By Laurent Kronental
Souvenir d'un Futur documents the life of senior citizens living in grands ensembles (large public housing complexes) in the suburbs that surround Paris. For the most part erected between the 1950s and the 1980s to address a housing crisis precipitated by urban migration and the inflow of foreign migrants while also meeting modern standards in terms of comfort, these large-scale residential high rises are today often stigmatized and marginalized, suffering from a poor public image. In 2010, as I was walking in Courbevoie, I discovered a tiny street where time seemed suspended—a surreal piece of countryside at the foot of the office buildings of La Défense. I befriended an older couple and started to photograph them. Their traditional garden offered a stark contrast to the surrounding skyline of towers, bringing together two different eras, two different ways of life. I have always been inspired by older people and I felt very strongly about putting them front and centre to deconstruct society’s often negative image of old age. The photos try to capture the impact of time on the architecture and on the lives that it sought to harmonize. Two areas next to my home have been essential to my approach: "Les Damiers" at Courbevoie and "Les Tours Aillaud" (also called "Tours Nuages" or "Cité Pablo Picasso") in Nanterre. The buildings seem timeless, as if their reason for being oscillates between past and present. I am fascinated by the way the ambitious, modern features of the grands ensembles now seem dated, and I was moved by the living conditions of the veteran urban dwellers who have grown old with the buildings.
In the 1950s and 60s, the grands ensembles represented a refusal of urban sprawl and a way of rebalancing the territory around French cities. They were symbols of triumphant modernization, allowing the population to live in standardized comfort, human beings blossoming outside the agitation of the metropolis. However, by the 1970s, the initial appeal of the complexes had dimmed. People derided their dullness, rejecting the forms of large-scale housing. They were bedroom towns, yet their transport network was not developed enough for their inhabitants to feel connected to the capital. In 1973, the "circular Guichard" put a stop to the planning and construction of new grands ensembles. Little by little, they became places of economic and social precariousness. In the 1980s, the first towers were destroyed. Only in the 1990s did historians begin to emphasize the importance of these projects for architectural, urban, and social history. In the 2000s new urban renovation projects were launched, but much remains to be done to rehabilitate this neglected urban environment.
At a time when our attention is largely directed towards younger generations, perpetuating indifference and prejudice toward older community members, focusing on the elderly residents of these housing developments offers an unfamiliar, even shocking juxtaposition of individual and environment. How does an aging population adapt to a gigantic environment designed to absorb its residents, structured to contain and confine them in their roles as active, productive members of society? In spite of their melancholic appearance, the elderly subjects of my photographs hold themselves with dignity, elegance, and strength, asserting their fight against aging and their right to a place in the structures where they live. By settling down in these futuristic buildings at the time of their construction, they participated in a movement through which the city’s workforce took over its surrounding region, adapting it for an active working population that excluded the very young as well as the very old. By staying long after they’ve aged out of the productive lives the buildings were meant to accommodate, these original residents of the grands ensembles have re-conquered a space that was not originally intended to serve a generationally diverse population.
The grands ensembles have the appearance of buildings constructed for a new world, the futurism of another time. They have a bizarrely anachronistic air that makes us question their origins. In what era were they conceived? In a sense, they are more futuristic than modernist developments like La Défense. With their oldest residents as the only witnesses to their once grandiose ambitions, the buildings in the photographs give the impression of a post-apocalyptic world. In this magnificent and ghostly future, the titanic structures of our cities gobble up everything human, creating scenes that are the products of our fears and hopes for the organization of a city around the improvement of social conditions.
Working with a large film camera (4x5) allows for the possibility of tilt-shifts, glorifying the dimensions of the architecture, letting it gain in height and in width while preserving the straight lines of the buildings. The analog rendering is remarkable in its softness, its relief, and its precision. With large format, the relationship between the photographer and the world, landscape, or person being photographed is different from that involved in digital photography. The large format photographer must be more observant, rigorous in their choice of images and framings, and constantly accounting for the limitations of their device. By switching from portraits, which focus on facial expressions, to landscapes, in which the person is lost in the vast neighbourhood, the viewer begins to see the scale ratios that mediate interactions between the person and their city.
In a fast-moving world, it is important to be aware of duration and of intergenerational links, of our long-term responsibility to each other as well as present solidarity. The grands ensembles are records of past utopias: examining them forces us to question how utopian dreams materialize in human experience. Some grands ensembles have surprising forms. Developments like the Tours Aillaud, Espaces d'Abraxas, and Orgues de Flandre have left a singular impression on the French landscape and elsewhere in the world. They are emblematic of the architecture of their time, but they have also aged and are in need of refurbishment. Instead of envisaging a demolition, we should look for ways to reorganize the grands ensembles, renewing an environment which has deteriorated due to lack of investment and maintenance.
Through these photographs, I hope that people will discover the landscapes of these large public housing complexes and begin to wonder about their future and to pay attention to this underrepresented population, recognizing the legitimacy of their place in their concrete world. The title Souvenir d'un futur recalls the melancholy of aging and the lost illusions of a concrete universe that was once full of promise. The grands ensembles carry within them the culture of technical efficiency that defined the time when they were built. Since then, they have suffered from their disproportionately gigantic size and from their geographical situation. To succeed, the grands ensembles need more cohesion between private and public space, both to support the younger populations they were intended for and to provide necessary services for the original inhabitants that continue to make their homes there. In the coming years, it will be necessary to consider new ways of appropriating this once futuristic form of housing and of occupying it.
A self-taught photographer, Laurent Kronental has spent the past several years working on the series Souvenir d’un Futur, which focuses on the elderly inhabitants of the grands ensembles housing complexes on the outskirts of Paris. His work shines a light on an often overlooked generation, offering an alternative point of view on marginalized places where crumbling walls hold the memory of a modernist utopia. Laurent's photo essay Remembering the Future became the inspiration for the visual identity of Volume 37: Future Legacies.