Illusions of an Urban Utopia

And now for something completely different. This Prairie Crab is not so much about Kansas or America, although it deals with suburbs — indeed a very American subject much can be said about. I am not discussing American suburbia, though. I am giving the suburbs of Paris, France, center stage.And now for something completely different. This Prairie Crab is not so much about Kansas or America, although it deals with suburbs — indeed a very American subject much can be said about. I am not discussing American suburbia, though. I am giving the suburbs of Paris, France, center stage.This Prairie Crab comes with more images than the previous five. It is because words alone cannot explain the few Parisian “banlieus” I specifically want to introduce. At least a few images are needed, as you will see. The photos accompanying this article are amateurish shots I myself took in the late 1980s, early 1990s. They were printed on paper, put into a fat album that moved with us from the Netherlands to America where they were moved from one state to the other, eventually to be stored in Matfield Green, Kansas; now I found a reason to dig them up and scan a few. Their quality could be better. Nevertheless, you’ll get the idea.

Ton Haak      

Illusions of an Urban Utopia?

There is a reason for choosing suburbia as a subject and linking it to Paris, and for paying attention to the French capital’s banlieus or, as they are also called, its villes nouvelles, its new cities. In France, suburbs are different from their predominantly middle-class namesakes in America. In France, many were built to house a migrant population of rural French as well as immigrants (including a fair number of refugees) from Algeria and other former French colonies in Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, French Congo, Ivory Coast) and old protectorates in the Middle East (such as Lebanon and, yes, Syria). Some of them, with a history as seats of social unrest, are commonly stigmatized in the media and marginalized by resultant public opinion. We have seen them aflame, with cars overturned, and water cannons spitting, and cops swinging batons and young guys throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. And we’ve seen them “invaded” by shock troops of the French police and army searching for the nests and safe houses of extremists, for they also played a role in different deplorable events, including those of November 2015.

Yet I remember these banlieus not as places of troubles and hide-outs of fanatics. For many years l paid them visits. I went to experience, not their unrest, but their unique if not exemplary city planning and architecture. They were meant to be respectable havens and offer affordable quality housing in an atmosphere of peace and quiet; they were designed to represent an alternative approach to modern urbanization. Paris, the city itself, of course, that’s mmmmm, lip-smacking good. In the famous words of one American, Ernest Hemingway, Paris is “A Moveable Feast”; the book that carries this as its title is a true ode to the city, of which other Americans have said that “Good Americans when they die, go to Paris,” to PARadISe. Enfin, I want to write about the newer Paris, the one less well known and less praised even though it is a marvel in itself. Even if new is already old. It was new in my Parisian days.

Villes Nouvelles, five new towns where all together one to two million people live 15 to 25 miles outside the Boulevard Périférique, the ring road around the city of Paris. Construction of these towns was started in the 1970s and the fifth one of the five I know personally was “finished” in the early 1990s, when I had the pleasure of visiting them for last time. Together, Cergy-Pontoise, St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Evry, Melun-Sénart and Marne-la-Vallée occupy an area five, six times the size of the city they surround, to which, this being Europe, they are connected by a dense network of fast surface and underground rail and by bus lines. These towns were allowed to be architectural experiments showing a gutsy lust for avant-garde suburb planning as well as for baroque spatial organization with a desire to return to traditional elements of urban planning. As a consequence, the Parisian banlieus are incomparable with, say, any suburb of Kansas City, Denver, or Omaha; its towns are also nothing like any of the American “projects,” or most of the English “council estates,” or Shanghai’s multiple neighborhoods infested with characterless towering storage cubicles for its people.

In a few of the new towns, the vernacular architecture of the Mediterranean made a place for the classical language which characterizes much of the grand architecture of France since the Renaissance. Especially Spanish architect and megalomaniacal, totally “over the top” enfant terrible Ricardo Bofill, one of the most prolific and famous designers of the previous century, approached this style on a monumental scale. He treated reinforced concrete like “a noble material.” He is the one who for a few banlieus composed densely massed buildings with orderly façades, true palaces, laid out along rigid axes and placed within formal gardens.

Just as Baron de Haussman was given the opportunity and the power under Napoleon III to renew old Paris and transform it into the boulevardiers’ paradise it still is today, Paul Delouvrier, chief préfect of île-de-France, was (back in 1964) granted the freedom by President Charles de Gaulle to invent the future. Exploring the areas where he thought new towns could be initiated to cope with the new arrivals and younger generations of Frenchmen and immigrants, Delouvrier’s most magnificent contribution was preventing speculators from getting hold of the future construction sites; this allowed him to build cheaper than anyone had thought for possible and to keep subsequent real estate prices and, especially, rents low: thus affordable housing was created for the new masses.

Each new town has its own character and atmosphere–and often its own color. I do not want to flood you with too much information, so let me take you to just Marne-la-Vallée and St-Quentin-en-Yvelines. It is there that I found the architecture that left the strongest impression. All over these new towns there are sub-suburbs with interesting detached family homes (pavillons in French), creations by the young and unafraid architects of the times. I will not dwell on these single-family homes, but point out a few examples of the truly grand designs by Bofill, that “gloriously extravagant character with a penchant for the extra-large.” These were in pristine condition at the time I visited, although in some buildings here and there the use of inferior materials was showing. Should I fear for the kind of degeneration that is not uncommon in many of the American projects, or keep believing in social justice incorporated and kept alive in extravagant architecture? I myself am a believer.

