Designed in the 1970s by Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet, there is more to Les Étoiles, abutting the Périphérique, than leafy terraces and rotting concrete
Les Étoiles (stars) of Ivry-sur-Seine are an enigmatic and potentially unsettling emergence in the urban landscape. In this commune, 5km south-east of central Paris, a pile of haphazardly bunched wedges, their angles improbably acute, spill vegetation almost to the street but draw up just above to span, crab-like, the Avenue Georges Gosnat. Named after French resistance figures from various periods in history, the three buildings designed by Jean Renaudie with Ivry’s city architect Renée Gailhoustet between 1970 and 1975 – Jeanne Hachette, Danielle Casanova and Jean-Baptiste Clément – are part of a larger 105-hectare estate of 10 projects, planned and overseen by Gailhoustet herself, who still lives in one of the apartments she designed in the nearby tower, Spinoza.
Launched by the local authority in the late ’50s, the renovation of Ivry’s centre – at the time considered ‘insalubrious’ – responded to an urgent postwar need for housing in the Paris region, coinciding with the 1948 adoption of a policy to rejuvenate the economy with the support of US Marshall-Plan funding. High rates of productivity, higher than average wages and higher consumption during a period of economic prosperity were accompanied by rapid urbanisation and a system of social benefits within which funding for working-class housing provision was a key policy point.
‘An intricate geometry of topological curtain walls that envelop various angles of the building, and exposed concrete beams that traverse circular top-lit naves punched in the slab’
Emerging from the terminus of Métro line 7’s Mairie d’Ivry station, the forbidding structure of Jeanne Hachette looms directly above; as you draw closer on one of many diagonal staircases that take the pedestrian to the upper-ground level, confusing complexity is transformed into a rich diversity of semi-public space. Refusing to abide by the programmatic separation of the functionalist city, the proposals by Renaudie and Gailhoustet brought together housing, offices, commercial units and public facilities. Today, however, the ambitious vision for community living afforded by a public forum, small angular sun-trap piazzas and meandering paths to encourage random encounters, does not seem to have fully taken hold and many of the transition spaces now feel neglected, to be passed through quickly.
Les etoiles drawings plan
The gentle ramps at street level feed into Jeanne Hachette’s shopping centre, the bedrock for the crystalline housing formation above, which now has a tattered makeshift feel. The breathtaking drama of an intricate geometry of topological curtain walls that envelop various angles of the building, and exposed concrete beams that traverse circular top-lit naves punched in the slab, is diminished by the pigeons that occupy their upper reaches. The nearby Ivry Communist Party HQ, tucked behind two towers that separate the complex from the town hall, display poorly Photoshopped images of Emmanuel Macron as the pied piper on placards, a reminder that Ivry remains a communist stronghold, as it has been – barring the short period of Nazi occupation – since the 1920s. The resources of local authorities such as Ivry must, however, be made to stretch further than during les Trente Glorieuses when these projects were built; broken panes of glass are patched with cardboard and the concrete is streaked with guano.
Off the main shopping concourse, in a convoluted network of dog-legged corridors and antechambers intersected by angular prows of glazed shop fronts, the commercial spaces are sparsely occupied. While the local authority exercises the right to pre-emptive purchase of individual premises, the future is uncertain: the local authority is discussing plans to convert some of the vacant premises into an administrative headquarters, linking city functions to the Métro, but is stymied by its own 10-year low-energy war of attrition with the occupants.
‘It is an ungraspable anagram of an architecture, a Brutalist ziggurat of cascading terraced gardens and mature trees’
Anecdotally, purchase offers are very much below value; so shops remain open until the owner retires and then join the growing ranks of empty vitrines. ‘The Friends of Jeanne Hachette’, an association that counts the architect Serge Renaudie – son of Jean – among its supporters, has the stated goal of defending the architectural, urban and programmatic principles of the scheme, representing the interests of the building’s co-owners and their right to be involved in any project for its transformation, though exchanges with the local authority have not so far produced a compromise.
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Source: Collection FRAC Centre-Val de Loire / Donation Renée Gailhoustet
In left-over spaces below ramps and sculptural flights of stairs, teenagers play tinny hip-hop from their phones and huddle away from the wind and drizzle. The building offers those in need of it shelter from both the elements and unwanted attention, due to its complexity, angular cantilevers and designed-in empty spaces, in contrast to countless examples of contemporary urban architecture that, by design, discourage such ‘loitering’.
The strata of jagged volumes above are, on closer inspection, assiduously superposed; the roof of one apartment forms a triangular terrace and roof garden for the one above. The pocket-gardens, each containing a depth of soil sufficient to grow what are now mature trees, are arranged to allow residents to socialise from one to the next, making the north African kasbah or the Italian hill town the relevant typological comparisons, though here the building itself forms the hill. This arrangement allows long-standing neighbours to sustain an ongoing exchange, with neither required to venture beyond their own private space; a form of public interaction that encourages participation in spite of the uncertainty that surrounds certain aspects of the Étoiles scheme.
