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The Fading “Grands Ensembles” of Paris

Laurent Kronental’s Souvenir d’un Futur photos capture these stigmatized housing experiments and their aging residents.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Paris erected a series of massive apartment complexes to address a burgeoning housing crisis and accommodate an influx of foreign immigrants after WWII. Once seen as impressive manifestations of modern and postmodern ideology, these days the buildings are often stigmatized by the public and in the media, viewed largely as places of unemployment, delinquency, and exclusion.

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With his photo series Souvenir d’un Futur, photographer Laurent Kronental wanted to tell a different story about the colossal grands ensembles and their residents, many of whom have lived there since they were first built. “I wanted to show the relation of the greatness of this architecture with the elderly people who live there,” Kronental writes in an email. “In my eyes, they represent memory of those places.”

Krontental spent four years photographing the buildings, which range from square, functional, and modern to the more classical, ornamental ville nouvelles built during the ’70s and ’80s. Though in most cases the buildings are fully populated, Krontental’s photos depict the buildings as airy and abandoned, with only a few residences making appearances.

“I wanted consciously to make the impression of towns emptied of their inhabitants. In this magnificent and ghostly world, these cities present titanic structures, gobbling humans, producing our fears and our hopes as an organization of the city,” says Kronental. “All the ‘Grands Ensembles’ are not exactly the same, they are sometimes quite different in terms of social environment and urbanism. Some of them are calm, some of them appear in good shape but are deteriorating, others are disregarded.”

Today, town planners have been tasked with demolishing many of the buildings, with others scheduled to be renovated or remodeled. In capturing them before they disappear, Kronental aims to draw a parallel between the complexes and their elderly inhabitants, who have little time left themselves. “These ‘monuments,’ living memories of their time, personify the fragile strength of a youth having blindly aged.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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