An ephemeral city under construction, wild tech village, urban fiction, Bellastock is human-scale architecture laboratory that has opened up to experimentation, education and mediation since 2006. Makery reports from the 2022 edition, which took place on July 14-17 in Évry-Courcouronnes, south of Paris, France.
Bellastock is a four-day festival where we build together by inventing new ways of living, of thinking about architecture, of approaching our relationship with the natural and urban environment. We listen to talks by urbanists, architects, landscapists and artists, to the sound of saws and hammers (or while peeling and stemming a ton of cucumbers and radishes from the Rungis warehouses to cook, in massive but always responsible quantities). We live while learning and sharing skills and experiences. Near the banks of the Seine river downstream from Paris, we can also relax on the grass while listening to music, enjoy the riverside, swim among fish and dragonflies, 30km away from the suffocating capital.
Antoine Aubinais, co-director of Bellastock, tells us how it all began: “Bellastock was born at the architecture school of Paris Belleville. We were in our third year of studying architecture, but we didn’t have any practical concrete experience of physically building. So we developed a festival to invite architecture students to design, construct and deconstruct. This exercise includes all the elements that make up Bellastock: understanding that materials circulate, that we can reuse them and that they will have a second life; being aware that a construction needs to account for a margin of flexibility so that users can appropriate it and transform it; and finally, working on the convivial aspect of inventing and designing projects together. It creates links, and today it’s what irrigates all the projects that Bellastock stands behind.”
Every year, the participants have four days to build their own habitat as a team, using tools and recycled materials. This year, available materials included haystacks left over from the We Love Green festival, railway spans, tires, tarpaulins, straps salvaged from Bellastock 2018. The goal was to inhabit the magnificent “rewilded” park of Sainte-Geneviève house, a former convent situated a few steps away from the tiny Grand-Bourg train station in the commune of Ris-Orangis in Évry. Based on an existing standard (established by CAAPP-BANE, a tent project that won the Bellastock call for projects in 2021), participants took on the challenge of imagining a convivial habitat constructed with reused materials.
More than 250 people spread out across the site to find alternative ways to build this ephemeral and convivial city, where we learn by playing, exchanging and experimenting. Before taking everything down on the day before last, the builders open the site to the public to exhibit their constructions and the challenges of the field.
“Construction work represents two-thirds of waste in industrial production,” Aubinais posits. “So reusing materials is a real issue. We did some pioneering research on this topic, which now helps our fellow architects to prefer deconstruction to demolition. We integrate this aspect of raising awareness into every one of our projects. A person who is informed feels more concerned about the place where they live.”
The project owes its success to the Bellastock team’s admirable event organization, but it’s also coordinated by a number of volunteers and partners. Cooking for 200 people (more than a thousand including the weekend visitors) for four days in the open air requires bringing together multiple skills. On site we find Disco Soupe (a Paris-based organization that fights food waste), whose volunteers arrive in Rungis every morning at 4 a.m. to pick up unsold food and prepare the meals. Also present are Confitures Re-belles (“rebel jams”), a Disco Soupe spin-off that makes jams and chutneys from unsold fruits and vegetables, and Low-Tech Lab (an open source research and documentation program to promote low-tech innovation), whose members generously share their knowledge about technologies that are accessible, reusable, sustainable and environmentally neutral.
We randomly interviewed a few partcipants from all over France (Grenoble, Lyon, Nancy, Rennes, Greater Paris) as well as abroad (Slovenia, Italy, Spain) attracted by the program and the spirit of the event. Eliott (24) works in a construction agency but doesn’t feel invested in his professional activity; Bellastock compensates for this lack. Paul (23) is studying product design, for services and for communities, at ENSCI in Paris; at Bellastock, he is interested in “how to build, how to acquire tools by improvising and collaborating in a community where you don’t know anyone”. The two were working on a plot together.
Aude (25) works at Plateau Urbain, a cooperative for transitory urbanism and partner of Bellastock. She is committed to the issues raised by the festival and has long shared its ambitions. Sarah (24) is a re-oriented architecture student in Grenoble; her professor works at Bellastock, so she came to observe the site. She sees contemporary architecture as “a way to change the game by learning differently”. Next to her, Mélanie (18), is happy to be on site: “In architecture school, we’re sometimes off-the-field, rarely on site. Here we learn concrete things, even on a small scale, we get our hands dirty. It’s a way of going from theory to practice with an ecological and eco-conscious approach.”
One might assume that Bellastock’s ephemeral population is mainly made up of students in architecture or urbanism, who work in agencies or make new things, but it’s hardly the case. During these four days, we met musicians, visual artists and even a baker! This aura surrounding Bellastock is also a result of the team’s many mediations and communications. Aubinais recalls how, “after 16 years of activity, the Ministry of Culture said to us: ‘It’s great to question ways of teaching, developing a perennial project on site. Now how could we help other students to benefit from the educational tools and reflections that you have carried out all these years?’” So they discussed establishing a school for hands-on experience. Modeled after the Grands Ateliers held in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the 1990s, where earth specialists developed these kinds of school projects for learning-by-doing, Bellastock re-localized an experimental space in Greater Paris dedicated to the six local architecture schools.
“All these energies and initiatives culminated in CAAPP (Centre Art Architecture Paysage Patrimoine), whose objectives are simple: to cross disciplines so that landscapists, artists, architects and designers collaborate on projects; to welcome both young people in training and professionals; to develop the space into a school anchored in the locality,” Aubinais continues. Three years later, CAAPP is now a true experimental laboratory for contemporary issues such as recycling, ecology and our relationship with the living world.
Conviviality, as we saw, means building together, making a community. This also involves art and culture. “We offer various cultural events, exhibitions, theater, film, dance,” says Aubinais. “We try to link the site to a rich and varied cultural component, where we invite the participants to propose activities for visitors.” Among the participating artists: Hydropathes, a collective that gave parties on the banks of the Seine; Benjamin Dogon and his Zygophone, a sound systen that interacts with plants; Edina Tokodi and Mileno Guillorel-Obrégon, who interpreted the notion of conviviality during their residency at CAAPP.
Benjamin Dogon, Zygophone, 2020:
Maxence Grugier is the Chronicler-in-residence of Rewilding Cultures, a project co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.