The renovation of the Maison des Sciences de l´Homme building in Paris


Vanessa Fernandez, Catherine Blain


Newsletter, Preservation, historic preservation, docomomo
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The challenge of historic preservation for a non-designated office building


The research and paper below by Vanessa Fernandez and Catherine Blain was presented at the 15th International Docomomo Conference in Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana, Slovenia this past August. Because the problems facing interior development and curtain walls of modern architecture in the United States are so similar, it is invaluable to have an example that takes a different approach.



In the centre of Paris, very few modern buildings are as striking as the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (MSH). Its architecture, combining metal and glass, gives it an exceptional status in the stone-built environment of historic Paris. Its location, at the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Rue Cherche-Midi, as well as its set back from the alignment, distinguish it distinctly from its nearby more bourgeois buildings. Looking beyond this exterior appearance, which leaves no one indifferent, the program and the history of the MSH make it also unique. Built between 1968 and 1970, it was originally designed to house research teams from different social science disciplines gathered around strategic geographic areas. The Ford Foundation supported the building construction with significant funding. One of the major actors of the MSH project, and who would be its first director, was Fernand Braudel (1902-1985). He was a renowned and charismatic historian, involved since the middle of the 1950s in the research and educational programs in the field of social sciences. And its main designer, Marcel Lods, was also a well-known architect at the time.


Since the interwar period, Marcel Lods (1891-1978) was recognized for the quality and the modernity of the projects he realised in association with Eugène Beaudouin (1898-1983), such as the Open Air School of Suresnes (1934) or the Maison du Peuple in Clichy (1935-1939). The latter in collaboration also with Jean Prouvé and Vladimir Bodiansky. After the war, Lods was appointed Architect of Public Buildings and was therefore entrusted with important government commissions, notably for the Ministry of Equipment and Housing and the Ministry of Education. These projects were often carried out in association with other architects.


In 1964, past the respectable age of 70 years, Lods created a new associative structure with two younger colleagues in order to develop his projects: Paul Depondt (1926-2007), who joined his office in 1957 after his architectural studies in America (IIT and Harvard), and Henri Beauclair (born in 1932), who was trained as architect and engineer in Switzerland. With them, Lods also created in 1964 a Research Group, called GEAI (Groupement pour l’Etude d’une Architecture Industrialisée) and aimed on the exploration of new systems of steel frame construction. The main projects of the time were the Science Faculty of Reims (1960-1969) and the social housing project of La Grand’Mare in Rouen (1962-1977). Developed from 1965, the project for the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme was designed in this same trio of architects, who brought into this metal structure building the very best of the international modern architecture spirit.


Although the MSH building was promptly recognized as a major realization of the 20th century, it was never included on the National historical monuments list. This lack of status became problematic when, in 2010, the building was first evacuated following an alarming assessment of asbestos presence and thus threatened by a necessarily renovation project.

Despite the extensive demolition/reconstruction works and the extensive interior transformation which were brought by the renovation project, the building retained its exterior appearance. The renewed MSH also brought back  its structure of research teams, what was not so directly obvious. This renovation, certainly one of the most interesting in recent years in Paris, was acclaimed by French conservation-restoration circles. Indeed, this project seems to have attained the objective of giving continuity through appropriate change, according to which it is expected that buildings of the 20th century should evolve.

The project was executed between 2013 and 2017 by the historic preservation architect François Chatillon (born in 1961), in association with Michel Rémon (b. 1949). The choice of this team was rather unexpected for a building that is still not protected by the Historical Monument designation. And this allowed for a unique project in the realm of office building renovation. But the public emotions stirred by the asbestos health danger and the fear that the building could be destroyed or transformed into a hotel, led the public agency in charge of University planning and building in the Ile-de-France region (EPAURIF) to commission an historic preservation team.

But this renovation raised many questions. In the end of these struggles and negotiations, were the researchers able to return to this building? How was the decision made to maintain the historic design of the facades, in a context of the need to meet increased thermal and energy performance requirements? How have architects preserved or reinterpreted the very special technical innovations of this building in terms of current comfort, construction and fire safety standards? How could the program have been developed with the restrictions imposed by the urban planning by-laws of the city of Paris? And finally, how did the renovation architects choose between contemporary evolution and respect for the historic building?

