exterior view of wooden apartment building in paris

An Infill Apartment Building with a Secret Garden Rises in Paris

Overcoming logistical hurdles, MARS Architectes creates an “Alice in Wonderland” moment with an elegant new apartment building concealed behind an older one.

In the 12th arrondissement of Paris—barely 350 feet from the Place de la Nation—a narrow wooden apartment building with 14 apartments and a total of 7,700 square feet has been placed in the green backyard of an eleven-story apartment block from the 70s. Behind this small project is a long history that began a decade ago, when French real estate Gecina commissioned MARS Architectes, a Paris-based architecture collective, to review all of its Parisian properties looking for re-densification opportunities. The first such plot to be developed was here, behind a half-century old apartment complex on the Avenue de Saint Mandé.

However, building it would not be simple. The site is blocked on all sides by apartment buildings so tall that no crane could be used, this limited the materials the team could use to build. All materials and tools would have to be brought to the site through an 11.5-7.5-foot-wide hole cut into the ceiling of an underground parking garage beneath larger building. This set of constraints helped the team land on a timber building, as small, lightweight wooden could be maneuvered through the “rabbit hole” and assembled onsite.

exterior quarter view of new building, old apartment blocks visible behind
The surrounding apartment blocks limit street noise and secluded garden setting gives the new building a sense of serenity, right in the heart of Paris. The architects also point to Japanese temples as a source of inspiration both for the design of the building and that of the garden.

The new building stands at a right angle behind the front building, turning away from the old block and towards the small but green landscape of the yard. Coming from the street, the quietness of this place is amazing, as the eleven-story giant blocks virtually all noise from the avenue. The path now leads through the entrance of the building block—another rabbit hole in this story—, into the lush green backyard and then, in a gentle left turn, through another passage in the new building, marked by a wooden canopy, that leads into another courtyard, featuring white walls, a white open staircase and even some white marble hardscaping. While the green courtyard belongs to all residents of the two buildings, the white one is kept to the residents of the smaller new one as an intimate social meeting space. The open access balconies that lead to each single apartment address this need for social space, too. One imagines that this could easily become a lively little community.

white courtyard with plantings, staircase on one side, balconies on the other
The white courtyard is accessible only to residents of the new building. Sandwiched between the back of an existing apartment block and the balconies of MARS’ new project, its a secluded oasis.
doorway looking out onto the garden
The doorway is a threshold between the building’s whitewashed interior and wood facade. The front garden is shared by residents of the existing building and their new neighbors.

To provide for a good mixture of different residents, the 14 apartments are of different sizes. On the ground floor, there are six micro apartments with one or two rooms, and four more on the first floor. In the larger apartments, sliding doors between the main rooms allow for a circumferential circulation that makes them more flexible in use, and feeling more spacious than they actually are. Four maisonettes are placed across the second and third floors.

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The main intention of MARS was to turn the backyard—shaded by the surrounding buildings—into a place of poetry and surprise, an Alice-in-Wonderland moment: the collective explains, “The courtyard unveils a garden evoking an undergrowth full of ferns, ground-cover plants, and resinous trees.” The wooden facade that turns to this garden is kept simple, but with prominent elements like the columns and the sliding panels that give it a structure and a rhythm— “simple and strong, original and in osmosis with the garden”, as the architects put it.

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