Public housing tells the history of the place and people within it. Design, functionality, and cost all play a part in whether a particular project is viewed as a success. And if all three align, it will stand the test of time.
The grand ensembles, the name given to social housing projects that sprawl across the outskirts of Paris, are monumental in design but a failure in their utopian vision of contemporary innovation. Though the exteriors of the buildings—a tangled mass of architectural eras built between the 1950s and 1980s—are striking, they are now in a state of decline due to a lack of public funds.
French photographer Laurent Kronental began documenting the suburban district seven years ago, seduced by this paradox of post-war hope and modern decay. His first project, Souvenir d’un Futur, focused on the juxtaposition of the dramatic exteriors with the elderly population living there. In his latest, Les Yeux des Tours, he surveys everyday life from the inside looking out.
Focusing on the particularly futuristic high rises of the Tours Aillaud project, each picture is perfectly composed through an apartment window frame. This limitation offers a visual rhythm. The “quiet eye” of the porthole represents a “theater stage in which the inside is personalized by daily life objects,” Kronental says. “It challenges the anonymous outside that disputes human life inside.”
The warmth and intimacy of his images stand in contrast not only with the cold exterior of these radical, tentacular shapes but to the social derision that the entire grands ensembles has received over the years over questions of aesthetics and livability.
For Kronental, the buildings that once evoked the promise of a post-war future have now become tainted with melancholy. Though human experience was at the core of the project, the ephemera of everyday life, rather than people, populate the frame. “By choosing not to show the people who live there, I want to make their presence felt more acutely,” he says.
This interior intimacy strikes a jarring note with the world outside; at dusk the scattered light from a distant Paris skyline picks out subtle forms and shapes, while in the starkness of day, domestic lives are laid bare.
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You can see more of Laurent Kronental's photographs on his website here.