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L’Arbre Blanc: A Bold Design that Embraces the Outdoors in Montpellier, France

L’Arbre Blanc: A Bold Design that Embraces the Outdoors in Montpellier, France

L’Arbre Blanc by French architects Manal Rachdi, Nicolas Laisné, and Dimitri Roussel with Sou Fujimoto © Cyrille Weiner / SFA+NLA+OXO+DR

A unique project since its origin.
In 2013, the Montpellier city council launched the Folie Richter competition, which sought to identify a blueprint for a beacon tower to enrich the city’s architectural heritage. The competition stressed the desire for a bold project that fits into its environment and that included shops and housing. The brief was clear: they were looking for a team made up of a young architect collaborating with an experienced colleague. From here, the idea of the L’Arbre Blanc took root.

© Cyrille Weiner

Manal Rachdi and Nicolas Laisné, who each run their own practices, decided to call on the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. All three of them seek inspiration in nature, although they express it in very different ways. For this project, these three visions turned out to be mutually enriching.

To get the project off the ground, Manal Rachdi, Nicolas Laisné, and his young partner Dimitri Roussel flew to Tokyo in the summer 2013. For five days, they shut themselves away in Fujimoto’s studio for intensive workshop sessions.

Marie de France, a partner architect and current head of Sou Fujimoto’s practice in France, was central to the process, facilitating dialogue between the Tokyo and Paris teams. Sitting around a table laden with paper and pencils, they began to draw in an open and informal atmosphere.

To reinvent the tower, the architects focused on the human dimension, creating public spaces at the bottom and top of the building: the ground floor is a glass-walled space opening out onto the street, while on the roof there is a bar open to the public and a common area for residents, so that even the owners of first-floor apartments can enjoy the view.

An architectural feat that promotes outdoor living.
The design of L’Arbre Blanc is what sets the project apart. The three architectural practices devised a building inspired by a tree, with balconies that branch off the trunk and shades that sprout out of and protect its façade. The attention paid to its setting, and to local lifestyles, guided the architects throughout the design phase.

The many balconies and pergolas promote outdoor living and enable a new type of relationship between residents. Each apartment boasts an outdoor space of at least 7m² (the largest is 35m²), with multiple levels of privacy and layout options; residents of the duplex apartments can move from one balcony to the other. So that all apartments have pleasing views, the architects sculpted the blueprint with a series of spatial experiments using physical 3D models.

The many technical innovations of L’Arbre Blanc include the terraces, whose cantilevers, which are up to 7.5 metre-long, constitute a world first. These exceptional outside spaces are fully-fledged living rooms that are connected to the dwellings in such a way as to allow residents to live inside and outside, a luxury for a city bathed in sunshine 80% of the year.

Climatic adaptability built into the architecture.
The proportions of the balconies emphasize this aim to embrace the outdoors, as do the leaves that fold out in search of sunlight. These generous balconies are also a response to the need for environmental solutions closely tailored to the ecology of the South. Forming an effective protective veil for the façade, they provide the necessary shade and break up the winds to help air circulate more harmoniously.

A private tower with a generous attitude toward the city and its people.
The architects adopted a new take on tower living for this mixed-use development. To cure inaccessible tower syndrome, there was a real focus on public space, including extending a landscaped park along the Lez River and opening the tower up to the public.

The seventeen-story building is a participant in city life, aiming first and foremost to be accessible to all in Montpellier, with an art gallery on the ground floor and a rooftop bar linked to a panoramic garden. By allowing people to take physical ownership of L’Arbre Blanc, it aims to become an object of pride for the people of Montpellier as well as a tourist attraction.


DATE: 2019 / LOCATION: Place Christophe Collomb, 34000 Montpellier, France / PROGRAM: Residential (113 homes), art gallery, restaurant and panoramic bar 17 storeys, 3 parking levels / STATUS: Built / DESIGN: Sou Fujimoto Architects, Nicolas Laisné, Dimitri Roussel, OXO Architectes Marie-Laure Coste-Grange (project management) / CLIENT: Opalia, Promeo Patrimoine, Evolis Promotion with Crédit Agricole Immobilier Languedoc-Roussillon, GSA Réalisation (Delegated contractor) / MANAGEMENT: CAP Conseil, icK / CONSULTANTS: Now Here Studio (Landscape designer), André Verdier (Structure), ARGETEC (Fluids), Franck Boutté Consultants (Environmental), VPEAS (Cost management), Relief GE (Surveying, Roads and services), Les Eclaireurs (Lighting), SOCOTEC (Inspection), Efectis (Fire performance) / SUBCONTRACTORS: Fondeville (Carcass), Languedoc Etanchéité, SPCM (Steel structure), CIPRES (Façades),  ENGIE (Electricity), Midi-Thermique (HVAC) / SURFACE:  10,225 m/ PHOTOS: Cyrille Weiner

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