A good deal of what architects do day-to-day is sly circumvention. Rarely do they design according to some divine inspiration. Rather, they spend their 70-hour workweeks sidestepping an endless string of zoning laws, landmark stipulations, impossible client demands, and all sorts of other constraints. They’re like teenagers: hidebound by rules, but always trying to get away with something. Which makes Christian Pottgiesser the Ferris Bueller of architecture.
Each of the tiny houses minds the 270-square-foot size limit.
Charged with designing an extension to an 18th-century orangery a half hour outside Paris, the French architect faced so many restrictions, he might as well have built the thing in handcuffs. Instead, he danced artfully around the limitations, constructing flat roofs where more elaborate roofs weren’t allowed and a cluster of towers where tall, large buildings were restricted, to create a family house that’s chic, bright, and gutsy. And, oh yes, it’s totally legit.
Pottgiesser designed Maison L (so christened because in plan, it forms an “L” with the orangery) with his partner, the artist Pascale Thomas Pottgiesser. To give you a feel for what they were up against here, let’s run through all the things they couldn’t do: They couldn’t build the extension anywhere but on the northwest corner of the family’s property to preserve precious forested land; they couldn’t build a structure with a gabled or hipped roof; they couldn’t build a structure that’s taller than 26 feet; and, per the demands of the family, they couldn’t build a house without communal space. Nor could they build a house without private space. It had to have both.
One thing they could do, according to local building code, was erect a structure with a flat roof — just as long as the roof was no more than 270 square feet. That’s, of course, tiny and could accommodate a single person but not a family of six. So the Pottgiessers turned around and designed five flat-roofed structures. Each minds the 270-square-foot size limit and comes with its own storage space, dressing room, bathroom, and bedroom spread over three stories, providing private quarters for both the children and the parents. Covered in windows, the towers also filter generous ribbons of sunlight indoors. The largest tower, for the parents, affords views of La Défense in Paris.
The problem with five separate structures, though, is that it can make each family member feel like Rapunzel trapped all alone in her castle. The Pottgiessers responded by plunking the towers in and around an expansive ground floor. The floor’s got an open plan, so it meets the family’s need for communal space. It’s also tucked below grade to make sure that the towers don’t inch past the height limit (26 feet, remember!), but a kaleidoscope of windows ensures that the place doesn’t resemble a dungeon.
The ground floor is wrapped in a stone wall that blends into the rustic surroundings. Not so with the towers. They’re clad in defiantly white cement, and they stick out like a big middle finger — make that five middle fingers — to the iron law of the land.