STATEMENT OF INTENT
Our assignment was to convert a seventeenth-century hospital and listed building into a university with the modern functionality that a university requires.
A SYMMETRICAL STRUCTURE
The main building, the Hôpital Général, comprises two courtyards located symmetrically along an axis that is materialised on the ground floor and first floor by a thick dividing wall. This wall separates the body of the main building lengthwise into two closed areas: the "women's wing" and the "men's wing".
So that the 1,500 people who will use the building can move around freely - an important factor for the proper functioning of the university - we chose to cut through this wall at ground-floor level and replace it with pillars at first-floor level. This becomes the pivotal element of the entire building, with large zones extending from one side to the other: the cafeteria on the ground floor, administration on the first floor, and the library on the second floor.
The axis of symmetry is thereby conserved, but this symmetry is structured around the open spaces that connect the different zones, and no longer around a solid wall that divides them. So as to reverse the entry sequence, the new foyer is located opposite the chapel which, while separate from the university, remains part of the whole. By aligning the entrance with the axis of the building, the geometric purity of its layout is restored. As specified in the brief, the building is now accessed from the Esplanade and no longer from Place Albert Ier.
By "opening up" the building this way, what was once a barrier is now fully integrated into the surrounding area.
THE ENTRANCE FACADE
The facades for the second floor and central section, which will later be extended, have been replaced by a glazed curtain wall, allowing light into the foyer and the library respectively.
As a contemporary counterpart to the existing staircase by the architect Giral, which has been conserved, a monumental staircase in white precast concrete, in addition to a lift, has been built in the new foyer. It extends, as though suspended, over three levels and leads directly to the offices on the first floor and to the library on the second floor.
THE TWO COURTYARDS
The even spacing of the windows in the facades onto the two courtyards has been conserved; openings above the breast wall are used as French windows to give access to the courtyard at ground-floor level, and on the first floor to the new passageways. These lightweight structures, which are supported by metal brackets embedded in the stone walls, have white concrete floors, a structural glass railing, and are protected by a glass canopy.
The two symmetrical courtyards, now connected by the passage created in the ground-floor central wing, have been landscaped with the utmost care, with precast, decorative concrete paving slabs along the perimeter, fine gravel under the trees for permeability, and sunken lights.
The magnificent, centennial chestnut trees provide welcome shade in summer. The original plane trees, because of disease, have been replaced by young trees, making this a sunnier courtyard which the students particularly appreciate in winter.
Colour brings the new architecture to the fore, with a sound-absorbing ceiling that mirrors the original semicircular vaults highlighted in blue on the "plane tree" side and in red on the "chestnut tree" side. Blue and red stripes of varying widths identify the openings made in the one-metre thick wall to connect the two areas. Service ducts for the cafeteria and kitchens are incorporated through the end walls which are lined with acoustic panels in perforated wood.
THE LECTURE HALLS
Conserving the ribbed vaults on the entire ground floor, and specifically in the lecture halls, imposed innovative solutions for fluid and electrical services.
- creation of conduits at ground-floor level for water, heating, electricity and ventilation installations
- subtle integration of audiovisual equipment and lighting
Acoustic comfort was achieved by means of suspended square tiles that respect the geometry of the vaults.
MAJOR RESTRUCTURING WORK AT LOW COST
The existing floors were either consolidated or demolished and cast in reinforced concrete.
For the facades, having demolished incoherent volumes and elements, eliminated incompatible materials, reinforced through injection, and removed existing joinery, we focused on reproducing the regular spacing of the openings and frames, and the horizontal mouldings perpendicular to each floor.
The existing roofing was removed to restore the original 37.5% pitch and barrel tiles.
These mammoth works were completed in 36 months at the very low cost of €1,280 exc. VAT/sq m of floor area, which also explains the sobriety of the materials.
HOW DID THE RENOVATION OF A HISTORIC BUILDING INFLUENCE OUR WORK?
The first time we visited the site, our instinct was to take to our heels and run as far away as possible from this dark, oppressive mass. How did this former hospice/prison with its drab and dilapidated facades become a listed building? Yet once we had got over our initial impression, we could see that certain proportions were indeed beautiful - the two rectangular courtyards that structure the building, the hidden majesty of the vaulted ground floor - a beauty we were determined to reveal.
A lesson in humility
Experience gained through previous renovation projects had taught us not to wipe the slate clean but to respect what is already there, even when this means a lowly 1960s building, erected in haste.
For what would be our first encounter with a heritage building, we knew our analysis must take in a much wider historical context than our own; that we must travel through time to rid it of the sediment of centuries and conserve only its essence.
When, as with the northern facade onto the Esplanade, nothing of the original structure remained, we could allow ourselves bold choices with structural glazing, and a triple-height foyer traversed by a dissymmetric staircase in concrete and steel.
In contrast, we impinged lightly on the courtyards, with their handsome proportions, and the vaulted ground-floor spaces than had this been a contemporary project, at the same time finely tailoring our work away from flourish and towards a philosophy of "less is more."
This project was also our first experience of such vertical proportions, with heights ranging from 3.50 metres to 4.80 metres under the vaults.
Light entered through a small number of high, narrow openings which at first seemed insufficient, only for us to discover the magnificent ensemble of forms they created in the Mediterranean light; an ensemble different to that of the modern movement, more familiar to us, but equally accomplished and correct.
Project Management: HELLIN-SEBBAG, architectes associés (Paris-Montpellier): Main contractor
GEC INGÉNIERIE, Quantity surveyor, and BET T.C.E.
FABRICA TRACEORUM, Heritage architect
BETS AIGOIN, Heritage structure
CABINET LE DOUARIN, Heritage quantity surveyor
Project Owner : State – Ministry of Education and Research
Montpellier Education Authority
Schedule: Competition: 2003
Handover: Septembre 2011 (site work 36 months)
Area : 10,000 sq m net floor area
Cost : €12.8 M exc. VAT at June 2008
-consolidation of retained flooring with interlocking slabs
-consolidation of masonry with poured lime mortar
-facades: PAREXLANKO lime render; PARLUMIERE FIN top coat
-foyer staircase: polished white precast concrete
-courtyard and walkway paving: white sand-blasted precast concrete
-WICONA aluminium glazed curtain wall
-double-glazed casement windows with muntins
-ground floor: FLOOR GRES porcelain stoneware, GLOBE collection
-upper floors: NORA rubber flooring (Freudenberg)
-foyer: HUBLER laminate (brushed aluminium finish)
-cafeteria and lecture halls: perforated Formica laminate
-lecture hall: CEIL-TEXTILE acoustic panels (120x120)
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