Few people visit Paris for its modern architecture. But away from the Haussmannian buildings lining the boulevards of the city centre, the less regulated banlieue was a zone of architectural experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s. The Choux de Créteil – Gérard Grandval’s ‘cabbages’ – rise beside the highway, each tower with curved balconies that vaguely resemble leaves. In Ivry-sur-Seine, Renée Gailhoustet and Jean Renaudie’s Étoiles housing project takes the shape of a series of tessellating triangles. In postwar France, as many as 300,000 new housing units were built per year, prompted by the need for workers’ housing and funded, for the most part, by the state. Practicalities determined aesthetics: the need to build many units quickly while keeping costs down, and therefore the use of functional materials with minimal embellishments, which gave the style its brut or ‘raw’ nature. This was an ambitious project, at a formidable scale, but many of the buildings are now dilapidated, abandoned, isolated from the rest of the city. They are life-size versions of an architect’s model, not designed for real life.
In Brutalist Paris, Nigel Green and Robin Wilson praise the ‘important architectural interventions’ that resulted in ‘an often radical departure from the familiar, historical Paris, towards the establishment of multiple satellite centres’. But few of the buildings have weathered well. In Nanterre, the Tours Nuages, or ‘Cloud Towers’, designed by Émile Aillaud in 1978, with their round lines and curved walls, are being renovated. The Beaugrenelle complex, a group of luxury skyscrapers designed in geometric shapes, looks tired and worn, parts of it under scaffolding. When I visited one of the Beaugrenelle towers two years ago hoping to rent an apartment (high-rises in Paris are often relatively cheap), the landlord told me that the building’s trash system was out of operation in an attempt to prevent the proliferation of cockroaches. There was a dead bug near where he stood.
No complex of the period has as bad a reputation as the Chêne Pointu, a group of blocks in Clichy-sous-Bois, 15 kilometres from the centre of the city, built by Bernard Zehrfuss in the 1960s and early 1970s. Few of my Parisian friends have heard of the Chêne Pointu, but they’ve seen it – whenever there’s a movie about trouble in the banlieues, the estate provides the set. The skyscrapers loom over scraggy grass, bounded by the ill-named avenue de l’Avenir. There’s a mall, but little else. The journey to Paris proper takes well over an hour. In the 1960s, a monorail was planned that would go at a speed of up to 400 kilometres an hour, and link nearby suburbs to the centre. Thousands of people were moved into the new buildings. A forest was cut down.
Zehrfuss worked mostly in concrete, and in some of his designs, such as the Unesco building in central Paris, it seems almost warm and alive, as if the liquid is still being poured. Postcards advertising the construction of the Chêne Pointu show rows of balconies shielded by red awnings; children play outside. Small trees shade a manicured lawn. There’s a rhythm to the differently sized buildings, a sense of openness and air. Coloured glass and ceramics decorate the façade. The estate was conceived for families, with parking spots for bicycles and prams. A promotional pamphlet talked about the ‘renaissance’ of the town, which would have a new day-care centre, swimming pool, secondary school and retirement home. The aérotrain looks like the past’s idea of the future, hanging from a single rail like a marsupial holding tight to its mother.
In The Social Project: Housing Postwar France (2014), Kenny Cupers writes that ‘grand compositions of housing blocks were explicitly meant to elicit awe and thus to express the dignity of the new France under construction. This confirmed one of the basic premises of national modernisation in France: the desire to break with the past while remaining undeniably French.’ Many of these constructions were backed by the Communist Party in Paris’s suburban ‘red belt’; the builders and architects were often themselves communists. Today it’s hard to imagine the pace at which these developments were built, often in the form of ‘villes nouvelles’ that seemed to spring out of nowhere. ‘Nothing like this has been done since the great Gothic cathedrals!’ André Malraux supposedly said.
The pace of construction was so rapid that many of these buildings, known as ‘grands ensembles’, were designed only as drawings, not as models. ‘It was often the bird’s-eye view that supplied the architects with the essential lens for judging their design,’ according to Cupers. ‘The experience of the pedestrian, the driver, and even that of the inhabitants from the windows of their apartment, was often the ill-considered result, rather than the starting point, of this top-down compositional order.’
Constructed as blocks of housing rather than fully conceived towns, many of these ‘grands ensembles’ had little by way of an urban centre, leaving their inhabitants dependent on Paris for nearly everything. ‘I’ve lived in the “ville nouvelle” for twelve years and I don’t know what it looks like,’ Annie Ernaux writes in Journal de dehors of Cergy-Pontoise. ‘I can’t describe it either, not knowing where it starts and ends, always driving around … No descriptions, no stories either. Just moments, encounters.’
Although they were designed to elevate the periphery by decentring the city, the villes nouvelles achieved the opposite effect: alienating a rapidly impoverished ring from the core. The suburban monorail project was abandoned in the 1970s, as was a highway a few years later. Commuting to Paris was difficult, if not impossible. Mismanagement compounded the problem, and two decades after its completion the Chêne Pointu was bankrupt. Many of the original owners sold their apartments. The new tenants didn’t have much choice about where they lived. Clichy-sous-Bois itself is one of the poorest towns in France. It still takes longer to get there from central Paris than to travel by high-speed rail to towns 200 kilometres away.
