Photograph by Laurent Kronental 
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Joseph, 88, Les Espaces d'Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand, 2014 
Photograph by Laurent Kronental 

Inside Paris's Forgotten Utopia

Photographer Laurent Kronental believes the French capital's controversial housing complexes—and their residents—are worth celebrating.

There's a passage in the The Shock of the New when art critic Robert Hughes begins to criticize the grands ensembles, a series of postmodern housing projects that started to spring up around Paris in the 1950s. These structures, Hughes wrote, signified “the new landscape of urban despair—bright, brutish, crime-wracked, and scarred by the vandalism they invite.” 

Hughes wrote this in 1980, right around the time these buildings were becoming stigmatized in mainstream culture. Once considered the physical manifestation of modernity, the constructions had begun to fall prey to poverty and crime. They remain marginalized today.

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Josette, 90, Vision 80, Esplanade de La Défense, 2013

French photographer Laurent Kronental, however, strongly believes that the complexes—and their residents, particularly the elderly—are worth celebrating.

Kronental was walking in Courbevoie, a commune outside of Paris, when he first saw this style of buildings around the La Défense business district. Stunned by the structures' surreal style, he became determined to explore—and photograph—the rest of these estates around Paris. "The buildings seemed timeless, as if their reason for being oscillated between past and present," he told Proof over e-mail. "I became interested in their history, the origins of their construction, and their place in the society." 

It took Kronental some time to finesse his photographic process. First, in order to discover and gain access to the housing estates, he had to strengthen his connections with the community. He then had to find, and befriend, the seniors who lived in these buildings and convince them to participate in the project. “It was a real challenge for me to explain the purpose of my project ... and to try to create a connection,” he says, “but once [I was able to overcome the] barriers, I noticed how much they needed to share their memories or their feelings. I took a lot of pleasure to create a truthful relationship [with them]."

He also needed to explore the landscape for several months, as he was shooting with a large-format film camera and was determined "to find special angles and unusual perspectives for [the] shots." Finding the right light was also extremely important, and so he spent many mornings walking around these areas without any camera. The practice, it's worth noting, paid off, as many of the final images were shot around daybreak.

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José, 89, Les Damiers, Courbevoie, 2012

Once Kronental had familiarized himself with the apartments' layouts and gained the trust of the residents, he began to think more deeply about how these structures were catering to their needs. This concern is reflected in the final body of work, which includes a seamless mix of portraits and landscapes. The idea, he further explained, was to emphasize the interaction between the person and his, or her, city. 

The project, as a result, reads as a thoughtful exploration of the relationship between architecture and man. "It was important that I question myself about the conditions of these [buildings'] existence," Kronental says, "[and] to pour some light on the generation that we forget."

You can see more of Laurent Kronental's photographs on his website here.  

Jehan Jillani is an associate photo editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.