Architect Julien Beller likes to describe his various projects as acts of “urban acupuncture.”
Increasingly in France, his work symbolizes an alternative approach to architecture and community. His various projects over the years—from exchanges of architectural savoir-faire with communities in Cameroon, Mali, and Morocco with his association AoA to his most recent collaboration with the City of Paris to build a temporary welcome center for the hundreds of refugees arriving in the city each week—reveal his approach as both holistic and eclectic.
On a recent afternoon, Beller reflected on his projects from his office on the top floor of a building that is also one of the architectural experiments closest to his heart: the co-working space, cultural site, and association he founded known as Le 6B.
Located near the Seine and along the banks of a wide canal in St. Denis, a working-class suburb north of Paris, Le 6B collective is a six-story building formerly used by industrial giant Alstom in a once-forgotten swath of urban sprawl. Largely abandoned for decades, the building has now come to life under the hands of Beller and the dedicated architects, artists, and community members with whom he works.
The space is now home to 170 people, all of whom rent studio or office space at the price of one Euro per square foot. In addition to private studios, there are colorful common areas used for regular art exhibits, dance classes, film screenings, and concerts. The ground floor is home to a large cafeteria that serves up affordable meals to members of Le 6B as well as community members from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The central ideas behind Le 6B, inclusiveness and movement, are evident in the ambiance of the place which feels at once homey but also potentially ephemeral. “I usually use three words or concepts to describe my approach to working,” says Beller. “Bottom-up, which means working with people to come up with solutions together; adaptation, which means redefining objectives as needed; and serendipity, which means welcoming the surprises that happen along the way.”
The idea for Le 6B came in part from Beller’s conversations with neighbors and fellow artists in St. Denis who expressed the need for space—both individual space for working and creating, as well as communal space for collaborations and group projects.
Beller first settled in St. Denis in 2008 when he designed and built a small house for himself and his family in the garden of a friend’s home. After he finished his house, there was building material leftover and Beller figured he could find something useful to do with it. Aware of the large population of Roma in St. Denis, he went to a nearby temporary settlement of Roma and went to work on several collaborative building projects. “When I arrived in St Denis there were 3,000 Roma living in shantytowns. There was a real concentration here,” he says. “I wanted to create a connection between these settlements and the surrounding neighborhood.”
The result of Beller’s efforts was practical as well as neighborly—at the end of his work, the makeshift community was home to a communal garden, a common room, and newly installed toilets. There were also a lot of relationships that had been forged through working together. “I tried to bring some justice and sense of collaboration to this ‘informal’ housing community,” he says. “There’s got to be a minimum level of comfort and dignity and a way to live together.”
When Beller launched Le 6B in 2008, it was in the midst of the financial crisis. Associations he worked with and artists he knew were increasingly struggling, looking for funding for their projects and a place conducive to work. Beller initially negotiated a two-year lease with the owner of the old Alstom building and quickly starting spreading word about the project he was hoping to inspire. As he tells it, he didn’t want to come up with all the ideas and start implementing them before the community of artists and professionals was in place. Instead, he hoped, people’s needs would be met organically. Construction of common spaces would happen as needed.
The first few months of the project consisted of giving potential renters tours of the building. “I tried to explain that it was not just a rented room but a shared space and project,” he says. It didn’t take long for people’s interest to be piqued. Within two months people were moving in and common spaces were being created. “Among the needs of everyone were coexisting together, sharing things, having fun, and living together with neighbors who were struggling economically.”
Within the first year and a half, the building’s 75,000 square feet had been filled. The community outreach didn’t stop there, however. One of the annual events that has helped put Le 6B on the radar of social innovators and party-goers across the Parisian metropolis has been the space’s summer festival, “Fabrique à Rêves,” which features concerts, sporting activities, art, and picnic-friendly spaces that attempt to make up for a lack of green space in St. Denis. The festival, which lasts for several weeks throughout the summer, draws a diverse mixture of people from St. Denis as well as Paris.
“I consider that all of this is part of my profession as an architect. To me it’s not just to draw walls but to orchestrate and organize projects,” says Beller. “It’s a breath of fresh air for people coming from Paris—there’s more of a Berlin kind of feeling. There’s space and we’re offering something different. It’s along the canal, there are big trees, music, and the wide diversity of St. Denis.”
Outside of the summer festival, Le 6B offers common spaces throughout the building that are free for students, associations, and people of from the neighborhood to use for events and meetings. Ten people are now officially on salary while the rest of the people who work to make the various programs and events work in the building are volunteers. “All of our residents are part of the association,” says Beller. “We’re governed from the inside.”
In the time since Le 6B’s founding, the building changed hands from Alstom to an urban renewal developer intent on buying up land in the surrounding neighborhood. Fortunately for Le 6B, this didn’t mean moving. “They like our project and wanted us to stay.” The question is how and for how long. “We’re starting to look into this with the new owner,” says Beller. “The idea is to really do something together—with a mix of public and private money—so that we can manage the future together.”
Beller insists that even with growing interest in the rental spaces of Le 6B and in the surrounding neighborhood, the goal is not to make money off of the project. “There’s a real mix of diversity here and we want it to stay that way.” On the other hand, Beller acknowledges that change is inevitable and can be potentially positive. More cafes, cleaner streets, and better sidewalks, for example, are changes that would serve all residents of St. Denis, he says.
Large-scale gentrification is slow to come to St. Denis, partially due to its large concentration of social housing. On the nearby island of St. Denis, where Beller now lives with his family, social housing makes up 68 percent of the real estate market.
For now, Beller is taking the long view, a perspective that takes considerable patience but tends to work better than an all or nothing approach. “All of the projects that I do are like that in the sense that the idea is not to do everything at once, to totally change, but to focus on certain points—little seeds that you plant—that can affect the overall.”
It all goes back to the idea of urban acupuncture, he says, describing buildings and neighborhoods as living organisms. “Sometimes they’re sick but they are always in flux, moving and changing across time,” he says. “If something really takes root, it’s because the project is linked to the place.”
Beller’s latest project, the one for which he’s gotten the most attention in the French and international press, is a temporary housing and processing center for refugees in the north of Paris. The site, launched by the City of Paris, is the first temporary settlement for refugees in Paris. Though the center has only been open since late fall, Beller says he’s optimistic about the role it can play in providing a temporary shelter to some of those who most desperately need it. “I think it’s a pretty good example of what can be done quickly but seriously and consciously.”