Influenced by Le Corbusier, Niemeyer and the Bauhaus
Fifty years ago, the architect Georges Maillols (1913 – 1998) signed what was to become one of the symbols of the Rennes skyline: the twin towers of the Horizons, the most instagrammed monument in the city, just in front of the Parliament of Brittany.
Erected in record time, they have not aged a day and sum up the architect’s genius: original lines, revolutionary construction techniques and a pioneering vision of what a residential tower should be. Influenced by architects such as Le Corbusier, Franck Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer, Maillols’ “international style” has a geometric aspect inspired by Bauhaus.
In total, the architect designed no less than 140 buildings in the Breton capital, most of them residential buildings. With 11,478 homes built in Rennes, Georges Maillols’s signature can be recognised at a glance and at every street corner. More than a reconstruction architect, he is above all the architect of the period of the Trente Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty) in Rennes. However, it was not always inevitable that he would turn Rennes into an architectural laboratory. You might even say that he got there by accident…
After studying at the Fine Arts School in Paris, where he graduated as an architect in 1943, he first went to work in Laval with the architect Léon Guinebretière. An opportunity then presented itself in Rennes with the possibility of buying out the Couasnon architectural firm, whose director had just been appointed Architecte des Bâtiments de France (Architect of French Buildings).
His first stroke of genius: the Quai Richemont tower
“He arrived in a city damaged by the Second World War where thousands of dwellings were to be rebuilt and restored,”says Philippe Bohuon, deputy head of architecture and heritage at the tourist office. Shortly after his arrival in Brittany, Maillols bought a piece of marshland that nobody wanted, Quai Richemont, on the banks of the Vilaine. He then said he wanted to build the highest building in Rennes on it. “At the time, everyone thought he was mad,” adds the specialist in Rennes architecture. Except that Maillols had a major trick up his sleeve to win the bet: his Belgian uncle, Edgard Frankignoul, had filed a patent for a new reinforced concrete piles foundation system. A technique known to Maillols that he intended to use on his first Rennes construction. Thanks to this piling system, between 1951 and 1954, he had an eleven-storey building, the highest in Rennes, erected at 14 Quai Richemont without any problems. A building now known as the “Tour Maillols” (Maillols Tower). To the astonishment of the people of Rennes who were expecting the house of cards to collapse at any moment…
“This first stroke of genius made him famous far beyond Rennes. And already you can sense the characteristic of the Maillols style: bringing light into the flats and playing on the geometry of the facade. With bow windows in the corners and only two flats per floor, the flats are bathed in light, on the banks of the Vilaine: it was unheard of,” explains Philippe Bohuon.
He earned a star to be placed on the Beaulieu campus.
A first successful foundation thanks to new techniques, in a provincial city such as Rennes where no one thought it was possible… requests were pouring in for the young architect. He then designed emergency housing such as the Grand Bleu in the Cleunay district and, together with Louis Arretche, became one of the reconstruction architects. “Arretche was better known than Maillols at the time, he was in charge of the reconstruction of Saint-Malo, designed the Colombier district and the Rennes campuses, the Tour de France Telecom (the Mabilay). He entrusted Maillols with the university restaurant on the Beaulieu campus. It was a second stroke of genius: he imagined a star-shaped restaurant for the students at an unbeatable cost, once again using a new technique with a glued laminated structure that had never been used on this scale before”.
“When function determines the shape”
Even today, few students know how revolutionary their university restaurant is. Maillols applied the principles of functionalist architecture. It is “the function that determines the shape”in a star which allows 1000 students to eat at the same time without the dishes having time to get cold. Hence the particularly suitable star shape, with the kitchen in the centre and the rooms distributed around and in the corners.
He would go on to apply this practical sense in the same way when creating original housing. Like the Maisons Tournesols (Sunflower Houses), a snail-shaped development of detached houses where the layout of the houses and gardens on the plots is designed so that at aperitif time, neighbours are not looking into each others’ windows. In architecture as in other fields, “the devil is in the details” and a bon vivant epicurean like Maillols, a pipe smoker and lover of powerful sedans, neglected none of them. And this is what makes his creations so photogenic: form and use merge to create a different style.
The Bourg-l’Evêque district… an open-air architectural laboratory
After these initial architectural successes, a new page opened for the architect. Henri Fréville, the mayor of Rennes, called on him for a major urban planning operation: the Bourg l’Evêque district, which had become totally insalubrious, was razed to the ground, the waterways were filled in and smelly industrial activities were closed down. The architect was given carte blanche to completely redesign a new district on the doorstep of the historic centre. And there again Georges Maillols would demonstrate great audacity. He designed the majority of the new residential buildings, which all had different shapes: the horizontality of the Caravelle (1969) contrasts with the verticality of the Horizons (1970). Just behind the Armor (1973) forms a bridge over the road leading to the Cristales (1972), a group of buildings marked by original geometric research. The Belvedere (1973) is also one of the original residential towers with its 21 floors and graphic facades, as is the Trimaran (1977) with its set of prismatic balconies.
The common point between Maillols’ creations can be seen from the interior of the homes where the search for light and space is constant: Georges Maillols had anticipated and even foreseen that the balconies would be transformed into verandas and that the student studios of the Horizons could be joined together to form larger flats, simply by knocking down a partition…
The Horizons, the first residential skyscraper in France
In this district it is obviously the Tour des Horizons (Horizons Tower) that makes the biggest impression and attracts the most attention. Because of its shape, its height of almost 100 metres… and the speed of the project. For Georges Maillols once again relied on a completely new technique: a concrete prefabrication process that allowed one floor to be erected per week. In 1970, the pharaonic construction site inspired pride in Rennes’ inhabitants. The Horizons, or “Siamese” towers, thereafter became the first high-rise building for residential use erected in France. It was a model for the other towers that would follow in the country. Culminating at 96 and 99.5 metres, the two towers are a few metres higher than the Eperon du Colombier tower (1975) designed a little later by Louis Arretche. With its 32 floors, the Horizons is therefore still today the highest building in the city.
In turn “twin towers”, “Siamese towers”, “ivory tower”…
Inspired by Chicago’s ear-of-corn towers built a few years earlier, they are characterised by harmonious elliptical shapes and bright flats with large terraces that dominate the city and the surrounding countryside. The writer Milan Kundera even took up residence there during his exile in Brittany. An Ivory Tower from which he perhaps imagined he could see his native country on the horizon. The most surprising thing about its shape is that you can admire its curves from the outside as well as from the inside. From all angles, the geometry of these towers appears different, vertiginous and can be seen from all around. It is a landmark on the Rennes skyline, an iconic achievement of the architect.
The Barre Saint-Just high-rise building: a pyramid with hanging gardens
But it is far from being the only Maillols building we like to admire. A year before the Horizons, in 1969, the architect invented a new form in the stylish district of Rennes, a stone’s throw from the Jardin du Thabor (Thabor gardens) and the Boulevard de Sévigné: the Barre Saint-Just high-rise building. A monumental pyramid where housing is still very popular, half a century after its construction. Here again, Maillols played on form. The pyramid makes it possible to create quiet dwellings set back from the street. The canopies serve both to pass ventilation ducts and to cast shadows on the immense garden terraces. Hanging gardens where you can sunbathe in peace without being seen by your neighbours.
In Rennes, Georges Maillols developed an avant-garde architecture that spans the decades 1950-1960-1970. “An architect of the Trente Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty)”, says Philippe Bohuon. “With innovative projects from the outset, he created housing for everyone: from social housing to luxury housing and detached houses, always trying to provide space, light and futuristic aesthetics”.