Organization and scope of the renovation work

Built on a trapezoidal shaped parcel, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme consists of two buildings, organized around a central garden and bound by a narrow perpendicular wing. The first building,  slightly set back from the lot line alongthe Boulevard Raspail , has 9 floors. It is separated from the nearby construction by a single storey volume, which houses a corporate apartment and contain a passage towards the garden. The second building, along Rue Cherche-Midi , has 5 floors and reaches the nearby construction. Its facade opens up wide to a small public garden which occupies the angle of the streets. The major characteristic of this project is its construction system, that combines a structural steel frame structure, expressed in facade, and has pre-stressed concrete slabs.

Like most of the structural steel  buildings of this period, the MSH contained some asbestos components, that had to be removed. In Paris, the first major example of an asbestos abatement operation were the buildings of the Jussieu Faculty (Édouard Albert architect, 1964-1968), in 1996 by the Ministry of Education. While the University Paris VII had to leave the campus, a public structure was specially created for the control of the renovation (that took more than 36 months). Since that moment, any educational building with asbestos  must necessarily be the object of very expensive abatement works.

When the presence of asbestos was confirmed in 2010, the MSH building was closed and all the employees and research teams were relocated to an office building in the 13th district. Everyone wanted a temporary relocation and a fast move back into the renovated building. This position differed from the Ministry of Higher Education and Research’s ambition to group several Parisian education structures in a new “great campus” located in the suburbs. At the same time, there were rumours about the future destination of the building of the Boulevard Raspail: this central location was indeed highly desirable for real estate development projects, such as a luxury hotel. Fortunately, the public information campaign led by numerous researchers proved to be successful: while the town planning documents confirmed the educational designation  of the building, it was recognized on the local list of heritage structures to be preserved. This status is distinct from that of the national Historical Monument label, however, it constituted enough of a guarantee against demolition and major changes.

The EPAURIF, which was responsible for  the asbestos abatement operation in Jussieu, was in the best position to undertake the renovation project. In order to respect the building, and after negotiations with the Ile de France Regional Office of Cultural Affairs (who wished to protect the building as a historical monument while the owner did not), François Chatillon was hired as chief architect. With Michel Rémon, he conducted building renovation project while the asbestos removal operation was supervised by another chief architect of the Historical Monuments, Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Both teams, which was unusual, relied heavily  not only on highly sophisticated technical diagnoses but also on extensive research based on archival documents. 

The major choices of the restructuring program

Prior to the start of the work, the EPAURIF developed a program for the research teams. Originally, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme was not supposed to compete with the University: as a result  its program included only research offices, no classrooms. In addition, the last five floors of the main building were occupied by the initial owner of the land, the Ministry of Justice. In 1976, these government offices were freedemptied out, permitting, at last, the newly created École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) to move in. Designated a public educational establishment and authorized to grant  doctorates, the EHESS was not only in need of spaces for its research teams, previously spread all over the neighborhood, but also a large number of rooms for classes, seminars, defense of thesis and conferences. The original system of subdivision allowed, as far as possible, for these types of use. But in time, and the appearance of new needs, the building reached the limits of its adaption capacity. The main challenge was, above all, to create large rooms in the building.


How did the team of architects in charge of restoration tackle this issue? There was only one logical option:  the  "land reserve" of the MSH, in the form of the two levels of basement originally dedicated to parking and storage. However, this idea was not  without its problems. First, since the urban regulations of the city of Paris require parking lots, it was not easy to change the use of these spaces. Also, the low ceiling height was another obstacle. The challenge was met with a series of openings and patios that allowed the light in and were critical to the success of the conversion. Here once again, negotiations were necessary, as the Paris planning laws do not allow to create “holes” in the ground.


