In the burgeoning Devèze district of Béziers, France, an urban renaissance is taking place. While the city has prioritized the development of public infrastructure such as a town hall annex, a community centre and sports facilities, the large residential complexes of the 1970s are being replaced by smaller multi-family buildings and single-family homes. Nearly 600 of these units were demolished to make way for a 3,800-square-metre bilingual nursery and elementary school. Opened in January 2023, the École Samuel Paty, designed by Paris-based Ateliers O-S Architectes and Montpellier firm NAS Architecture, replaces the run-down École des Oliviers on the neighbouring plot, which was filled with asbestos, reflecting not only the city’s continued development but its formal shift towards the human scale.
Despite investment in social infrastructure, the neighbourhood, located east of the city centre, has been a hotbed for drug trafficking and crime (the school’s name, which honours a teacher murdered in a terrorist attack at a Paris school in 2020, is no mere coincidence). As such, the school’s design needed to account for these security considerations, while also protecting the classrooms from strong winds and street noise. To that end, the architects conceived of the building as a pentagonal fortress that surrounds two protected courtyards, which host playgrounds, learning gardens and relaxation areas. Behind the school, three ancillary buildings woven into the landscape house additional programs such as the medical centre, library, cafeterias, and admin offices.
From the street, the single-storey structure appears deceptively massive. The glass and metal interior façade, which faces the courtyard, is lightweight and porous by contrast. This material duality runs throughout the project. The building’s imposing presence is softened by the sand-tinted raw concrete façade, which recalls the warm colour of the earth, and the gabled roof which evokes a residential feel. Its clean longitudinal volume responds to the site’s topography, while its neutral palette unifies the complex, allowing it to fit seamlessly into its context.
From the early stages of the project’s design, the architects were conscious of preserving the existing trees on site. To that end, the school’s main entrance is located at the junction of two driveways, lined with sycamore and pine trees to the west and north respectively. The interior seeks to foster this same connection with nature.
The forecourt, lit by three circular skylights, features a small garden that guides students to their classrooms. Here, the building splits off into two separate corridors, one for the primary school and one for the nursery school, with the principal’s office at the centre, a strategic position that allows for optimal contact with families and the widest field of vision to ensure safety within the complex. Across the courtyard from the principal’s office, a spacious multi-purpose room bathed in natural light bridges the gap between the primary and nursery schools, offering a space for both work and play. The rational plan makes for easy wayfinding for both students and staff, with all common areas easily accessible via the shared outdoor space.
The corridors provide a second layer of protection behind the thick exterior walls. Generous and brightly lit, the unheated concrete hall becomes like an internal “street,” with warm wooden finishes, rows of cubbies, and porthole-like circular windows that look into the classrooms. The intimate, slope-roofed space opens up into fifteen expansive double-height classrooms — six kindergarten and nine elementary classes — which all face the courtyard, with French window-style openings that blur the boundaries between indoors and out (and allow for better supervision of the playground). “The courtyard is an extension of the classroom,” the architects explain. Prioritizing nature and nurture in equal measure, École Samuel Paty is sure to have a profound impact on the community it serves.
Massive yet porous, the building forms a protective cocoon around its students in a developing area of Béziers, France.