4 Feb 2016

French Design Thrift in the Fabulous Fifties

LBM had been looking pretty until this came along. And I'm afraid we're going to have our noses smeared in it for the good cause, for the beauty-pain paradigm. I had been putting this post off for some reason, and the 60th anniversary of the Grand Ensemble has come and gone, and I am still perusing the topic like I'm meant to be doing something with it - which I am. So here we are now, facing that concrete wall.

In this article, we will explore how the 60th anniversary of the Grand Ensemble last year in France was more a case for commiseration than celebration for its residents and - to a more muted extent - to public authorities and governmental bodies trying to save face and play the political game.

Grand Ensemble de Sarcelles (1955-75)

The failings of the Grand Ensemble are rooted in design and beyond it. If the word 'Design' is supposed to conjure up a divine ratio of style, balance and elegance, seamless execution, quality materials, ground-breaking novelty physique, and is supposed to elevate the collective psyche into a consensus of taste to an idea of grandeur that transcends the physical, then may Grand Ensemble be a slap in the face of design.

First off, what is Design? I shall define it as a piece of Creation that goes to bed with our Emotions. A piece of creation is the alliance of Form and Function - heart and reason if you may - that hits an exact point - the Equilibrium. The equilibrium defines Style. 

The humble clothes peg is a piece of design. So is Taj Mahal. And the guillotine. Design exists regardless of what is considered good or bad, or pretty or unpretty. Because when we start going personal on design, we are putting into play matters of taste. And since you're asking...

Résidence du Parc, Meudon-la-Forêt (1957-62) - (Pict source)

What is taste? Some see the Golden Gate Bridge as metal scrappers delight, while others enjoy how it enriches the landscape, and couldn't imagine San Francisco without it. Taste is personal and subjective, and that makes it complex. It is about Like vs. Dislike. Taste happens, and then it gets influenced, refined, cultivated, sharpened. It evolves, changes even. It gets skewed by peer pressure and the media and the fashion police. There is however a consensus that defines what is deemed tasteful, i.e. acceptable in terms of layout, proportions and overall look - and what is not.

There are different occurences of taste, starting off with what I refer to as 'pure taste' in terms of strict aesthetic merit, which is often applied to Fine Arts. Some collectable and covetable pieces of high-ticket retail finery will be relegated to the design equivalent of Fine Arts status; think a limited edition Aston Martin. But we find that pure taste is hardly practical in everyday existence. So we model taste according to parameters: function, usability, practicability, affordability, etc.

Quartier du Luth, Gennevilliers (1971-73)

Now back to our Grand Ensemble. It was an ambitious post-WWII land planning concept that spanned three decades and revolutionised habitat and lifestyle. It started en-masse in the 1950s* and was conducted on a large scale across France, bringing to the fore mixed-use developments, involving public/ private partnerships for housing, education, retail, office and leisure infrastructures. Architects got on board, ready to embrace a project of a lifetime, caressed to the core by Le Corbusier vanities. The brief was clear: to focus on fast turnover of industrial proportions. Thousands of flats had to be churned out fast (not to say in record time!) and design to be modernist, practical, functional and cost-effective, by all means to the point. It had to be utilitarian, i.e. stripped off the superfluous; understand no adornment. Prefabricated, system-built and modular housing units were the building technique of choice. Quality was secondary to quantity, and matters of personal taste and individuality were off the equation.

Set in its green open space, the Grand Ensemble was part of a bigger picture that took years to roll out fully: transport links (metro stations, wide roads, motorways, and parking amenities). Plus office space, schools, sports centres, youth clubs, retail precincts, libraries, churches and other components of the modern townscape. This would constitute a new town in the country(side), or a new town within the old town, or a satellite town built from the ground up and most likely to be a dormitory town.

Quartier de la Grande Borne, Grigny (1967-71)

The Grand Ensemble was a post-war vision come true - under the auspices of social welfare, sanitation, and city rebuilding programmes - of the luxury of comfort within an affordable life, where each household could enjoy the mod cons that we are taking for granted nowadays: hot water, central heating, modern kitchen, family bathroom, trash chute, and a balcony with a view over a stretch of lawn and maybe even a private garage. The programme was rolled out to working-class and middle-class families, taking them into the Consumer Age in capital letters!

