Big Mac: Entrepot Macdonald, Paris

The longest building in Paris has just had a billion-euro makeover. The new Entrepôt Macdonald is a collaboration involving 15 architects including Pritzker Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc and Kengo Kuma of Japan. This is a visionary grand projet away from where tourists tread, but some involved question the megastructure that has resulted. Herbert Wright went down the line to report

Photography Paul Raftery

Tomorrow's Paris is emerging around it. The city is building where it transitions towards the great ring expressway of the Boulevard Périphérique, beyond which lie other municipalities in 'les banlieues'. This is edge territory, spatially and economically.

Around this ring is a new Paris, from the new Avenue de la France in the thirteenth arrondissement to Renzo Piano's 160m-high Palais de Justice under construction in the seventeenth, and a new tram line arcs around half the circumference. The latest addition is the Entrepôt Macdonald, at the north-eastern nineteenth arrondissement. It's not only a radical collaborative exercise in urban regeneration, it also builds on an extraordinary pre-existing megastructure - the longest single building in Paris, stretching along the Boulevard Macdonald.

The Entrepôt Macdonald’s 617m-long facade facing north on Boulevard Macdonald, on completion in 1970
The Entrepôt Macdonald's 617m-long facade facing north on Boulevard Macdonald, on completion in 1970

The street is one of the 'boulevards des Maréchaux', named after Napoleon's First Empire military marshalls, in this case Étienne Macdonald (1765-1840). The area was an industrial hinterland. Gasworks occupied the site until the 1950s, and to the south, a band of railway viaducts, beyond which the Cité Michelet rose in the 1960s - nineteen 19-storey social housing towers marked by white fork-banded facades.

The facade in 2016 retains the original first floor structure, with new build rising above it, including housing by Christian de Portzamparc above the western end
The facade in 2016 retains the original first floor structure, with new build rising above it, including housing by Christian de Portzamparc above the western end

In 1964, Calberson, a freight division of SNCF (French Railways), commissioned industrial architect Marcel Forest to design a vast new warehouse on 5.5 hectares squeezed between railway and boulevard. The land was decontaminated and the Entrepôt Macdonald emerged in 1970. 16m high and a surreal 617m long, the 142,000 sq m megastructure was distinctly modernist, yet its horizontal stratification, which Forest pictured like a mille-feuille pastry, rejected contemporaneous urban verticality.

Kengo Kuma’s college and sports facility (left) and Studio Odile Decq’s CARGO start-up offices rise above tramline T3 at the eastern end
Kengo Kuma's college and sports facility (left) and Studio Odile Decq's CARGO start-up offices (right) rise above tramline T3 at the eastern end

Facing north to the boulevard, above its loading bays, the facade presented a full-length continuous strip of 4m-long, 6m-high concrete grilles, mounted in front of glass. Inside, concrete columns on an 8 x 8.5m grid marched down the two-storey space and upper floor, supporting a vast roof of 4.5 hectares. It was huge... yet Forest already forsaw expandability. In 1969, he said: 'The current building, given its great length, must be seen in some way as the base, the basis for future construction.'


The Entrepôt Macdonald roof became the place where the Paris police took impounded cars - it could park over 1,500. As the century turned, Paris turned its attention to edgelands like this, looking to renew and re-integrate them into the city. In 2006, the Entrepôt Macdonald was put up for sale, and the city in partnership with developers acquired it. In 2007, OMA's Rem Koolhaas and Floris Alkemade worked up a masterplan for the Entrepôt. OMA initially considered high-rise, but the site was not zoned for it. The plan envisioned drum-shaped volumes rising above it, but crucially, it specified two things.

Viewed from the south, Hondelatte and Laporte’s housing (left) forms an internal gap with AUC’s student housing (right)
Viewed from the south, Hondelatte and Laporte's housing (left) forms an internal gap with AUC's student housing (right)

First, the preservation of Forest's unfeasibly long first floor - this was 'the key to the identity of the project', says Alkemade, now the Netherlands' chief government architect. Secondly, a strongly stratified look by specifying layers as crystal (glass) in the first two new storeys, recessed to make a full-length terrace along Boulevard Macdonald, and mineral in the top three storeys.

Perforated patterns distinguish the metal exterior of the Brenac & Gonzalez housing
Perforated patterns distinguish the metal exterior of the Brenac & Gonzalez housing

In 2008, Alkemade's practice FAA developed the architectural concept with Brussels-based Xaveer De Geyter Architects (XDGA), whose Milena Wysoczynska became project chief. The plot was divided into sections to build in and above the existing structure. Fifteen, mainly Paris-based architects were appointed.

