Words by Anna Sansom
‘When you see this image, what do you think it is?’ asks LAN (Local Architecture Network) co-founder Umberto Napolitano. ‘Probably you’d say it’s a museum, an office building or another form of architectural expression. This object shouldn’t be perceived as a prison.’ In LAN’s fifth-floor meeting room in Paris’ hip 11th arrondissement, Napolitano is interrogating the appearance of his firm’s recent project, Nanterre’s new minimumsecurity prison, northwest of Paris.
Napolitano, originally from Italy, set up LAN with Benoit Jallon in Paris in 2002. The practice has become known for its urban development projects in Bordeaux, Nantes and Strasbourg, its student housing projects, and for winning the prestigious commission for the revamp of the Grand Palais ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. The Nanterre minimum-security prison is LAN’s first prison project. Napolitano invariably refers to the 4,350 sq m building as an ‘object’ and it was the challenge of reflecting upon its future perception and relationship to its surroundings that motivated LAN to participate in the original 2011 design competition.
An inaccessible ‘garden’ creates a buffer zone behind the facade. Image credit: Cyrille Weiner
The anonymous competition was launched by the Ministry of Justice, requiring a new facility fulfilling a double purpose: housing the offices of the Prison Rehabilitation and Probation Service in the Hauts-de-Seine, a department just west of Paris, as well as the minimum-security prison. The Prison Rehabilitation and Probation Service keeps track of nearly 3,000 people on probation as well as around 1,000 inmates in Nanterre’s overpopulated remand centre. Meanwhile, the minimum-security prison has 89 cells (including two for inmates with physical disabilities and three double cells) that can accommodate up to 92 male inmates.
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At the time of visiting in November with Julia Palladino, LAN’s architect who followed construction with project leader Philippe Pelletier, only 69 men were detained there. The remaining places had been reserved two months in advance in case a judge ruled in favour of a prison transfer from a higher security prison or remand centre. The idea, says Laurent Ludowicz, director of the Haut-de- Seine’s Prison Rehabilitation and Probation Service, is for the inmates to spend no longer than six months there as they transition towards release. During their detention, they are allowed to go out during the day wearing an electronic bracelet and return in the evening, according to their sentencing terms.
Seen from the outside, there are no obvious give-away signs — like barbed wire or a walled, patrolled perimeter — that this is a penitentiary. Nonetheless, the 14m-high, corten steel-clad edifice stands out as an anomaly in the underprivileged neighbourhood it is embedded in, one that is characterised by factory buildings and 1960s housing estates, located a 10-minute walk from the train station connecting to Paris. The allocated plot was an unused site; now, it is occupied by a structure to which many local residents would rather turn a blind eye. ‘People never accept having a prison near them,’ says Napolitano. ‘They ask why it has been put here and not [elsewhere]. It’ll take time for it to be absorbed into the urban fabric.’
The outdoor tarmac exercise pitch, with views out to the town through the facade opening, boasts a palette of blue, green, beige and purple. Image credit: Cyrille Weiner
The absorption of the ‘object’ into the urban fabric was one of three points that LAN focused on during the project, along with the typology of a prison today and creating a more appeasing environment to help improve the quality of life for inmates. ‘We wanted a monolithic, abstract object that wouldn’t recall crime and punishment but be more open and luminous with a visual connection to the outside,’ Napolitano says.
This connection is expressed by a large opening cut into the building, in white metal cladding, that offers the inmates a glimpse of the trees beyond the prison’s walls from the outdoor tarmac exercise pitch. In front of the exercise pitch, in a pleasant palette of pale blue, green, beige, darker blue and purple, and visible from the cells, is an inaccessible ‘garden’ — a narrow lawn with plants that acts as a kind of buffer zone. Inside the building, there are two back-to-back corridors of cells, both overlooking gardens, in order to prevent the cells facing each other. While it was not possible to visit the cells, the white-walled refectory with wooden furniture made by a French employment penitentiary service (of which there are 47 ateliers) and the exercise pitch could be seen.
Napolitano explains that the cells have white walls, grey furniture and grey sanitation facilities. However, LAN’s goal to rethink prison typology was limited as the configuration of the cells, measuring between 8.5 and 9 sq m, had to conform to strict norms. ‘It was very hard to work on the cells because of the major constraint that the whole cell — the loo, shower, desk, chair, bed and wardrobe — must be electronically visible from the door peephole,’ Napolitano says. ‘When you take the surface area and the constraints into consideration, all the prisons in France have the same cell. We managed to make everything else more agreeable but if there’s a real job to implement in the future, it’s the cell.’
The prison building as an ‘object’ in the urban fabric of Nanterre. Image credit: Cyrille Weiner
LAN is keen to inject ‘architectural ambition’ back into the prison typology. Such ambition was thwarted, Napolitano believes, by the recent wave of 14 prisons built through public-private partnerships (PPP) in the 2000s when property developers would pick an architect rather than launch a competition. After these subcontracted prisons were revealed to be too costly for the French state, justice minister Nicole Belloubet decided in March 2018 that no more prisons would be constructed through PPPs.
Looking ahead, Napolitano says: ‘What would be interesting for us would be to confront an incarceration [project] on a larger scale, perhaps with more security, because there are other themes that arise when you have several buildings [in a compound]. It’s not about one common space but about how different communities [in different parts of the prison] can cohabit in a controlled limit.’
The evolving issue of walls and limits preoccupies Napolitano. ‘Symbolically, the first thing that Trump said [upon becoming president] was that he was going to construct a wall, whereas we’re from the generation [that turned 18] after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, the future subject of architecture is how to redefine limits.’ Indeed, the quest to redefine limits and explore territories underpins LAN’s practice, as the Nanterre’s minimum-security prison demonstrates.