A topological beast. Building as landscape; fluid transitions to the substratum. Here, Robin Wilson, author of our Brutalist Paris (2023), takes a closer look at the Bourse du Travail (Labour Exchange) in Bobigny designed by Oscar Niemeyer, 1976. With photography by Nigel Green.
For the Bourse du Travail (Labour Exchange) in Bobigny, Oscar Niemeyer generated one of the most remarkable architectural forms of the era and an architecture of brut alterity. Niemeyer worked with the engineers Bérim for the auditorium and public meeting rooms which, as with those at Niemeyer’s Communist Party Headquarters (PCF), are accessed via a subterranean foyer.
However, here the auditorium does not simply emerge as a discrete, topographical register of the presence of subterranean volumes, but appears as if it were the complete resurfacing of a subterranean entity. If the cupola of the PCF could be understood as a picturesque hillock left proud within a once molten flow of liquid landscape, the exterior form of the auditorium of the Bourse is more a fusion of the geomorphic and the bestial, which has emphatically arrived at the surface level of public space, and occupies it threateningly, as if it were imminently to expand yet further.
Bérim, which was founded in 1948 by the civil engineer and leading member of the French resistance, Raymond Aubrac, worked only with sketches provided by Niemeyer, and were unable to employ even the limited computational technologies of the time because of the irregularity of the sketched form. The form of the auditorium also posed problems for the achievement of the raw concrete finish specified by Niemeyer.
A technical account of the process published shortly after completion explains that an extra layer of sprayed concrete was applied on top of the original layer of formwork concrete in order to mask repairs made during the construction process. Here, then, is a raw surface, but also cosmetically enhanced; defects in the surface being beyond the acceptable limits of the ‘as found’.