The colossal grands ensembles, or high-rise public housing projects, in Paris and its surrounding banlieues, or suburbs, were built after World War II to accommodate an increasing population of rural migrants and immigrants. Today, the deteriorating buildings are largely considered failed experiments — catalysts for the alienation of their populations and a slew of accompanying social issues.
In the past five years, Laurent Kronental has photographed the titanic housing projects sitting around Paris, creating a collection of surreal and fascinating images that seem to reveal glimpses from a post-apocalyptic world. For his Souvenir d’un Futur series, Laurent captured residents of estates including Ricardo Bofill’s Postmodern Les Espaces d’Abraxas at Noisy-le-Grand and Emile Aillaud’s Cité Pablo Picasso at Nanterre. His images show the concrete structures and vast open spaces of the futuristic complexes, which were mainly built during the 1970s and 1980s.
The people he did photograph, however, are the long-term veterans who have lived and aged alongside the Grands Ensembles.
Souvenir d’un Futur documents the life of senior citizens living in the “Grands Ensembles” (large housing projects) around Paris. For the most part erected between the 1950s and the 1980s to address the housing crisis, urban migration and the inflow of foreign migrants while meeting modern comfort needs, these large estates are today often stigmatized by the media and marginalized by public opinion. In sharp contrast with these cliché views, and fascinated by these projects’ ambitious and dated modernistic features, Laurent Kronental was moved by the living conditions of these urban veterans who have aged there, and who, he feels, are the memory of the locus.
He felt a need to examine their living conditions and shed light over a sometimes-neglected generation. Exposing these unsung and underestimated suburban areas is a means to reveal the poetry of aging environments slowly vanishing, and with them, the memory of modernist utopia.
His photographs are tinted with melancholic, yet brave disenchantment. The majestic mass of the futuristic vessels seems to drift across an ocean of concrete. But the presence of old people, which might seem unexpected in such settings, paradoxically hints at a possible hope, as if past illusions were not all dead yet. Using a 4×5″ analog camera, the artist highlights the architectural geometry without stamping out the details.
Souvenir d’un Futur is the result of four years of visits and exchanges. In this series, Laurent Kronental wanted to create the atmosphere of a parallel world mixing past and future while consciously conveying the impression of towns that would be emptied of their residents. In this magnificent and ghostly world, the structures of our cities would be titanic, gobble the human, the product of our fears and hopes for an organization of the city.
Marked by the passing of time, these massive, gray buildings, like their elder residents, bear the signs of long lives. And yet, in these wrinkled faces and cracked walls, in the energy of the bodies and of the facades, emerges the pride and pulse that we thought had disappeared. The peaceful faces and the bareness of the spaces convey a mix of resignation and expectation, skepticism and confidence, unsatisfaction and plenitude – a world of contrasts, deep layers of life, spontaneity. These “monuments”, as living memories of their time, hold a fragile force : that of a younger generation that did not see itself age.
– Laurent Kronental