Culture Trip: The current Palais de Justice (courthouse) of Paris, located in the Île de la Cité, has been in use since the 10th century. Approximately 15,000 people enter it per day, so what made the city of Paris decide to construct an entirely new “complex” in a completely different part of the city (Porte de Clichy)?
Bernard Plattner: The Ministry of Justice decided this, not the city of Paris. And it was not a new idea but 20 years old! When Nicolas Sarkozy was president, he launched the competition for firms to submit. We were selected in 2010, François Hollande gave approval to implement the building in 2013, and it will be almost completed in 2017. But it was a very long and complicated, “political” process. First, they needed to find a place to put it. Then they needed to make it clear to everybody that there was a good reason to move from the historical Palais in the center of Paris. And finally, they needed someone to build it!
CT: So, a ZAC (zone d’aménagement concerté) was created to allow for this new building. Can you explain this?
BP: This is a “zone” that the city planning department creates, to differentiate it from current Parisian building codes. In reality, it allows for the building of taller structures and allows them to occupy more land mass. Architects and urbanists propose such structures, then the city parliament votes on it. In many instances, such as this, ZACs are used to breathe life into a neighborhood in need of urban renewal.
When Paris was competing for the 2012 Olympics, this area was supposed to have the Olympic Village. Well, that went to London, so this area became “free” again and this ZAC was adapted and available to be considered for the Palais. Back in 2008, there were other areas under consideration. But this ZAC has a huge park (Park Martin Luther King), a lot of new housing, offices, mixed-use buildings, things like that. It’s a big urban change.
CT: Because of the location of the new complex, there was a need for more than just a new building. What other elements of “urban renewal” did you build into the construction plans?
BP: There will also be a new tram running here, which will complete the circle of the 40 km of tramway running around Paris. Also Metro Line 14 will be extended here. It will be a place that will be easy to reach with public transportation. Of course, there will also be retail stores, residential living, daycare centers, restaurants, movies and cafés. They’re all under construction and will be completed in a few years. The quality of life in Clichy, on the other side of the Périphérique, will be improved as well.
CT: How do you think the current employees of the Palais de Justice will feel about commuting to a new location? It certainly feels worlds away from the current location.
BP: I assume they are not so happy now, as people are always afraid of the unknowns associated with moving to a new “home” and being taken out of their familiar surroundings. But I am absolutely convinced that most of them will love the new building. Why? Because they will have much better working conditions. Right now, most of them work in small office spaces that are lacking natural light. Of course, we cannot recreate the location of the old city. Architecture cannot work miracles!
But, people must remember that Paris is a big city (12 million inhabitants) and the Palais has just moved three kilometers (under two miles), so it’s still “in town”, but it’s a mental thing. You have to explain to people that they’re still in Paris. So, here’s what we created for them: a light and airy “transparent” building, terraces with shady trees, benches to relax and enjoy their lunch, spectacular views of the city of Paris and air-conditioned offices. There is, of course, a beautiful restaurant at the top, with a view of Parc Martin Luther King, as well as various other cafeterias throughout the building. Having a park right across the street is a huge bonus. It’s a beautiful space where people can go to run, skate, even bring their kids and picnic. My goal was to make the first “green” high-rise building and I believe we’ve accomplished that.
CT: This building is really big! How will people be able to navigate this without becoming overwhelmed?
BP: First of all, the architecture inside was designed to be very simple and clear. The goal was to make it easy to navigate without signage, even though we will have that. People will walk in and find themselves in the center atrium, which is the central artery and heart of the building. And it is filled with natural light, coming in from the sides of the building and the rooftop.
You can see outside, through both ends of the building and from the sides as well. Because of this, people will never really lose their orientation.
So from the outside in and inside out, everything is visible. Complete transparency!
And this building has something completely new, at least in France. The ground floor is mainly for information. There are no courtrooms there. People are welcome to ask questions, and they will be guided to where they need to go based on the type of case they have. There are 80–90 cubicles just for that. Unique. They also have help for the disabled.
CT: Can you discuss the look of the building? It is all glass, keeping with the “transparency” theme.
BP: It looks like bimodal glass, but is what we call a double-skin facade. There is a full sheet of glass outside, mirroring the sky. And inside there is a 25cm thick element block made of outer skin. In the inner skin, there is a window, which has normal proportions. When you are inside, it looks like a traditional building with slim, vertical high windows.
The most important thing is the interior light, how people perceive the building. We want them to be comfortable in the interior architecture. It is not easy to do and subjective too.
The old palace is made of stone, it’s monumental, and decorated in the style of the 18th and 19th centuries—a very heavy and oppressive style, with colonnades evoking Greek temples. All of that architecture is there to impress, yet intimidate people. We aimed for the opposite of that.
CT: How energy efficient is this building?
BP: It is certified Platinum in terms of LEED energy efficiency, which is the best rating possible. Our goal is reducing energy consumption and this high-rise building is the best in France! Because we are able to harness solar power and also have a lot of optimized systems when people leave their offices—the lights will shut off automatically, and the textile shutters on windows go down automatically when the sun gets too strong in the building.
CT: Security concerns are at a completely different level today than when you started this project in 2010. How will the building address public and professional safety?
BP: It’s highly secured. There are hundreds of cameras, inside and outside, there is a bomb-blast safe facade, it’s resistant to machine-gun fire and there are defense measures against car attacks. This is difficult to achieve, when you talk about transparency. But the security program has been adapted to the current situation in Paris. There will be approximately 150 permanent members of the Prefecture de Police as well as fireman crews inside the building. People visiting will undergo the same level of security as they do in airports.
CT: The original “due date” for the building was June 30, 2017, which is right around the corner. Have you met the deadline?
BP: It has been built in 30 months. In February 2015 there was nothing, a hole in the ground, excavations only. Now it’s complete, with a 150,000 square meters—1.5 million square feet—construction floor area. It’s really big! People didn’t believe that it would have been possible, but we did it. But, of course the opening will be a bit late. Have you ever seen a piece of architecture in history that wasn’t late? Since the Renaissance, since Brunelleschi, to Gaudí , every architect is always late! It’s really a performance which has taken place! As of now, Administration is set to move into the building between March and August 2018. It should be open for public use by September 2018.