Concerning the different floors of the building, other questions arose. The initial construction was designed to be easily convertible. The uniform size  of the facade panels (1.25m or approximatelt 4 feet wide) and the large spans of the structural steel frame (6.25 x 7.50m or approximately 21 x 30 feet) allowed a great freedom of partitioning. Moreover, since the services were grouped in the center of the plan, the floors are clear open spaces. Originally, the flexibility of subdivision was provided by a system of movable walls: re-configuring offices according to the needs expressed by the users was therefore no problem. In the renovation project, for acoustic reasons, this original system was replaced by fixed walls. Furthermore, two innovations were introduced: small meeting spaces, conceived as boxes within the box, and co-working spaces, displayed at stair landings. These arrangements mainly benefited doctoral students who had no devoted space in the earlier floor layouts.

How to preserve technical innovations in a context of upgrading?

There are several parts to this question. Technical innovations characterized the building originally and were part of the values to be preserved. The first innovation was the structural steel frame. Although the concrete industry generally prevailed in French 20th century construction, some interesting structural steel structures were designed and implemented after 1945, mainly for administrative buildings. These researches used the know-how of engineers like Leon-Karol Wilenko who, in the mid-sixties, developed a system of structural steel frame and post-tensioned concrete flooring for an administrative building designed by Atelier de Montrouge in Orléans-la-Source (EDF SITI n°3, 1966-1969). Wilenko used  and perfected this constructive system in the MSH project. Allowing a reduction of floor thickness to 14cm (approximately 6”), and combined with ceiling height of 2.50m (8’ 4””), it permits  9 floors within the context and height of the surrounding 8-story buildings.


In order to keep the original aesthetic of the MSH, it seemed essential to keep the exposed metal posts and beams in the entrance hall and outside. This desire was not to have to comply with the fire rating requirements for public buildings, which requires a rating of  1 hour for structural steel frames. To maintain the original aesthetic, the architects sought reference to the 1969 fire code , as the building use and size had not changed significantly. The exposed structure was thus maintained on the outside and in the hall, only protected by coatings of intumescent paint. Inside the rest of the building, the concrete and metal structure has been sprayed with slag fiber wool as fireproofing instead of the original asbestos. The columns have furthermore been protected by a layer of sheetrock. Smoke evacuation ducts also had to be created through the corridors and staircases, according to current regulations.


In addition to this, a detailed analysis had to be conducted to verify the load-bearing capacity of the existing floors: current standards require 250daN/m² for offices, 350 for teaching rooms and 400 for storage. In the MSH, it was even more important to check this capacity since some deformations of the slabs (a certain creep, caused by post-tensioning) had to be remediated with leveling screeds. Few carbon-fiber reinforcements were finally needed.


Other decisions had to be made regarding the heating and air conditioning system. From the very beginning of the design, the architects and Fernand Braudel agreed that the MSH, located on a noisy boulevard, was considered to be distracting because of the noise and should be hermetically sealed and air-conditioned. This system had to accommodate flexibility in floor partitioning. Architects then opted for the installation of individual “Weather-Masters”, convectors provided by the American Carrier Enterprise, similar to those installed at the United Nations headquarters in New York (1947-1952). The air is supplied by openings in the floor reaching the suspended-ceiling of the level below (that has a limited drop-off of 30cm or 12 inches). Despite the advantages of this initial air-conditioning system, it had to be abandoned since the holes in the floor had to be filled to achieve the necessary fire resistance. All the air convectors were removed, which made it possible to dismantle the original window frames for repair. A contemporary air-conditioning system was chosen, based on passive chilled beams installed on the ceiling, coupled with ventilation. The old sheet-metal of the air-conditioning units were preserved because they contribute to the façade from the outside and support the manual wheels that activate the aluminum shutters of the windows.


Following a cost benefit study, the EPAURIF decided to maintain an important part of the esthetics of the building: the original window frames and their aluminum shutters. These perforated panels, which play the role of a canopy and can be withdrawn like accordion (in the void between the posts and the windows), were designed by the architects and fabricated by the Cegebat Company, an outgrow of Jean Prouvé's workshop. The conservation of such elements is very uncommon and, generally, they are thrown away to be replaced replaced by contemporary devices. The presence of this historical material will not only preserve the emblematic image of the building but it will also allow the renovation team to demonstrate that the mid-20th century façades can be repaired and reused. This is, in our opinion, an important challenge for the preservation of the built heritage of the second half of the 20th century.