‘You have to admit that these housing units were built wherever there was available land,’ Zehrfuss wrote in some autobiographical notes, ‘without any precise plans for the town or its development. Public buildings were put wherever they were needed, and in general, schools were built wherever they were cheapest, because the Ministry of Education didn’t have enough funding … All this has contributed to this incoherent urbanism from which you can’t get out.’
In 2005, the Chêne Pointu was in the news after two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted as they hid from the police in a power substation. The riots in the banlieues that followed their deaths lasted for three weeks. Nicolas Sarkozy, then the minister of the interior, described the rioters as ‘scum’ and three thousand protesters were arrested. In the years after the riots, journalists would occasionally visit the estate and write about the broken lifts and the poor condition of the buildings. When a reporter from Le Parisien visited this year, she found workers living in underground storage units. ‘These cellars have saved my life,’ one man said. ‘There are no fights here, you don’t risk your life as you would on the street, and I can at least pretend to have a home for my family back home. I’m ashamed, because my brothers are engineers, doctors.’
A demolition project is now underway. The buildings will be knocked down, one by one, and then replaced with new ones, most of them less imposing, and surrounded by green space. There are also plans for new shops. To mark the project, the local mayor’s office recently put on a small exhibition in the half-empty mall, between a judo studio and an abandoned store. Géraldine Lay’s photographs show local people chatting outside the buildings, passing the time of day. A short graphic novel tells the story of residents forced to evacuate urgently when part of the façade fell from one of the towers. Children were asked to describe their favourite places. ‘Building number 3, the B3, is the biggest building of the ten towers, but it will soon be demolished,’ one wrote. ‘I am not happy that it will be demolished because I am always there. My friends and I often go there, and we hang out and play lots of games and activities … You should come and have a nice time with us.’
The estate’s inhabitants will have to move elsewhere. But according to the novelist Éric Reinhardt, who grew up in the Chêne Pointu and curated the exhibition, ‘most of the time tenants don’t even know their building is going to be demolished, or they just hear rumours.’ A new metro may solve the transport problem, but the new buildings will not add significantly to the housing stock.
Some of the most moving parts of the exhibition are those that recognise the Chêne Pointu as a place with its own identity. ‘It had a village mentality. Everyone knew everyone else, everyone looked out for everyone else, everyone took care of everyone else, everyone had a grudge against everyone else,’ the artists Bilel Chikri and Murat Arslan Rymo write in the exhibition catalogue. ‘That’s the risk. If you don’t decide at some point to get out of the neighbourhood and do something in Paris, you’re bound to end up staying there. That’s why, to this day, there are guys who are fifty or sixty years old and who have never left.’
After the riots, Chikri and Rymo write, the police didn’t visit the Chêne Pointu for seven years. ‘When Sarkozy said he was going to Kärcher [power-hose] us, he was telling the truth, but they did it another way, by abandoning us, by letting us die on our own, and we didn’t understand that right away.’ These accounts make it clear that strategic neglect is the reason these buildings – and so many others of the period – have been architecturally forgotten. ‘The Brutalist era of social housing and new town construction could be said to be a last, monumental effort of state-financed placemaking, of the construction of civic space,’ Green and Wilson write, ‘with an architectural ambition commensurate with those older values of inclusive, modern urban space before the onset of a corporate dominated, late capitalistic city.’
Brutalism has become the subject of renewed interest just as some of it is being destroyed. On Instagram, Parisians post images of concrete blocks and skyscrapers. The clean lines fit neatly into the rectangle of an iPhone screen. A Brutalism tour takes visitors round the 13th arrondissement, where a number of towers were built in the 1970s, including the ones described in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. The guide begins by telling people they should know the names of Paris’s skyscrapers just as they know its medieval churches. For critics like Green and Wilson, Paris’s Brutalist constructions represent a half-realised promise; a promise as notable for its bold social vision as for its architecture. In some recent projects, only a minority of the new apartments will be public housing. And the pace of construction in the Paris region has slowed, providing nowhere near the 70,000 new homes a year that the Île de France needs.
One of the best works in the Chêne Pointu exhibition is The New Philosophers, a short film by Mohamed El Khatib, which I watched in the judo studio as tour groups hovered nearby. A group of children who look around ten or eleven sit on sofas that have been transposed to a playing field. They talk about Nahel Merzouk, a teenager who was shot and killed by the police in Nanterre this June, and whose death, the fifteenth police killing of someone in a vehicle stop in under two years, led to widespread riots. The conversation is forced, but the kids are relaxed about it; they can see the absurdity of acting out an adult discussion for the cameras. They talk about the riots and about their rights; one of them brings up France’s national motto. In unison they begin: ‘Egalité, fraternité …’ And then they pause. It takes a while before someone remembers the third word.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.