The concept looked good and ambitious on paper, efficient in the book-keeping department - and utopic. Utopic in that it played down the complexities of the human psyche, especially once the mod con honeymoon would start wearing off, and the golden age of consumerism would get dented. Residents and other stakeholders got to write the history of that brand new place, without guidance or support, bringing with them emotional intelligence and complexity (hopes, fears, expectations, etc.), and family customs, and still trying to make sense of that new way of doing things, of making their mark, of living the space, of moving on up within it, of creating a future for themselves, of establishing a community in a forced communal living rolled out on a grand scale.

Cité des 4000, La Courneuve (1957-1966+)

I doubt grand was ever meant to be great. It was meant to be good and do good to a point. It gave mixed results and became a cause for concern. Little by little, insidiously first, the Grand Ensemble lost points; it turned shoddy quickly, it got told off, landed a red mark, got sent away and then assigned to residence into itself. The Grand Ensemble became unloved, uncouth, unkempt. It ended up sliding down that cul-de-sac that got it to skid into ghetto land. It got featured in music videos but not under a good light. It crossed the line and became a buddy to gangsta culture. Some of the architects came out of the woodwork to explain their oeuvre, their expectations of how lifestyle should have been conducted in those unnatural, unorganically-expanded environments.

The Grand Ensemble was an artificial environment: soul-less, with no heritage, no history and nowhere to go. It had been an expedient social experiment, a means to an end meant to immediately solve housing problems and hope for the best. The ensemble had sprung out of paper, out of nowhere, and families from different walks of life and life stages, and with different expectations had got thrown in together at the deep end to make it happen. Residents, now all boxed in together in 'cages' where taste and design had been leveraged to an absolute minimum, if not abstracted altogether. What we got was minimalist as in utilitarian and brutalist, where individuality had no place.

The very first Grand Ensemble ever built harks back to the 1930s: Cité de la Muette, Drancy.

After all, ensemble alludes to a togetherness of collectivism and mass, and that moulding in of the human race, that cookie-cutter approach to life as a singular unit is a failing all to itself. What fails design is when the human factor in all its complexity has been taken out of it, and when design has become clumsy and cumbersome rather than user-friendly.

P.S: All the above-pictured towns are located in the vicinity of Paris.

(*) P.S: A mass-housing scheme had been set up by the French government under a public-private partnership, prior to WWII. Under the Loi Loucheur of 1928, the French government incentivised households to become home-owners, having the house of their choice built with the help of loans at preferential rates. State-appointed architects were tasked to monitor the quality of the builds. Besides, provisions had been made for the (state-subsidised) mass-construction of 260,000 council housing units over five years, under the expertise of Le Corbusier, but WWII shelved the project.

Further Resources:
  • A fascinating case in point in the Grand Ensemble study is Les Espaces d'Abraxas (Noisy-le-Grand, near Paris), a late-bloomer on the Grand Ensemble era. Built between 1978 and 1983 under architect Ricardo Bofill, it has the particularity of being a design-led scheme, which makes it stand out from earlier housing schemes. However life in a design-led ensemble has not been kind to its residents, and soon enough the concrete and glass infrastructure has turned into a carbuncle of dislike. Design is partly to blame as the architect put an emphasis on design for design's sake to the point of making it impractical to live in the buildings, and feel safe in them! A victim of its own lack of success thereof, Les Espaces d'Abraxas (otherwise known as 'Gotham City' and 'Alcatraz') have become a film set of choice for dystopian science fiction superproductions like Brazil and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, as an eery echo to dystopian living on the estate. Who said reality was stranger than fiction?
  • A chillier and more sinister particularity of Grand Ensemble relates to Cité de la Muette, in Drancy (pictured above), the very first Grand Ensemble ever built in France, in the 1930s. However it was used as the Drancy internment camp during WWII, confining Jews who were later deported to the German extermination camps. 
  • 'Souvenir d'un Futur' (Memory of a Future) by French photographer Laurent Kronental is an award-winning ongoing project that captures life as a senior citizen in the Grands Ensembles of the Paris region. A must-see! More from ArchDaily.
  • Rétro-Géographie, a visual log of mid-century French architecture. 
  • The Age of Instant Architecture by The Independent.
  • LBM's musings on style and lack thereof.

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