Niemeyer’s French Communist Party HQ
Given the state of our economy and its impact on architecture, we have become increasingly interested in showcasing a series of architectural examples pertaining to flagship agencies and headquarters. Over the next few months, we will showcase a few examples of this arch-type. We will start the headquarters / flagship series with another series-I recently came across an article on the Architects Website which invited Edgar Gonzalez to visit the French Communist Party Headquarters and give his take on the building; particularly on how the building inspired his designs. The photographs are taken by Edward Tyler.
Building: French Communist Party headquarters
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Year completed: 1967-80
Edgar Gonzalez visits Niemeyer’s French Communist Party HQ
I’m Cuban-born and like most Cubans who manage to leave, the last thing you want to visit is something Communist! But with Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party building, I was interested in it from an architectural, not a political, perspective.
I first visited the building in 1985, when I was studying in Vicenza at the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, and I have been back three times since. Because I was overdosing on Palladian architecture, I thought I’d go to Paris and escape from northern Italian renaissance architecture to something rather more contemporary. I’d seen the French Communist Party headquarters in books on Niemeyer and around that time had visited the Interbau apartments in Berlin — his take on Unité d’Habitation. It’s an anomaly to find this kind of architecture in the historic centres of European cities, especially in Paris.
I’ve always liked that the building has several different temperaments. After the cavernous underground areas which feel very secure, you move up into the offices which feel very light and inviting, with two long sides of glass curtain walling bookended by solid ends of ceramic tiles. The single-glazed facade can be opened. Then there’s the roof terrace which is a fairly sculptural element quite different from other parts of the building, with areas cut out at the ends to allow light into what was the top floor café.
The main way it has influenced me is in terms of how a building can use architecture to create new urban space on a site. For the National Academy of Arts competition we did in Bergen, the idea of creating new civic space around the building is one that, subconciously or not, was influenced by Niemeyer’s work. Our building pushed back towards the hillside to create a civic space.
In our proposal for a cultural centre in Sainte-Maxime in the south of France, the building’s periphery created an oasis of open space in a former quarry. I’ve never really linked our Aberdeen visual arts centre project to Niemeyer’s building, but the terracing does create more public space above the submerged accommodation than the current hillside. The Communist Party headquarters had a more direct specific influence at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, where we used similarly expressive shuttering on the stairs and a large mushroom-like column.
The Paris headquarters is a sculptural building with many intricacies which also creates an open space in the city centre. It’s more than a one-liner. For me, along with Jean Nouvel’s Fondation Cartier, it is one of two buildings in Paris that I’ll return to again and again. They are very different, but both use architecture to create unique urban conditions.
Oscar Niemeyer’s stunning headquarters for the French Communist Party in Paris was commissioned in the late 1960s — a time when the Communists enjoyed great popularity in France.
Niemeyer was a committed Communist, and had twice been refused visas to the US to take up academic positions because of his party membership. In 1966, despite his huge achievements in Brazil, notably in the new capital of Brasilia, he was forced into exile during the military dictatorship, and so moved to Paris.
The headquarters building was built in the early 1970s on a site formerly occupied by workers’ housing at Place du Colonel Fabien in the 19th arrondissement, an area known for its Communist sympathies. It overlooks a square where workers used to gather for entertainment such as animal fighting.
Niemeyer, who waived his fee for the building, said it would become a tourist attraction and he was right, with visitors fascinated by the white dome that rises out of the forecourt in sharp contrast to the sweep of curtain-walled offices behind, known as the “flag” or “wave”.
The dome was the last phase of the headquarters to be built, and is the roof of the building’s main conference room, a space dominated by hundreds of hanging metal ceiling tiles.
Visitors enter down a small flight of steps into the main foyer space. This strange, undulating landscape, which leads to the main conference hall, is intended to suggest a hillside, and is populated by original Niemeyer furniture. Further subterranean levels of meeting rooms and car parking lie below, freeing up much of the ground level for open space. The sweeps of internal concrete walling are animated by the texture of the timber shuttering used in the casting.
Above ground, Niemeyer built six floors of offices in a gently waving plan, with a curtain-walled facade designed in conjunction with engineer Jean Prouvé, who incorporated one opening window per three bays. Views down from the roof terrace suggest the shape of a hammer and sickle in the landscape of the forecourt (pictured).