The facade of Stéphane Maupin’s block is inspired by luxury bags
The facade of Stéphane Maupin's block is inspired by luxury bags

Alkemade describes the Entrepôt Macdonald as an 'abstract building', and the challenge was 'how to integrate the architectural visions and the old building'. Workshops were set up, whose point, Wysoczynska says, 'was to truly collaborate on design, not just inform the others'. Not everyone would agree, as we shall see...

North side facing Boulevard Macdonald, east to west:

Works began in 2010. The first floor was fragile, and parts had to be replaced. The extra load of newbuild above required jet-grouting to reinforce piling 10_12m-deep. The superstructure was complete in 2012, when the new tramline T3 was opened, threading under the first floor in a new opening called Passage Susan Sontag. The first parts were opened in 2014. Last year, across the new esplanade to the south, SNCF opened the Rosa Parks station building with a fast RER connecting to the central Gare St Lazare in just two stops.

South side facing Rosa Parks station, west to east:

The reborn Entrepôt Macdonald is really two halves, connected by the first floor which becomes a bridge above the tramway, preserving the never-endingness of Forest's grille facade along the boulevard. Newbuild rises up to six storeys above the old Forest element, eight storeys high behind it on the south. The western half is all residential, mixed 50_50 social and private. An open axis cuts a trench down to the first floor, between adjoined volumes on the north and separated blocks on the south, with a long zig-zag of glazed ground floor for retail.

Entrepôt Macdonald

The eastern half is mixed use. Beneath it all is a vast two-level underground car park with 1300 capacity.

In all, 165,000 sq m of space include 1,125 residential units covering 74,300 sq m, and 58,500 sq m of office and commercial space.

At the eastern end, a college and sports centre has been designed by Kengo Kuma, who has a Paris office. Kuma is masterful in wood, examples including the sublime stacked Asakusa Tourism Center, Tokyo (2012), and he deploys it here in a floating roof canopy. It slopes down to the east, like the nose of a TGV, the rest of the Entrepôt behind it.

Entrepôt Macdonald

The roof is actually a folded U-shape exposing plywood structure underneath, and within it is a courtyard, towards which metal strips slope down from five storeys below. The practice says the roof 'may be considered a violation of the [OMA masterplan] rules' and critiques 'the OMA (Western) style of design where two elements are in conflict'. Sure enough, the college quietly subverts the megastructure's blockiness, and is the most angular of the Entrepôt's elements.

Hondelatte and Laporte projected palms over the courtyard their block encloses
Hondelatte and Laporte projected palms over the courtyard their block encloses

Next along is a start-up incubator, called CARGO, by Studio Odile Decq, a Blueprint Award 2015 winner for its dramatic black house in Saint-Ange. CARGO is a visual stand-out on the entrepôt's north-face: a three-storey stack of black box volumes punched with circles, mostly windows. A slightly skewed top-level volume cantilevers forward, echoing their Saint-Ange design. Below are the two glazed 'crystal' floors, then that Forest's grille continuum through which their café shines red at night. On the south side, the facade is white. Next is the longest section, by Francois Leclerq and Marc Mimram, over 100m long and packing a hefty 27,000 sq m of offices (as much as London's Centre Point) for BNP Paribas. It looks bland and sterile on the outside, but inside, the bankers enjoy an airy transverse atrium and enclosed garden squares. The narrowest section is next: l'AUC architects' 147-unit student digs, a sliver just eight metres wide but about 50m deep north-south, and bulging westward in the middle with a metal-skinned, saw-tooth profile, which terminates the open east-west axis. As with CARGO, it cantilevers a box out over the north.

A garden is planted above the car park in the central axis. FAA+XDGA’s office bridge and residential blocks are seen beside and beyond it
A garden is planted above the car park in the central axis. FAA+XDGA's office bridge and residential blocks are seen beside and beyond it

The next section along the boulevard is Christian de Portzamparc's, consistent with his huge block-end which we shall come to. Next is a mixed use part, from FAA and XDGA.

Housing blocks, on the north and south sides, are characterised by facades of big repeating square metal window frames. Their work also includes the two-storey bridge under which the tram passes, containing offices.

In the western half, three long housing blocks slightly vary the continuous boulevard facade. Then comes the wrap-around end section by 1994 Pritzker Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc, whose works include the massive, monumental yet soft Cité de la Musique (1995), Paris, and the graceful One57 supertall in New York (2014). His solid Entrepôt upper floors present a red earthy facade, but as the block turns the corner, the red becomes a strip along the 69m-wide west end, separating aluminium facades -- four floors with gentle zig-zagging facades, and two blue floors, recessed above a shorter stretch of Forest's grille. De Portzamparc says the composition is 'a discussion of colour and material'.

