Totemic signage and concrete rot; an atrium of promenade and performance. Author of our book Brutalist Paris , Robin Wilson provides a unique insight into the Administrative Centre of Pantin (today, Centre National de la Danse) designed by Jacques Kalisz and Jean Perrottet, 1973. With photography by Nigel Green.
The original programme of the building amounted to an immensely complex centralisation of the administrative departments of Pantin. This included the district court and police headquarters, the labour inspectorate, the municipal morgue and municipal archives, social services, the tax office, the water company offices, trade union headquarters and even an activists’ rostrum on the exterior of the building to the west.
In addition, Kalisz made provision for public exhibition spaces, and spared no spatial expense in the creation of a 19 metre, full-height void for a public atrium on its south side. For this Kalisz designed one of the most exuberant, interior elements of the brutalist era in Paris, a combined concrete staircase and ramp, which allows for a vertical, architectural promenade through the building. This is Kalisz’s response to the new concern for social and participatory public space of the period that urban historian Kenny Cupers has identified, an extension of the public realm into the core of public administration and power.
Projecting, rectangular bays dominate the façade on the north elevation facing the canal; whilst on the south elevation, onto the more intimate street scape of rue Victor Hugo, there is a combination of bays and a full-height section of glazed façade at the main entrance to the atrium. The glazing is set in a studied grid of recessed, flush and projecting sections of concrete frame. The form of the bays are similar to those used for a later project by Kalisz at the Hôpital de la Collégiale (1985) in the 5th arrondissement. However, the bays of the administrative centre are also more ‘decorative’, and were originally intended to be vessels of communication, or signifying ‘masks’.
The thin, precast concrete panels of their outer-facing sides are configured into totemic, architectonic motifs, inspired by Aztec pattern. These were to graphically differentiate the principle separation of services within the administrative complex. The marking of the building with a kind of primal graphic continues on the interior with an extensive scheme of mural designs realised in the formation of the formwork for the in-situ concrete. These are also distinctly utopian expressions, of the desire for new forms of communication between the municipality and its public, between the state and the citizen, made possible by a new language of architecture liberated from Classical constraints.