The Design Observer Group


Posted 06.28.12


Kenny Cupers

Paris: Life Forms



Sarcelles, ca. 2012. [Photograph by Kenny Cupers]

On Sundays, the commuter rail station of Sarcelles, in suburban Paris, is packed with market-goers. I am surrounded by women young and old, some in boubou — African gowns — and others wearing the Muslim hijab. Pushing strollers and trolleys and carrying bags, the shoppers snap up clothes and trinkets, fruits and vegetables. With its dozens of stalls, the open-air market is similar to those in working-class Parisian neighborhoods like Belleville, but its surroundings are strikingly different: no Haussmannian boulevards, no narrow streets or intimate courtyards, but instead high-rise towers and slabs of modernist housing, extending for miles.

Sarcelles has been notorious ever since the construction of this modernist housing estate — one of the grands ensembles sponsored by the public financing agency Société Centale Immobilière de la Caisse — in the 1950s. Almost as soon as the first buildings were inhabited, national newspapers began to deplore its gigantic scale and stripped-down aesthetic. In the early 1960s, journalists reported that the fast-growing new town, which would soon house more than 50,000 residents, was beset by what they termed sarcellitis — a range of mental and social illnesses that resulted from an alienating physical environment. The purported victims — the families who actually lived in the housing — disputed the diagnosis; but the damage was done, and Sarcelles' reputation would never really recover.


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A different kind of sarcellitis persists today. The postwar housing complexes of suburban Paris have came to be viewed — reviled — as a sort of anti-Paris: zones of intractable poverty and crime that keep their immigrant residents at the margins of French society. The very word banlieue — which historically denotes a district that lies beyond the urban boundary — has become a synonym, or euphemism, for immigrant ghetto. As a British newspaper noted years ago, Sarcelles has long been a "byword for seedy concrete slum." This reputation was further entrenched by the riots that erupted in the middle of the last decade, when African and Muslim youth revolted against police brutality and institutionalized racism.

Yet there is much more to life in the banlieues than is typically reported in the media. I have been researching the history of postwar housing estates in France for several years, and in the course of many visits I've found neighborhoods struggling with poverty, crime and social conflict; but I've also found urban centers brimming with energy and quiet residential quarters dotted with leafy parks and sleepy squares. Sarcelles was a response to the nation's acute housing shortage in the second half of the 1950s; during a period in France when indoor bathrooms were a luxury, its brand-new units were the embodiment of modernity. Early on most residents were white working- and middle-class families from Paris and the French provinces. Over the years the demographics have changed, as immigrant families, many from North Africa, moved in; today Sarcelles is home to more than 200 ethnicities.



Sarcelles, ca. mid-1960s. [Photograph by Jacques Windenberger.]

The bustling weekend market of Sarcelles spreads out from the station all the way to the town center. Along the way, I walk past four-story public housing blocks with identical facades — evenly laid sandstone, bands of concrete, window frames with brightly colored panels; in between the buildings are parking lots, expansive lawns and playgrounds — not particularly well-kept, but not neglected either. Some of the original towers and slabs are being renovated, and others demolished and replaced with new residential buildings and public amenities. On my walk, I see stacks of old window frames here and there; in some buildings, the sandstone looks like new again.

I reach the center of Sarcelles — the new center, not the old medieval square — where there's a subterranean shopping mall, a cinema, an Ibis hotel, a macdo — a.k.a., McDonald's — and municipal offices, all under a single roof. The festive opening of this late-brutalist, poured-concreted megastructure in the early 1970s seemed to residents proof that the housing development was a city in its own right. And if on weekdays the central plaza, inspired by Piazza San Marco, can be as empty as a Mediterranean square during siesta, today its restaurants and cafés are filled with shoppers and families, kids playing soccer, women chatting, groups of men drinking mint tea.

Over the past few years I have taken thousands of photographs, a selection of which appears in the accompanying slideshow, and which reflects the energetic diversity that I have experienced during my travels in the banlieues — the surprising juxtapositions, the sense of ongoing experimentation. Contemporary Paris is more than the celebrated world city of grand boulevards and storied monuments, of intimate streets and chic arrondissements; it is also a city of towers and slabs, suburban housing and downscale malls, parking lots and elevated highways, immigrant markets and office districts. In my images I attempt to document not the extremes of triumphant new construction or wholesale decay — neither a past utopia nor contemporary dystopia — but rather the more nuanced realities of ongoing modernity, layered development, incremental change. These realities are shaping the future of continental Europe’s most cosmopolitan capital.