New social value on the block


James Parker reports on MVRDV’s scheme to transform a Paris city block, which produced a scheme that visually celebrates its intertwined mix of office, library and hotel spaces, and added further value with social housing

Montparnasse sits in the south of central Paris, and is renowned as the scene of many artistic gatherings which have helped to cement the city’s reputation. Although in the 14th arrondissement, it is counted as being part of the famous Rive Gauche (left bank’) of the Seine, a major hub for artists in the early 20th century. It contains historic sites such as the Catacombs, but also the 210 metres-high Tour Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper in France on its completion in 1973.

A couple of blocks south of the tower, on the west side of the major Avenue du Maine arterial route, is a collection of buildings sitting opposite the Gaîté Metro station, another 1970s composition originally titled Ilôt Vandamme, by architect Pierre Dufau. Its chief landmark is a tower which is now a Pullman Hotel, possessing what MVRDV – the architects of a project to ‘transform’ the site – praised as “strong vertical lines,” creating an “unmissable presence in Montparnasse.” Despite its prominence, the site had some major issues including a lack of connection with the city, and being hampered by the local road infrastructure.

As well as greatly enhancing and improving the existing 1970s facades and improving the internal arrangement, the mixed-use project, called Gaîté Montparnasse, adds the important amenities of social housing and a kindergarten to its various uses. The resulting complex is more welcoming and accessible to pedestrians, while reusing significant parts of the previous structure, and thereby achieving sustainability gains from a circular economy perspective.


This is the second ‘transformation’ project completed by MVRDV for the client, Paris-based retail group Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, in 2022, following La Part-Dieu shopping centre in the centre of Lyon, which saw the practice turning another 1970s design intro a more vibrant piece of the city centre.

This scheme was initiated during a period in Montparnasse which saw the “whole neighbourhood evolving,” explains Pierre des Courtis, a senior project leader at MVRDV. It presents something of a departure for Westfield from its larger models of international retail and mixed-use schemes, to something more locally-based, and scaled, and which retains existing structures.

The client asked the architects to do a “small study” in 2008 he says, and this mushroomed into a full proposal, and the client then commissioned a highly moderated version of their original scheme. In its first iteration, the tower was removed, and they “started from scratch.” He adds: “Quite quickly we realised that maybe it’s smarter to keep a lot of the existing, for economic as well as ecological reasons.” Also, he says that removing a tower in this area of Paris would mean it would be impossible to replace it on this site due to building regulations.

The project has progressed slowly when compared with similar schemes in other territories such as Asian countries, says des Courtis, joking that “things go slower in France compared with elsewhere in the world!” He adds that with the inception of the scheme being several years ago, predating the opening of MVRDV’s Paris office in 2018, it’s “been interesting to see how the office has evolved with the project.”

The brief did evolve – there were two initial aspects, to bring the hotel’s convention centre above the retail spaces, which would be on the ground floor and “grow around the south part of the tower,” which “implied a lot of reshuffling of the programme.” The second aspect was to bring the office space up to date with modern working methods, as the existing building had very deep floor plates. In the end, a co-working client took the whole space and now offers users special deals for meals in the retail area’s ground floor restaurant, which has meant less pressure on space elsewhere.

The fact that there was a single client for all of the building’s functions was helpful in making decisions, particularly with an evolving set of requirements. “The big decisions were always made with a view to strike the right balance between the needs of one programme and the other,” des Courtis tells me, with the aim of being coherent across the piece.

The problem

The existing building was built “in a time when the car was the main driver,” des Courtis tells me, and this scheme was intended as a final destination for cars driving into the city centre from the south along a planned highway which, in the event, “never happened.” The scheme was hemmed in by wide boulevards, and the overall development, when viewed from the street looked “introverted and unwelcoming,” commented MVDRV.

Practice founder Winy Maas commented: “This piece of the city was like an island of ‘70s nostalgia – a tower with no visible entrance, and a plinth where you could get lost between the pedestrian slabs and automobile boulevards.” There were also large unused areas, such a large hall which had been used as an ice rink and a bowling alley.

