PARIS – Hexagone Balard, the site of France's Ministry of Defence in western Paris, was inaugurated by President François Hollande, paradoxically, eight days before the 13 November 2015 attacks, which killed 130 people. The decision to reunite the army, navy and air force on one single site was taken in 2007 by Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, for the sake of efficiency. Previously, the ministry had been dispersed over 12 sites in Paris and the nearby suburbs.
The issue of security was paramount, followed by the desire to have an innovative building that would be modern, energetic and technologically advanced. What ensued was a public-private partnership allotted in 2011 to Bouygues Construction, which teamed with three architecture firms: ANMA – Agence Nicolas Michelin et Associés (master plan), Agence Wilmotte & Associés (four rented office buildings) and Ateliers 2/3/4 (renovation of certain buildings). The project was delivered four years later.
‘The site is a true bunker that looks like a robust fortress from the outside but one discovers its qualities inside,’ says Cyril Trétout, a partner at ANMA, who, with the ministry's press officer, takes me on a tour escorted by a soldier. The building features a vast, metallic solar roof spanning 5,600 sq-m – the largest in Paris. Wrapping round the impenetrable 165,000 sq-m site is a cliff-inspired, stratified façade, in varying opacities and transparencies. ‘It is a furtive and futuristic double skin,’ says Trétout.
Inside the tightly guarded, labyrinthine complex, the effect bestowed by the architecture appears user-friendly. The offices are lifted off the ground on stilts, creating passageways underneath that lead to grassy spaces, bicycle ranks and benches for the 9,200 employees. The site contains restaurants, a gym, a swimming pool, three crèches, a hairdresser's, conference and media rooms. The mosaic-like façades in greens and blues are strategic. ‘The pixels of colour deconstruct the rigid structure like a fresco so we don’t know what’s happening behind the façade,’ explains Trétout. The building is fortified so that, in an attack, damage would be limited ‘to a hole’ and not affect the overall structure.
In the centre is a hexagonal, white-clad space where the highest-ranking officials work – hence the name of the project, also a reference to the shape of the country. The only original building is on Grande Place d’Armes, designed by Auguste Perret (1854-1874). It is testament to the ministry's objective to plan military operations and protect France.