Every city has its hidden nooks and secret corners, but none abound more with effortless charm than in Paris. Amid the literary history, bohemian flair and cultural nous of the city’s 14th arrondissement, a quiet gated alleyway situated just off the bustle of a grand boulevard leads through to a compact double row of three-story artist ateliers, stark in their low-slung contrast to the creamy curves of the six-story Haussmannian buildings typifying the quartier and much of Paris at large.
This rationalist row of ateliers was built in the late 1940s as a series of live-work studios for artists as part of a governmental post-war social housing plan, reflecting an epoch of sincere societal recognition and support for intellectual and craft-based workers. Today, 80 years on and situated in a vastly different social context, one atelier in particular is doing its original dual purpose proud – thanks to a meticulous renovation that has regenerated the atelier for the flexibility demanded by the precarious present.
The resulting space bears the trademark sensitivity of Paris-based architect Nathalie Eldan of Atelier NEA, who induces wanderlust as she sets the scene for her latest project. For those who have the fortune to call the alleyway home, she explains, passing through its threshold “teleports you to another atmosphere, another dimension. All of a sudden, it’s very quiet – you can even hear the birds sing. In summertime, it’s full of greenery. You feel like you’re in the south of France.”
Jean Moulin Atelier-House’s residents stem from slightly farther afield – namely Oregon, from which they relocated to Paris a decade ago. Alongside their creative vocations in art and the film industry, the couple are experienced in construction and carpentry, having built several houses back in the States. While the need to adapt to different constraints across the Atlantic saw a few learning curves, the duo’s passion for materiality and architectural detail provided Eldan with an ideal base for collaboration. “We worked in horizontal kind of way,” she notes. “It was a dialogue, which comes through in the result.”
Despite having been subjected to years of disrepair that first required serious reparative attention, the 80 square-meter atelier bears a host of favourable features. Expansive steel fixture windows and a generous skylight flood the double-height space with diffuse natural light, thanks to its north east-facing position, while offering views out onto a private garden terrace below and a gracefully towering graceful maple tree above – “the oldest inhabitant of the house we know of,” smiles Eldan.
Offering “a link to the genius loci of the place,” she continues, the ancient maple provided a “symbolic presence in the refurbishment,” not only creating a sense of fluidity as a focal point between interior and exterior – its truck is visible from every interior view – but also informing the material palette, dominated by sycamore maple. Speaking of the choice, Eldan challenges the common narrative that wood is neutral. To the contrary, she asserts, the raw material is “extremely expressive and bright – it gives a quiet and warm feeling.”
In addition to setting the space’s natural tone, sycamore was central to creating the modularity required by this dual-purpose brief, thanks to the flexibility enabled by the homogenous effect of its prevalence, Eldan explains. “When you enter, you don’t see a domestic space. It can be anything, actually.” The only hint of domesticity on the open-plan lower level, with its pristine polished concrete floors, is the kitchen – and even that has been carefully designed to do double duty as an artist’s workshop. In the evening, after the day’s work is done, the living room gives way to domesticity as a living room complete with a home cinema, thanks to the easy roll-out of a large projector screen subtly installed above the window.
Modularity further comes to the fore upstairs, where two upper levels cater to spaces for reflection, unwinding and sleeping, in addition to a laundry space and bathroom. With its lower ceiling creating a more intimate feel, the mezzanine’s nooks are demarcated by large custom sliding doors made of solid sycamore and jute, whose natural pores let the light in. “The only walls that were built are in the bathroom in the walk-in closet. All the places are other spaces are open or sliding or interconnecting, which enables flexibility,” Eldan notes. “We kept it simple so it can be adapted easily.”
Throughout the compact space, clever in-built storage units conceal the breadth of the residents’ extensive collection of art and artefacts. Finding a home for everything required meticulous planning: “We made a list of everything the couple owned, their dimensions, and implemented a kind of scenography-methodology where everything had its place,” Eldan explains. “Usually, you have objects that adapted to the space; here, it’s the contrary.”
Having constructed an archetype of the flexible interior architecture that is increasingly sought-after as the relationship between our work lives and home lives undergoes dramatic recalibration, what is Eldan’s take on finding balance in our everyday spaces? Rather than the disappearance of the office, she foresees its upgrade: “I think it will improve,” she reflects, “Because people will be spending much more time between their homes and work, offices will need to attract workers by being more friendly and inviting.”
Meanwhile, in our homes, exteriors are likely to take on a renewed importance. “Balconies are so existential in urban areas,” Eldan notes, before musing on the renewed centrality of common areas, from kitchens to gardens, around which neighbours of all generations can coalesce to spend time together and share mutual support. With its central thoroughfare, open row of terraced gardens, and shared sense of secret solitude, this hidden alleyway is a fine framework for such neighbourliness, and a neat reminder that several seeds of future solutions for urban life were already sown long ago.