The restoration of the 1100 glazed frames windows required very complex operations to allow for the preservation and the re-use of almost all elements. The outer frames, without glazing but comprising the aluminum shutters and the sliding track system, were sent to the repair shop (SETAL, Montbéliard). Everything was dismantled and cleaned; almost all the pieces of the sliding mechanisms and hardware were replaced. Once re-assembled, these outer frames received back their internal frames, which had in the meantime been cleaned and received a new insulated glazing units. The main challenge was to assure that new glazing could fit in the aluminum frames with its 24 mm (1”) deep rabbet. The internal corrosion of the parts was also checked. For reconditioning approximately 20 working hours were needed per frame. With a workshop employing 15 people in 2 shifts, 6 days a week, only 4 months were necessary for the entire renovation of the façades.

Conclusion: Contradictions between comfort, energy savings and authenticity

Besides this craftsmanship work on the façades, the MSH renovation project also included new devices and work, such as the recreation of the interior finishes, light fixtures, and reconstruction of the suspended ceiling. Because the asbestos removal led to the loss of all the original interior finishes, from the prefabricated partitions to the flooring,  the original interiors  were, as much as possible, recreated with contemporary materials. Although this reconstruction was based on detailed research, its outcome is open to discussion. An example of this is is the attempt to recreate the pattern of the movable partitions in the corridors with decorative panels cladding the fixed walls. This solution doesn’t follow the logic of the materials, so important in the original project. Regrettably, in spite of an in-depth study, the original 1960s furniture was not kept: history was sacrificed for comfort considerations.


Some problems did not find solutions yet – like the treatment of the exterior garden along the Rue Cherche-Midi, the parking of the motorcycles near the glass façades and the uses for the interior garden. In many respects, the decision to restore this air-tight envelope proved problematic. On the one hand, this is a logical approach for historic preservation; but on the other hand, the air-conditioning, the aluminum shutters and the sealed windows never did satisfy the users. Some users  desired to be able to open windows and to shut down the air-conditioning system. This approach would have been sensible in a context of energy saving and natural comfort.


In any event, the most successful point was the recovery of the transparency on the ground floor. This enables an appreciation at a glance of the various spaces as well as the magnificent double staircase that starts in the hall, where users and researchers are able to meet daily and be inspired with new ideas.



Blain, C., SITI Orléans. Habiter une oeuvre d'art, Paris, Archibooks, 2017.

Blain, C., "Living a Manifesto: The Second Life of EDF's Housing Towers in Ivry-sur-Seine (Atelier de Montrouge, 1963-67)”, in Tostoes, A., Ferraira, Z. (ed.), Adaptive Reuse. The modern Movement Towards the Future, Lisboa, Docomomo International, 2016.

Blain, C., L'Atelier de Montrouge. La modernité à l'œuvre (1958-1981), Arles, Actes Sud-Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine, 2008.

Fernandez, V., « Le siège de l’UNESCO. Des façades au soleil ». AMC, n°266 (article référence), mars 2018.

Fernandez, V. et Gallo, E., « La Cité de refuge de l’Armée du salut : confort thermique et contrôle de l’ensoleillement », Marino, Gulia et Graf, Franz (dir.), Les dispositifs du confort dans l’architecture du XXe siècle : connaissance et stratégie de sauvegarde. Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2016.


About the Authors


Vanessa Fernandez, architect and PhD in architecture, research fellow at IPRAUS, teaches the 20th century historic preservation design studio at the ENSA Paris-Belleville. She prepared the historic structure report on the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme building and supervised the scientific committee during the renovation work. Her research efforts focus on the restoration of the lightweight façades in France. She is a member of the committee of experts of the Le Corbusier Foundation and a Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship Prize Alumni.


Catherine Blain, architect and PhD in urbanism, is a research fellow and lecturer at Ensap de Lille (LACTH). Her research, is mainly focused on the French post-War period, to develop different lines of investigation such as the CIAM and Team 10 debates or the history of new towns. Author of several books and articles, she was the curator of the exhibition L’Atelier de Montrouge, la modernité à l’œuvre (1958-1981) (CAPA, 2008), accompanied by a monograph.