Brutalist Paris

By Doug Crisp

On a recent trip to Paris I decided I would attempt to see some of the lesser known (and perhaps less respected) architectural landmarks. Most of these buildings were social housing complexes located on the outskirts of the city in areas that weren't exactly on the 'must-see' Paris list.

I had read about these complexes in an article about the Souvenir d'un Futur photography project by Laurent Kronental. I gained a newfound interest and respect for Brutalist and Postmodern architecture, which I had always disregarded as…a little ugly. This interest was sparked by interviews I had watched and read with Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, where he expressed his exhaustive research and development techniques utilized in his design process.

I had been told to expect that some of the areas were a little rough, and I should watch myself as I gawked and photographed the monumental spaces. As I emerged from the Noisy-le-Grand – Mont d'Est train station, I was impressed by the unashamed bright colors used to decorate what could have been a very ordinary public space. The skateboarder in me also enjoyed recognizing several spots from famous skate videos.

From here I walked through Ricardo Bofill's Les Espaces d'Abraxas (1983), which had an intimidating feeling no matter how out-of-this-world the structure was. As I was followed through the space, I managed to stop and admire the Postmodern features and fire off some photos before hastily moving to the next building.

Ricardo Bofill's Les Espaces d'Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand 1983

Manuel Núñez Yanowsky's Les Arènes de Picasso (1985) also featured a central courtyard, surrounded by towering housing blocks in wild forms. The outdoor space had recently been refurbished to feature an interactive water park and playground that was packed with families. This certainly helped the overall feel of the space. I loved the way he used Gothic flying buttress’ throughout the space as a nod to the more famous landmarks of the city.


Manuel Núñez Yanowsky's Les Arènes de Picasso, Noisy-le-Grand 1985

On another day, I ventured to the 19th Arrondissement to see Martin Van Trek's Les Orgues de Flandre (1980) which did not disappoint. Of all these incredible structures, this was in the best condition. The angled forms of the building maximize the solar access to each apartment and create outdoor green spaces that were being enjoyed by the occupants as I strolled by. I could see myself living in one of these.


Martin Van Trek's Les Orgues de Flandre, 19th Arrondissement 1980

Finally, I made my way to Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet’s Les Etoiles (1975) in Ivry-sur-Seine. I had left Les Etoiles for last as it was the one I was most excited about- and it was worth the wait. Although there was an initial feeling similar to Bofill’s Les Espaces d’Abraxas, the more I walked around, the more people smiled and waved. I really wanted to get a shot from above, which required me scaling one of the stairwells. As I walked the halls of one of the blocks, I was greeted by elderly residents like the ones I had seen in Kronental’s photographs. This made the experience even more rewarding, and I was able to get the shots I wanted.


Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet's Les Etoiles, Ivry-sur-Seine 1975

Although these buildings may not be your cup of tea, I would strongly recommend heading out to see another side of Paris and opening your eyes to a style that might grow on you.