Retail on the southern side, below (from right) blocks by Habiter autrement, Julien de Smedt (JDS of Brussels) and Stéphane Maupin, with others further west
Retail on the southern side, below (from right) blocks by Habiter autrement, Julien de Smedt (JDS of Brussels) and Stéphane Maupin, with others further west

Around on the southern side are a parade of residential blocks separated on their upper floors. Many surfaces are metallic. Exquisite patterns have been perforated into the metal elements of the connected Brenac & Gonzalez twin blocks. But more design variety (with form, balconies etc) is internalised into the central open axis, only visible to occupants looking out, which although planted, lost the opportunity to create a walk-through linear garden. The stand-out block is by Stéphane Maupin - a white seven-storey mini-tower above the retail base, marked by golden four-leaf clovers and windows in golden crosses, diamonds and circles. Its facades are as fun and striking as if by FAT.

Maupin says, 'We decided, like Robin Hood, to give wealth to the poor inhabitants, so we picked up the look of a luxury bag to give it to people who would never own one.' All those shapes were going to be different colours, but an 'army of counsellors and other boring staff' ruled that they could 'stigmatize people... so we reduced our choice to gold and silver - much more popular. And it suited perfectly our "French Left Labour" City Hall's tendency'. Maupin is scathing about the Entrepôt Macdonald 'collaborative' workshops: 'the workshop is the new official bullshit word to say everyone is officially happy' - and cynical about the architect's role - 'a French architect is a facade's eyecandy handyman'. Moreover, he says, 'We do heroic buildings because French society is doomed and full of elderly people unable to look or to believe in a positive future. And I don't want to be the first one to give up.'

Hondalette Laporte, with a residential section over on the eastern side, is rather more positive - the practice's Ronan Lacroix says, 'This project is a good result of a long time discussion with Alkemade's team and the clients.' He cites, for example, how twin levels' surfaces were specified to alternate between matt or gloss, which guided where they put duplexes, balconies and winter gardens. 'The project is conceived like a vertical village that organises itself around the vertical collective space of the (axial) courtyard,' explains Lacroix. That is carpeted in blue and palm trees in pots are thrust out on beams above it. Two-storey house-like volumes sit on top, containing duplexes (as well as communal plant) and offering private roofgardens. 'This shape obviously increases the feeling of living in a proper house.'

Is the Entrepôt Macdonald a 'horizontal city', as numerous mixed-use skyscrapers claim to be 'vertical cities'? Both are illusions, because neither can function in isolation. Perhaps it is more like the super-scaled, sectioned wall city imposed on the urban fabric of Koolhaas' conceptual Exodus of 1972? In it, 'voluntary prisoners' in 'a strip of intense metropolitan desirability' (set in London) are controlled and isolated from the outside world. That interpretation, with parallels to Ballard's (out-of control) High-Rise, seems too dystopian for Entrepôt Macdonald.

It took a half-century to tame the nightmare of Corbusian urban planning and its overpowering, soulless repetition of form, and a quarter-century to start to wake up to human-scaled townscapes with variety of texture and form. De Portzamparc's 'open block' masterplanning of Paris' Quartier Masséna (1995) was a key step, rejecting the big, solid block. Where does Entrepôt Macdonald sit in this transition?

Obviously, it has variety, but human-scaled it is not. The historic linearity of the base along the boulevard is dreamy, but above it, we see a battle between the sheer 'heaviosity' (Woody Allen's word) of the whole and various architects' efforts to express a distinctive character in their slice of it. Different designs, from dull to exciting, have been crammed up against each other and put on show upon a podium platform. On the south side, the heaviosity is broken with gaps between blocks, but without ground permeability (except under the bridge), this is no 'open block'.

Marcel Forest’s 1970 linear structure and cantilevering volumes of CARGO and AUC’s student housing overlook the tram and Boulevard Macdonald
Marcel Forest's 1970 linear structure and cantilevering volumes of CARGO and AUC's student housing overlook the tram and Boulevard Macdonald

De Portzamparc says: 'On the top, it's not as differentiated as it could be'. He would not have made every section contiguous. Further, 'lots of architects did grey... It needs to be warmer'. He adds: 'I am like (jazz legend) Charlie Mingus, I encourage everyone to make a solo.' Each architect here had their solo, but only a few came up with an exciting new phrase. De Portzamparc says that many architects 'are square', not open-minded, and that 'standardisation' is a French problem. He concludes that, 'the difficulty of Entrepôt Macdonald is it's an isolated object. But its occupants will probably live well in their special vessel.'

Despite all this, there is a surprising theatre of motion with the trams, and on the south side, crowds crossing the plaza from Rosa Parks station to pass under the bridge. Successful urban interventions bring life, not silence, to the city, and it is strange that Entrepôt Macdonald may succeed where the architects have had less scope to play - below, rather than above, Forest's unfeasibly long, straight first floor.

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