We’re quite spoilt here in Paris, surrounded by elegant cream-colored stone Haussmanians, gifted with pockets of bucolic cobblestone streets and charmed by old-world cafés and façades. But stray to the suburbs of Eastern Paris and you’ll find what looks like an alternate universe in comparison, a failed post-war “city of Babel” with Pharaonic structures of decaying concrete.
If you’re thinking this looks like an apocalyptic film set, you’d be bang on. Hollywood has used it on several occasions to set the scene for a dystopian world; Brazil in 1985 and most recently for the final instalment of the Hunger Games trilogy in 2014.
Photographer Laurent Kronental has spent four years photographing the postmodern Parisian housing estate of Noisy-le-Grand, erected after the Second World War to house rural refugees and foreign migrants. His ongoing series, Souvenir d’un Future is a tribute to the senior citizens stranded in what is known as the “Grands Ensembles” of the Paris region.
Born of a theoretical utopia and dubbed a new French “City in Space” to serve as a model for building other cities, the Espaces Abraxas and Arènes de Picasso in Noisy-le-Grand were designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill in the late 70s and early 80s. The aim was to mix social classes and build a theatrical landmark in an otherwise poor area. The Abraxas, or the “Palace” as Bofill liked to call it, consists of 610 apartments in what looks like a surreal ocean of concrete.
Ricardo Bofill recently admitted himself in an interview with Le Monde that he did not succeed in changing the city and says he failed because in his young utopian naivety, he believed he could change the city, but in the end, nothing happened. Instead of the socially diverse community they were promised, residents got oversized solitude and dehumanizing blandness, not helped by the lack of facilities and shops and the closed-off nature of the complex’s design.
(It’s quite interesting to see Bofill’s portfolio of his career here).
Today, town planners are discussing demolition, but of course, despite a feeling of near-apocalyptic abandonment here, there still remains a very strong but presence of life. The council was forced to abandon demolition plans for parts of the development in 2006 following the ageing residents’ outright opposition. Despite all odds, this failed concrete city of the future has become their unlikely home.
“The original population is nearing the endgame, as if doomed to share the fate of the walls that have circumscribed their lives,” says Kronental, who has felt compelled to capture the fate of these buildings and of the urban veterans that live in them before they all vanish.
Discover the ongoing series Souvenir d’un Futur by Laurent Kronental here.