerations. The humbleness of their words is found in their buildings.
Taking their newly finished social housing development in Dijon as an occasion, Mark speaks to the young practice.
You founded your practice in 2002. What has changed since then?
GAËL LE NOUËNE: What brought us together back then was the emphasis on freshness, control and values. Despite the current oppressive economic situation which is filled with regulations, we still want to deliver great spaces.
You mainly choose to work on buildings with a social or cultural purpose. What draws you to these projects?
The profession of the architect is very closely connected to social and cultural fields! We like to work on projects that mix several programmes because we are interested in the confrontation of multiple uses, and how they can be organised. It can be an opportunity to rethink the way a building is used. We get a lot of insight from collaborations with consultants from different backgrounds, like set designers, acousticians and artists.
Your designs are very stripped down, cubic and unobtrusive. What effect does this aesthetic have on the environment a building is inserted in?
Let’s take the building in Dijon as example. Due to its humbleness and simplicity, it is seeking for discretion rather than an affirmation of its presence. In a residential area such as this neighbourhood, building social housing can generate some tensions. Tactfully and with restraint, we focused on the details instead of a big formal demonstration. We even used concrete that mimics the surrounding’s colour range.
You worked with precast concrete in many projects. Which features lead you to choose this material over others?
Working with precast concrete is a systematic way of building which we’re currently exploring to gain construction time and ensure the final quality of the concrete. All panels can be designed and developed with controlling production costs and keeping tight deadlines in mind. When working with social housing, prefabrication has enabled us to have high quality features such as wooden windows and wooden floors within a limited budget. The success of this project relied on extremely precise work in order to control the budget. More generally, we are interested in materials that make the link between context and form, materials that are used for what they are, like concrete or wood. Steel is interesting too.
It seems like you haven’t designed any private residencies so far. Why not?
That’s definitely something we are interested in, the idea of such an intimate relationship between architect and client is very appealing. So far, we didn’t get the right opportunity to work together with the right person.
What projects would you like to work on in the future?
A place about memory or contemplation, to reflect the quiet and poetic strength which architecture is able to contain. We would also like to work on architecture in relation to water, such as a public bath or swimming facility. Stepping into new territory is always an opportunity to reinvent yourself and meet new people.