A dynamic facade of over 20,000 glass tiles helps create an open dialogue with Paris and its citizens at Snøhetta’s bridge-shaped HQ for the French newspaper group
When Islamic terrorists forced their way into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, stabbing 12 people to death and injuring 11, the tragic event was a key test for long-established press freedoms in Europe.
Was the right to hold the prophet, or indeed any other figure, up for ridicule worth holding on to if it exposed journalists to such violence?
The attack took place just days before Le Monde Group, publisher of the eponymous French newspaper, began to deliberate over architectural proposals for a new headquarters in central Paris. Rather than water down its plans and close off the building from the city and inhabitants, the client became more convinced than ever that the design should draw people in and create an open dialogue.
A submission by Norwegian-based architect Snøhetta and local practice SRA stood out as the most effective and striking way to express its ideas about democratic access to information and physical space.
Frank D Foray, senior architect and project manager at Snøhetta, explains: ‘Le Monde Group was very clear that it wanted to keep the building open, transparent and accessible, not close it down like a bunker. The architecture had to keep that dialogue open.’
Located at the heart of the Rive Gauche district in the 13th arrondissement, the 23,000m² HQ leaps over an expansive public plaza, anchored at each end by two cantilevered seven- story towers. The translucent dynamic facade can be seen from several key viewpoints across the city, giving public passersby an enticing
glimpse of life inside six bustling newsrooms.
The project required a significant re-investment in staff at a time when other media outlets are down-sizing their newsrooms. It will give some 1600 employees at six publications, which include Le Monde, Courrier International, La Vie, and HuffPost, a common home while retaining their own space inside the building.
The surrounding context and conditions of the site put significant constraints on the project’s final form. It is located at one end of a new development and was first intended for two completely separate buildings, the foundations for which were already built. Gare d’Austerlitz metro station runs directly beneath, meaning minimal additional weight could be applied on the centre of the site.
Snøhetta’s pragmatic yet aspirational solution was to create a building in the form of a bridge, supported at either end on the existing piles and reaching across the sensitive central zone above the railway station.
‘We wanted to make the building part of the solution, not part of the problem, something that binds the project together,’ says Foray. Concave spherical shapes are pressed into portions of the facade (like the negative imprint of an imaginary globe, as in ‘Le Monde’) at points where the public is invited to engage, including on the underside of the arch, on the elevation facing the plaza and at key entrances.
The result is a new landmark in the city, immediately recognisable as home to some of the most famous French newspapers, which also projects the concept of connection and unity.
The structural steel frame is based on that of a typical steel bridge and comprises two seven-storey cantilevering volumes at each end connected by two massive trusses that form the base skeleton of the arch with its 80m span. The trusses rise four storeys and provide support for four office floors hung from the middle.
A mind-boggling 4,200 tons of steel went into the structure. ‘It’s quite a beautiful structure that fits together like Meccano on a large scale. Some of the bolts weigh 18 tons each,’ says Foray.
Since there couldn’t be a basement, traditional positioning of technical plant rooms and car parking space had to be abandoned. Proximity to the Metro station enables many staff to commute by train, others cycle in and park in stands at street level under the arch. This transport strategy was a key component in the project’s BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating.
The glistening cladding, supplied and installed by Eiffage Métal, comprises more than 20,000 glass tiles arranged in a pixelated pattern that references journalism’s transition from a mostly analogue paper-based medium to a digital enterprise for online consumption.
The tiles vary in transparency and follow a pattern intended to make the facade appear richly detailed when viewed close up, but monolithic and uniform when seen from a distance.
The illusion of a diverse patchwork was created using different arrangements of four basic glass tile types. A ‘mother plate’ for each tile features one of four degrees of translucency (glass covers either one third, two thirds, or the full panel), and a different printed pattern or degree of reflectiveness.
Custom made hand-bent steel profiles hold the glass in position and give the impression that the surface was ‘sewn together’. Significant research and three different prototypes were developed to identify the preferred approach, says Foray: ‘We wanted more opaque glass in front of floors to mask the slab edges so the facade reads as a uniform surface. The reflective pieces would mirror the weather situation and pick up how the sun moves throughout the day and the changing views of the city.’
A watertight technical facade, supplied by Goyer, underlies the decorative glass outer skin. Manually-operated solar shading, positioned between the two facades, is designed to help reduce solar gain, if necessary.
Le Monde Group’s brief to enhance engagement with the city’s residents included 24/7 public access to the plaza. Concrete panels mounted piece by piece into circular steel frames on the underside of the arch integrate a constellation of luminaires that can be harnessed by artists to create light displays.
‘It’s not normal in Paris to have an open plaza like this on a development,’ says Foray. ‘Even though security is important, we wanted to retain a path through and create a place where people can meet peacefully and discuss or drink a glass of wine together.’
At a time when political and religious tensions remain high, and violence never strays far from the headlines, architectural gestures like this can help long-cherished French values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité to remain strong.
Client Le Monde Group
Client Redman IDF
Associate architect SRA Architectes
Project co-ordinator CICAD
Engineering consultant competition Bollinger & Grohmann
Structure engineer Khephren Ingeniérie
Supervising office Veritas
Environmental consultant Green Affair
Fire consultant CSD-Faces
HVAC consultant Barbanel
Facade engineer Arcora
Cost consultant Gleeds
Structures and facade Eiffage construction + Goyer
Arch facade Glauser + AAB
Partitions, plastering, painting Vallée
Kitchen consultant Conceptions Nouvelles