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  • 03.08.17

Brutalism’s Rise And Fall, As Told Through The Architecture Of Paris

A new map of Paris’s iconic Brutalist buildings charts the city’s uneasy relationship with the style.

In Créteil, a southeastern suburb of Paris, 10 towers that look like brussels sprout stalks rise in the cityscape. Architect Gérard Grandval designed these cylindrical apartment buildings in the mid-1970s, and the concrete balconies for each unit seem like they’re just barely clinging to the facade. Locals nicknamed the futuristic-looking development Les Choux de Créteil, which translates to “the cabbages.”

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Grandval’s structures are one of 42 locations featured in Brutalist Paris, the latest addition to Blue Crow Media’s growing roster of maps for architourists with a soft spot for the hard-edged architectural style.

Paris, at least the heart of it, is frozen in time, composed of Haussman-era grand boulevards, frilly Beaux Arts buildings, and sculptural Art Nouveau infrastructure. While architecturally restrained for much of the 20th century, the city in the ’60s and ’70s experienced a Brutalist boom. Experimental design from famous architects like Oscar Niemeyer, Marcel Breuer, Claude Parent, Harry Seidler, and Le Corbusier appeared on select sites in the city and greater metropolitan area. While cities like London erected Brutalist buildings to rapidly rebuild from World War II damage, and Washington, D.C., government adopted them to express its seriousness, Paris had a more complex and nuanced relationship with the style that’s tied up with Modernism’s utopian vision–and the eventual disillusionment with its ideology.

Caserne de Pompiers

A Political Plan For “New Paris”

As Robin Wilson–an historian and one of the map’s editors, along with photographer Nigel Green–points out in a short essay published on the map, Paris did not build many Brutalist cultural institutions, unlike other European capitals. It’s mostly housing, government buildings, and university campuses that express the style. The proliferation of these buildings coincided with a period of expansion in Paris beyond its historic core.

France’s population swelled in the 1960s from a combination of natural growth and immigration from colonial countries. President Charles de Gaulle at the time embarked on a plan to transform Paris into a modern metropolis to cope with the growth and plan for the future. He appointed economist Paul Delouvrier to come up with a regional plan that would eventually mandate the creation of five independent satellite suburbs each with its own transportation systems, downtown, parks, educational institutions, and cultural activities. The rationale for decentralizing Paris? The city center wouldn’t be able to handle projected population growth. Rather than densifying, Paris sprawled.

New development ensued, and much of it embodied the utopian vision of modernism and its organizational principals: tall, single-function towers in a park and heterogeneous land uses.

Les Etoiles at Ivry-sur-Seine

Architectural Experimentation Arrives

The Brutalist buildings Wilson and Green included in the map were constructed as the symbolic centerpieces of the new cities, like the town hall at Bobigny designed by Marius Depont and Michel Holley in 1974–a wedge-shaped building with a concrete brise soleil that rises from an opaque base–and Les Étoiles at Ivry-sur-Seine, a circa 1970 building that looks like a jigsaw of saw-tooth shaped terraces bu Jean Renaudie and Reneé Gailhoustet.

“The most striking expressions of Parisian Brutalism are to be found beyond the Périphérique in the zones of expansion in the second half of the 20th century, where a new generation of progressive architects realized diverse experimentations with architectural form and social program,” Wilson writes in the essay accompanying the map. “Paris’s Brutalism makes a particular impact on urban history as an architecture of the new town, in forging of new municipal identities and postwar communities. The Brutalists grappled with the need for large-scale, system-built mass housing while they also sought to define new sculptural and spatial languages.”

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Designs from the era express Brutalism in myriad ways, from Marcel Breuer’s trefoil-shaped UNESCO headquarters to Pierre Vivien’s saucer-like Murat Telecommunications building. Wilson personally admires architect Jacques Kalisz’s design for the Administrative Center of Pantin, which dates from 1973, for the interplay of raw concrete with aluminum and a dramatic concrete ramp inside that plays up how a person circulates through the space.

“The thing of note in Paris is the eclecticism of the period: It’s a quite diverse range of materials and of form making,” Wilson tells Co.Design. “I would say that there is a rather more experimental edge to Parisian Brutalism to that found in London, which may stem from a desire of that generation not to be seen to be too indebted to Le Corbusier–whose mid-1950s works, such as the Maison du Bresil within la Cité Universitaire, could be said to be an originating works of postwar Brutalism–or paying homage to him.”

While some of the buildings designed during this period have weathered time well–Les Choux de Creteil is a beloved development and well cared for–others haven’t fared so well, like Les Étoiles.

“It is a vast scheme of terraced triangulation, which continues from exterior to interior, and has a complex interrelationship between public access and private areas,” Wilson says. “The commercial center, which now has very few shoppers, has many abandoned triangular shops, and homeless people sleeping rough. One has the feeling that this complexity has made it almost unusable and unnavigable as a public building.”

Claude Parent’s 1974 design for an office building in the 19th arrondissement is another failure, in Wilson’s opinion. “This seems to me a kind of Gothic Brutalism–architecture as the scar tissue of historical, urban trauma,” he says. “It looks like a building that has been partly flayed, with chunks of its masonry flesh rhythmically peeled back. Not surprisingly it has been abandoned, but it looks so solid and so massive that it would be as difficult to demolish as a concrete bunker. Parent, when in partnership on other projects with Paul Virilio, was directly influenced by the Todt company bunkers of the Nazi’s defensive systems.”

Bourse du Travail

A Failed Social Engineering Scheme

Though designers and historians might marvel at the ambition of these Brutalist structures and the new cities for which they were built, there were social failures. (This is often a problem for neighborhoods and cities built from from the ground-up, regardless of style.) Delouvrier’s vision for fully independent, robust satellite cities didn’t work consistently. Known as the banlieues, some of these areas have become impoverished and isolated and have become a flashpoint for the income inequality and racism problems in Paris.

“Many of the areas where Brutalism is prevalent have suffered social unrest,” Wilson says. “Recently there were serious riots in Bobigny in response due to police brutality. However, I would imagine that any survey of opinion about architecture would find a very wide range of reactions to Brutalist environments, from pride to disgust.”

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Whether these buildings are seen as badges of utopian promise or emblems of Paris’s attempt to engineer thriving cities, visiting them offers an opportunity to understand Paris’s spatial evolution and perhaps gain more insight about the city as a whole.

“I would like to emphasize how the act of traveling to all of these Brutalist sites, from periphery to the center, facilitates a completely different impression of Paris itself,” Wilson says. “For both myself and Nigel, this was perhaps the most revelatory part of the project: to discover a completely different Paris from the one we thought we knew. In this sense, the journey between the buildings is as important as the destinations themselves.”

Find Brutalist Paris on bluecrowmedia.com for about $10.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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