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  • Wei Shen

What can we learn from this former abattoir in Paris before planning a home interior renovation?

Updated: Aug 27

Trained as an architect, I always find my heart beats faster when talking about residential interior design and styling. This strong obsession has been proved again after the recent confinement due to the global pandemic. We need a delicately planned and decorated space for our everyday life.


Because the quality of a home interior is playing an extremely critical role in shaping our physical and mental well-being.


It is easy to understand that we need a healthy and well-designed home space. But what is considered a good residential interior environment? Are the qualities of a good home interior design the same to everyone?


I've been asked the question of "how do you come up with a concept" many times over the years of working as an architect and a designer. Today we are going to discuss how to plan your home renovation with the right concept.


So, what is a design concept?


A design concept has to solve your present dwelling problems.


Most design concepts are based on the consideration of solving practical issues, which can work as a universal guideline when it comes to planning.


Let's start by looking at an architectural example. According to Le Corbusier’s (famed Swiss-French architect and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture) concept of modern architecture, what was the root of the so-called “minimalism”? After World War II, the need for housing was at an unprecedented high, Meanwhile, new breakthroughs in building materials made mass production with a low-cost possible. Under such circumstances, the concept of modern architecture which pursued efficiency, simplicity, practicality, and serving the vast majority was in form. Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a multi-family residential housing project for the people of Marseille that were dislocated after the bombings on France.


Interior views of the typical units in the Unite d’Habitation. Each unit has a two-story-high living room and a balcony, which allows abundant natural light to get in. Images from pinterest.ca


The building Unite d’Habitation, designed as a "vertical garden city," as opposed to the construction of villas, was an innovative integration of a system of distributing goods and services that provides independent support to the dwelling unit, responds to the needs of its residents and ensures operational autonomy in relation to the outside world.


The building holds 337 apartments of 23 types, varying from bachelor apartments to such for families with 8 children, accommodating up to 1600 residents. Each apartment occupies two levels (see images above), and stretches from one side of the building to the other, with a balcony bathed in sunlight, all of which are based on the concept of serving essential human needs in a modulized unit.


Le Corbusier’s idea of this “vertical garden city” was based on bringing the villa within a larger volume that allowed for the inhabitants to have their own private spaces with a high level of living dignity, but outside of that private sector they would shop, eat, exercise, and gather together.


This is a typical example of an architectural concept. After more than half a century has passed, it still has its practicality to a certain extent in our society, especially in the fast-developing metropolitans.


Concept, should not serve for marketing purposes, nor should work as a slogan to draw attention. Its mission is simply to look for answers from our dilemmas hence finding solutions to our existing problems.


Then how to find out the problems that we need to solve? Here are some rule of thumbs:


Your activities determine the function of your home space.


Take the Parc de la Villette in Paris as an example, which was built on the site of former abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and the national wholesale meat market, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, as part of an urban redevelopment project.


Tschumi did not design the park in a traditional mindset where landscape and nature are the predominant forces behind the design. Rather he envisioned Parc de la Villette as a place of culture where natural and artificial are forced together into a state of constant reconfiguration and discovery. For the architect, Parc de la Villette was not meant to be a picturesque park reminiscent of centuries past; it was more of an open expanse that was meant to be explored and discovered by those that visited the site. For instance, the most iconic features of this park are those red sculptural pieces called follies (see images below). Visitors view and react to those follies in a way that varies according to their different activities. A folly is a performance stage when you hold a presentation on it; it is a rain canopy when you need a shelter from a sudden rain; it also becomes a movie set if you are shooting a scene in it.


There are 26 red units like this called "Follies", each one is configured differently and is identified by a

name. Image from pinterest.ca


Therefore, Parc de la Villette is conceptualized as one large user-defined space that is completely open for interpretation.


Samely, your home space, is supposed to be defined by your and your families' everyday activities. By understanding this, you will be able to avoid frustrating detours, distractions, and time/money waste while renovating.


Successful designs (not restrained to interior) are aimed at the end-users. Without a specific end-user who is actually living there, "design" is just a marketing slogan that has nothing to do with design. So any residential design targetted for resale, which means the specific occupants are unknown, are not included in today's discussion. Although many believe in it, a one-size-fits-all solution doesn't exist in residential design. The user is the soul of a home, and we cannot discuss any design issues when the soul is missing.