With receiving car traffic being a fundamental part of the overall function of the original building, the neighbourhood was designed with a ‘two-level’ approach separating cars and pedestrians – the former entering at street level and the latter one level up. The new scheme retains this overall separation, but makes the ground level more inviting to the pedestrian.

The dominating presence of the Pullman Hotel tower is a centrepiece of the masterplan, but it was offset by a plinth of “rough textured concrete,” as well as “boxy reflective glass and red steel lattices which epitomised the foibles of its era,” said the architects, and which needed addressing.

While lacking natural light, the tower had architectural strengths, says des Courtis, possessing a “strong character,” with its vertical black and white-striped facade. However, he adds that it “somehow blends surprisingly well in the neighbourhood.” Yet in addition to the main road running north-south, the current block itself “created a division in the neighbourhood,” cutting off access from the streets to the north from those to the south.

It also had an “inefficient” three floors of office space spanning the entire width of the shopping centre, with “super wide” floor plans, says des Courtis. And the final challenge was the existing mix of uses, most of which – such as the hotel and retail – would be retained, but in fundamentally altered forms.

Design approach

The design phase went through many iterations over the project, which is MVRDV’s modus operandi, says des Courtis, but was very necessary given the complexity of this project. However, he adds that “it was funny that even if you look at the very early phases, the idea was the same.” By this he means the idea of revealing the interior functions and spaces in the facades, but this expanded from being just the commercial areas to all of the various uses.

MVRDV’s design reuses as much of the concrete structure of the plinth as possible, while “dramatically altering the building’s relationship to its surroundings,” say the architects. Everything below the second floor of the existing structure has been retained – thanks to the robust 7.6 m structural concrete grid, the designers were able to place new multi-storey buildings at two locations of the plinth for the offices and social housing.

As des Courtis says, the “slab-like” grid of the existing offices on the second to fourth floors “did not make sense” for its function, or for the new social housing, so these levels were removed, while the retail areas below could be retained. The new ‘commercial centre’ providing retail and F&B functions occupies the basement, ground, and first floor levels. The office levels are located in the upper storeys of a new space-efficient and flexible seven-storey block on the east of the site, which makes up part of the building’s main facade.

Over the west side of the plinth is the new, relatively lightweight CLT social housing block offering 62 tenure-blind designed apartments and a kindergarten. Meanwhile the library, previously “relegated” to obscurity underground, now occupies a two-storey space on the other side of the hotel, and is thus more visible and accessible.


The building now has a consistent street frontage along its main glazed facades, and more visual connection to the city around it, with large openings that frame sections of the activities within. More importantly, the aim with the facade design was to “make a statement about the diversity of functions, while also maintaining a consistency to the architecture,” says Pierre des Courtis.

The substantial facade along the Rue du Commandant René Mouchotte, containing retail, social housing, the library, and parts of the hotel, has been broken up in a very playful and lively way using a variety of different cladding tones, setbacks and overhangs, and balconies and windows. The eye-catching and sculptural arrangement of oversized frames breaking the horizontal lines of storeys affords the overall composition a successful combination of verticality and connection to the exterior, and even a sense of ‘gaiety.’ Des Courtis says that the architects were enthused by the interlocking mix of functions present in the building, and wanted to celebrate the ‘mixed-ness’ of the scheme by making it more visible externally.

The different scales, such as the single rooms and the double-height lobbies housing the offices’ main stair, are all communicated through respectively different scales of glazing in the
fragmented exterior, however the architects have been careful to maintain a sense of visual coherence. In addition, using the creative façade design to draw attention to the non-retail elements, such as the office floors, helps to ensure these spaces are just as attractive to potential tenants as the retail spaces.

