The Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame. Sacre-Coeur. The Louvre. If ever a city was venerated for its architecture, Paris would be it. But there’s a flipside to the City of Light’s postcard-perfect architectural pedigree: its Grands Ensembles. These huge urban estates, built to address the post-war housing crisis, were once described by art critic Robert Hughes as “the new landscape of urban despair – bright, brutish, crime-wracked, and scarred by the vandalism they invite”. So – not exactly a glowing endorsement.
Nor was Hughes alone in feeling this way. The French media and much of the population share his aversion. Like public housing projects everywhere, the Grands Ensembles generally get a bad rap.
But young photographer Laurent Kronental sees them differently. His remarkable series Souvenir d’un Futur (Memory of a Future) reveals a magnificence to these concrete labyrinths. Bathed in diaphanous light, neglected Modernist monoliths assume a surreal, ghostly beauty, while their elderly residents – or “urban veterans who have aged there,” in Kronental’s words – display a quiet dignity hinting at “deep layers of life”.
At the time of their construction, the Grands Ensembles were driven by a Utopian vision in which everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, had access to hot water and other modern comforts – an optimism which has since given way to memory. The result? What the photographer calls the “atmosphere of a parallel world mixing past and future”.
See more of Kronental’s photos here. And if you come across any postcards featuring the Grands Ensembles next time you’re in Paris, be sure to send us one.
Photography: Laurent Kronental