In St-Quentin-en-Yvelines southwest of Paris, in the community called Sourderie, Ricardo Bofill created a few grand apartment complexes. They form opposites on the short banks of a long, long pond, or rather an artificial lake. Arcades and Viaduc were built in 1982. Temple et Templettes was completed in 1986. Their décor is an astonishing reminder of France’s classical past. Viaduc’s two times six connected towers stretch out over the water and remind me of a Roman bridge or aqueduct. Temple et Templettes in popular speak is called the “Versailles of the people” and indeed makes one think of the great palais built by Louis XIV, even if I personally like the elegant Bofill version better. It also resembles a temple flanked by long “wings” that pretend to be two floors high yet in fact count four (the tall mirror-glass windows cover all levels) and by two smaller temples. Both complexes profit from their reflection in the lake, which makes them even more imposing; also they deliver proof of the theory that there is a lot of sex in architecture, with the male potency of Viaduc reaching out to the wide-open femaleness of Temple et Templettes. Bofill’s Arcades is no less magnificent. This complex is lined up symmetrically with Viaduc and is formed by eight apartment buildings, four with an open and four with a closed form, surrounding a wide plaza lined by arcades with a small temple as a focal point.

In Marne-la-Vallée, east of Paris, I was most impressed by Espaces d’Abraxes, Théâtre and Arc en Palacio which connects the previous two, all in the Mont d’Est section of the town. Again it is Bofill who is credited for the designs and again it is the symmetry of the structures that is most striking. They make one think of a classical amphitheater, a classicistic palace, and a huge 18-storey-high arch respectively. As Bofill said, “Daily life should not be banalized, but exalted to become rich and meaningful.” The architect, desiring to create palaces for ordinary folks, played with luxurious spaces, hidden corridors, light penetrations, colors and staircases in a way that also reminds of Venice, Italy. The use of raw concrete and visible connecting beams and rods was not avoided; they leave a sign of the times of their design. The Théâtre on the plaza side is characterized by tall and narrow-looking towers formed by a repetition of bay windows. There is no visible distraction from Bofill’s leading principle that a building should be a memorable three-dimensional sculpture.

I immensely enjoyed strolling through these then so new towns. So much eye candy. The wide spacing of the buildings, the attention to illustrative and lustrous details, the variety of materials used and colors applied, the grandeur of most designs left me often speechless. Such classical yet eternal greatness is what I miss while driving through American “bedroom suburbia” (where no one strolls). How neat they sometimes may appear, how well-spaced under lots of young trees, what is missing is the sense of belonging to a community that is alive and kicking—a community that forms a recognizable, not to be duplicated, entity for their occupants to be proud of.

New is already old. Since the 1990s architectural design developed in many ways, as did continuously progressing city planning theories and housing philosophies. Yet visiting suburbia in the île-de-France area was, “in my days,” and hopefully still is today, an experience causing the blood to run hot and the mind to crackle with excitement. I have been away too long to know if they form still as spectacular a sight as I remember, or if today they are terribly out of date and surpassed by newer sensational suburban towns. I hope they haven’t become ghettos. I hope they are still exemplary timeless monuments.

I am a little afraid not so much of their aging, but more of the negative influences of external developments. With poverty on the rise also for young Frenchmen, some of the banlieu towns really couldn’t escape becoming the scene of those repeated angry protests against discrimination, unemployment, low wages, police brutality, and racism. I watched the news and recognized a few town names, such as Evry, but not those of my favorites. Nevertheless, I am sure the majority of the banlieus have changed since my last visit, and possibly not for the better. What went wrong? For one thing: the growth of the world population, and their astonishing mobility. Also, of course: 9/11. September 2001 changed the world. Wars and troubles abound and thousands and thousands of refugees tried and try to find new habitats in France. Then there is religious extremism, fueled by growing unemployment numbers especially among immigrants. There’s racism. The new towns were not built with all this mishap in mind for their future. We cannot blame the city planners and architects. They were creating something that deserved better times. Neither can we blame the immigrants, whatever the reason they came, whatever the place they left behind. They just hoped to find an environment they could belong to. I believe in the Parisian banlieus they were given the best chance to blend in with dignity; it is just society that is in need of adjustment and further development of humanity.

I hope that my favorite suburbs indeed remained spared of social unrest. If they too have become battle grounds, I don’t want to hear it. I do not want my dream shattered. I want to remember these towns for their beauty and uniqueness, for their shameless l’art pour l’art principals as well as the often sensitive preservation of the landscape by fully integrating it in their designs. Bofill was the creator of heroic mass housing projects for the poorer French in the past century. Even if in retrospect he himself acknowledged that some of his complexes have suffered from a lack of the community spirit he had envisioned, they deliver testimony of city planning-with-a-conscience at a time when no one thought of walking away from daring ideas and initiatives. Those were the days, my friends…

Ton Haak, December 2015
Main source: ‘De vijf nieuwe steden rond Parijs’, Lennie Mol & Margo Buurman, 1990