It's been common that many of us are shopping for a residence as an off-the-shelf product instead of working to make it suit our own needs. This means that our activities and visual enjoyments are predefined by the place we buy. So as soon as you have the plan to redo your home, start thinking about issues as below:

  1. What is my objective for this renovation? (In my opinion, solely making an old place newer is not worthy enough to start.)

  2. What is bothering me at this moment?

  3. Do I want to adjust/improve my current lifestyle?

Yes, there are some general functions and spaces that suit most people's dwelling needs, like a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, etc. But when you think further, what do you usually do or want to do in your living room, for example? Nowadays, a TV, a coffee table, and a couch configure a typical living room which is taken for granted by the most. Since it takes a big portion of the entire house, do you have other activities that you want to conduct in the living room during the day, besides watching TV? If you do, is the current set up meeting your needs in a flattering way?


Keep asking questions like that.


I come up with those questions because I have visited quite a few houses where the living room has a very decent size, but the users, both the owner and visitors, are unconsciously restrained to the couch area if they want to linger a bit rather than just walk through the room. There are plenty of spaces left wasted due to a bad configuration or lack of proper furniture that can make you enjoy staying. A simple example I can remember is a spacious living room with a ceiling height of 12', where the owner put a piece of solid furniture (something like a low sideboard) which just blocked the way from the seating area to a gorgeous bay window bathed in an abundance of natural light!


I am a big advocate of multifunctional space, especially for living rooms. When you are able to have various activities all comfortably in the same room, your space will feel much more enriched because each subdivided area where you conduct different activities will give you a different view, a different anchor, as well as a different sense of space.


Image from pinterest.ca


The picture above shows the living room of a Swedish designer's home. The designer has a very secluded lifestyle. She doesn't socialize much but needs a lot of time for creative work. Therefore, her major activity is "creating". Since activities define the space, there is no big sectional couch nor a TV wall in her living room. After all, she is spending most of her time sitting in front of the easel, as we see so many painting tools on the concrete table on the side. In other words, her living room is an art studio. The stacked stools under the table are for her occasional visitors, taking little space of the room most of the time.


Remember Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City? The column writer once joked about storing shoes in her oven since she never cooks. According to the subject that we are discussing today, we should not think that because she puts her shoes into the oven then they should be headed like food, which would be the result of space-defining activities; quite the contrary, because of her activity of putting shoes into the oven, the oven is now becoming her shoe storage. This is an extreme example of a personalized concept, but we get the idea.


Take the chance to actualize your desired lifestyle.


The relationship between your activities and home space is not fixed. New activities will constantly redefine your space while the new space can help start a brand new lifestyle. If there is a gap between your current and ideal lifestyle, when renovating your home, the new space should be determined by your desired activity instead of your current habit.


Compare your ideal lifestyle, are you satisfied with your current activities? Is there a big gap? For instance, you want to eat healthier and reduce the time of eating outside but haven't been a good cook so far because your kitchen doesn't suit your cooking style. Then what you need to look into is a very functional kitchen that can facilitate and stimulate you to cook happily.


A multi-functional big table in the open kitchen-dining area encourages interactions among family members, not only for dining. Image from pinterest.ca


A small dining table added to this enclosed kitchen makes cooking much more relaxing and enjoyable. When dining here, you also take the moment to "see" the kitchen itself. Image from pinterest.ca


A bookshelf-wall and a cozy chair configure the best nook for a bookworm. Image from pinterest.ca


Back to the Parc de la Villette, it continues developing. The park and its vicinity are now housing concert halls, live performance stages, theatres, the largest science museum in Europe, and so on. If the place was always defined by "current activities", it would have remained as a messy, dirty slaughterhouse. Bearing the main task of transforming this area into an urban cultural park, the place gradually forms its magnificent new identity.


As a large-scale civil construction project is taking the path of creating a new and more ideal function, a small-scale project like your home renovation can follow the same pattern. Sometimes, when you define your living space by your ideal activities instead of current ones, you are in real control of using your home space as its owner, as well as that of your life. Vise versa, when your new space is influencing your future lifestyle, not only are you redefining your home, you are also gearing yourself and your family members towards their goals and eventually becoming better and better.


Philharmonie de Paris, a new symphony hall with 2,400 seats for orchestral works, jazz, and world music designed by Jean Nouvel, opened since January 2015, is part of the development in the Parc de la Villette. Photography by Guilhem Vellut, Philharmonie de Paris @ La Villette


Let me know about your stories with interior planning in the comment area below and we can discuss further.


Shenwei Design is thriving to accommodate everyone who is passionate about life, who embraces details in living experience, and who loves challenges.


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