Des Courtis adds: “It has an energy, but we are making it more dense in a nice way, with things relating to each other, and keeping a human scale.” He says that once the architects had decided that “we weren’t going to touch the tower, we accepted this very vertical aspect” when it came to creating the new volumes and the look of the new facade. He adds however, “it’s a different language to the tower somehow.” With the local planning requirements being strict, a series of shades of grey were the final approach for the facade colour palette, with lighter versions for the ‘bay window’ frames, as well as copper surrounds to the retail entrances. Another reason to break up the facade using various techniques was to give a subtle echo of the Hausmann 19th century facades that characterise much of central Paris. Rather than present a flush edifice, the building’s facades have multiple depths, and the volumes step back overall at upper storeys (in darker grey cladding).

Internal programme

Internally, the design “rethinks the arrangement of the programme within the block from first principles,” say the architects. However, des Courtis explains to ADF how it retains the two-level approach of the original, while adding significant amounts of density to the site, with the shopping centre topped by various blocks to maximise this key, but irregularly-shaped location.

Re-engineering the site meant breaking down the internal arrangement to enable new spaces to be inserted, and “hidden ones” like the formerly below-ground library to be revealed. Winy Maas describes the resulting composition: “It created a kind of explosion of buildings that combines large and small scale, existing and new programmes, where everything mixes and opens up to the city with lobbies and windows of varying scales.”

The new design somewhat reinvents the layout and floorplates of the original 1970s design, however the architects have staged a valiant attempt to reuse the concrete superstructure wherever possible, “stitching the old floor plates into the new plans.” And to build the new social housing block the architects chose the most sustainable new build solution possible; CLT timber frame. It is located at the heart of the plan, between the hotel tower and the office block of Le Héron to the north.

The social housing element of the brief was added once the client approached the city with its final proposal, which doubled the size of the office and retail space. The city required further social value to be added in, which resulted in housing and a kindergarten. “It was beneficial to the project, making it more diverse,” says des Courtis. The apartments are enhanced by having their interiors in exposed timber, giving them a distinctive appearance.

The hotel part to the side of the site includes a 12-metre-high ballroom/events space which is intended to be very flexible to include functions such as car showcases; it can be divided into five smaller spaces.

In terms of the 12,000 m2 of office spaces, they were also made to be highly flexible so that a single tenant could take a whole floor, or each floor could have several tenants. “The organisation functions well on different scales,” adds des Courtis, explaining that the building needs to support both fixed office spaces and highly flexible open floor plates.

The architects decided to move the hotel lobby from the ground to the second floor, which is “quite striking” for users, says des Courtis, as well as making “as much room as possible on the ground floor.” He adds that for hotel guests, “there’s nothing at the ground floor, apart from a hostess greeting you, then you take an escalator or a lift to the lobby.” This was partly done to avoid the base of the hotel tower from dividing the commercial centre in two, and to create a lighter space, while the lobby on the second floor is more compact.

One of the most unusual and refreshing things about this building is how the programme is revealed by the facade, as des Courtis explains. “There are different geometries unique to each programme, and each is revealed just by its shape and size, and the shape and size of its openings.” He adds: “This is due to a conscious choice to make it visible – and everybody can understand that there is something special happening in certain spaces.”

The main facade is also enlivened by the open stair running up the interior, which is fully visible through the glazing, but clearly connecting retail and office functions in an unusual way. Many of the spaces have blinds to mitigate solar gains, but the main double-height office meeting spaces have a huge fabric curtain.

Sustainable benefits of the scheme, beyond reusing much of the concrete structure, include a district heating approach, whereby heat recovered from cooling the commercial spaces is used for the hotels’ showers.


Pierre des Courtis notes that the project being a success is especially gratifying given that the son of the original architect who designed the site in the 1970s lives next door! He believes this high-profile scheme has some distinct characteristics; in particular taking a ‘third way’ approach to retaining a lot of the structure, while also making a series of key design moves. “Most refurbishments either destroy a lot more than we did, or a lot less.”

Winy Maas concludes on the scheme that such an in-depth, complex scheme cannot really have an end point, although it may now be more about the fine details: “The process of transforming an urban block on such a large scale, and yet is never finished.”

“To know which piece of concrete to keep and which to cut, how to occupy, redevelop, then reoccupy spaces, is a continuous conversation.” Maas adds however that this may now be a “DIY process” for the client, one which is “in permanent evolution.”