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After the project was finished, and having spent time living in one of the apartments, Jean Renaudie insisted that the impracticality of the internal angles for conventional domestic use was precisely his intention. Interviewed for the 1979 documentary Les Étoiles de Renaudie, he explained that, ‘these forms, this geometric organisation, offer us many possibilities for innovation in the organisation of living space. To offer a simple example, the use of diagonal planes allows us to give the apartment, which is small due to being social housing, the impression of space, as there are apartments with spans of up to 15 metres. This is important for the inhabitants’. The angle thus provides an elongation and extension of limited space, pushing its potential beyond colonisation by a wardrobe, irrespective of whether, for the social housing inhabitant, the wardrobe was a priority and the lack of it detrimental to their appreciation of the space overall.
To this day, French legislation requires municipalities to retain 20 per cent of housing stock as ‘social’, meaning that it is managed, whether by the local authority or another public or private entity, as housing for people below a certain income threshold. This has always been a core political priority of Ivry’s Communist municipality, which currently has 38 per cent. By comparison, only six of 20 central Parisian arrondissements meet the target, while the eight worst performing do not break 10 per cent, preferring to pay the resultant fines.
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Source: Ordre des Architectes (both images)
Ivry is no longer at the periphery of Paris, even as it nudges the Périphérique ring road at its northernmost border. The real politico-territorial manoeuvres around the banlieues are made in the outer swathes of the greater agglomeration, exemplified by the Grand Paris infrastructural project that seeks to relink centre and periphery. As such, Ivry can perhaps better be understood as an outlying arrondissement of Paris, in that it is relatively well-connected to the centre compared with many other banlieues, and is thus undergoing a process of inevitable gentrification due to property prices that reflect its position ‘outside the walls’. The radical experimentation of Gailhoustet and Renaudie’s scheme is a big draw for architects and other creative types who, in appreciation of its architecture, have moved into apartments and studio space within the buildings.
Renaudie and Gailhoustet belonged to a generation of architects with an unbounded vision for how space might be imagined, framed and constructed. Publicly commissioned housing design offered a rich field for spatial experiment, coinciding with an overflowing central government budget for social housing construction projects, advances in construction technology, and plenty of undeveloped land at Paris’s periphery. The social, economic and political context within which the project was conceived very much favoured the architect with a grand plan. As Gailhoustet noted during a 2018 interview, ‘in the private sector there was a lot more reticence towards innovation because they were afraid of losing their money. But in the public sector, we often met people who were very open. Not always, but often’.
‘The building allows one to project into it, shelter at its fringes or let its awkward corners provide an escape’
It is an ungraspable anagram of an architecture, a Brutalist ziggurat of cascading terraced gardens and mature trees, reflected in the utopian images of vegetation-strewn mass-housing projects generated for competitions such as Reinventing Paris, one of the current set of initiatives whose stated aim is to ‘renew the city’. However, the development trajectory of what initially appear to be ambitious and innovative architectural projects in the same vein as Renaudie and Gailhoustet’s, many implanted in areas that remain at the geographic, social and political periphery of Paris proper and combining housing with other programmes, end as generic pale reflections – without a tree in sight – when they meet the zero-sum financial exigencies of the ‘public-private’ commissioning models currently considered most effective for delivering affordable housing.
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Source: DR / Archives Municipales d’Ivry-sur-Seine
Renaudie and Gailhoustet’s scheme thus seems to turn an unattainable contemporary fantasy into reality. It simultaneously provides the evidence of the social vision required to sustain such an ambitious project throughout the life of the building, today lacking in many respects despite the consistent and stable oversight of the local authority. At a certain point the harsh political realities of post-financial crisis Europe catch up with even the most defiantly communist ambitions. The near-fate of a similarly iconic project serves as a useful comparison: the Espaces d’Abraxas social housing in Noisy-le-Grand, an eastern suburb of Paris, 1978-83, designed by Ricardo Bofill, was slated for demolition in 2014 on the basis that its interior spaces could not be sufficiently well monitored without the costly installation of CCTV cameras. The plan was later shelved due to the demolition itself being too expensive. What can be said for the social credentials of Renaudie and Gailhoustet’s schemes are that their complexity offers possibilities that are not easily quantified: a certain stubborn architectural specificity in an era when developers demand housing that may be converted into offices and back again; a resistance to being seen in the round, to easy control; a quality of space whose greatest achievement is that it allows one to project into it, to shelter at its fringes or to let its awkward corners provide an escape.
Architects Jean Renaudie, Renée Gailhoustet
Photographs Yassine Hamrouni, unless otherwise stated
This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today