Laurent Kronental Souvenir d'un Futur

Joe Faulkner recently spoke to photographer Laurent Kronental about his images of the powerful and ghostly landscapes of the Grands Ensembles in Paris. 

JF: How did you become interested in photography?

LK: My passion for the image goes back to my childhood, but I only started photography at the age of 22, while traveling for six months in China. I was then living in Beijing and was using a small compact digital camera to capture my Asian experience. Fascinated by large cities, I was very excited to be part of one of them and be able to visit the country that had intrigued me for so long. From mega-cities to rural areas, everything in this country is overwhelming. Hong Kong was determinant. I was literally absorbed by its atmosphere: the palpable tension of an ultra-futuristic city mixing thousands of neon signs and skyscrapers with apartment buildings. Hong Kong, city of excesses, city of extremes, certainly unconsciously contributed to stimulate a research into the juxtaposition of different periods and an attraction for the ways in which man tamed space and architecture. 

I am a self-taught photographer. So after returning from Asia, I purchased a full frame digital camera and practiced, strolling around the district of La Défense, which I found to be quite photogenic; it allowed me to develop my critical sense while learning from my mistakes. With time, I came to wonder about what I really wanted to show. It was important for me to give meaning to my photographs. 

I am extremely interested by the evolution of cities, intrigued by landscapes created by a human hand. I enjoy taking a look at the forgotten and unknown neighbourhoods. I am amazed by the new cities with antiquated looks, suburban satellite cities, ocean-cities that extend to infinity, the monster-cities born of weird planning due to extreme ultra-fast growth. I also like the idea of the neighbourhood, city in the city, such as, for example, the case of Kowloon Walled City, this famous district of Hong Kong. Colourful and teeming architecture, places where social disparities arise in the districts, especially affect me. Often dazzled by the development of cities in hostile territories that requires adaptation beyond human norm to settle, build it in life, and resist climate conditions. Furthermore, I like urban structures that didn’t age well, undefined spaces as no man’s land. 

JF: Where did the idea for this project come from?

LK: I discovered in the neighbouring city of Courbevoie a tiny little street where time seemed suspended for years – countryside at the foot of office buildings. The place was surreal. I befriended a couple of old people and started to photograph them. Their traditional garden offered a stark contrast with the surrounding skyline of towers in La Défense, bringing together two different eras, two different living styles. 

At the same time, I developed a great attraction towards the architecture of the "Grands Ensembles". Two areas next to my home have been essential in my approach: "Les Damiers" at Courbevoie and "Les Tours Aillaud" at Nanterre. The more I photographed them, the more I was amazed. The buildings seemed timeless, as if their reason for being oscillated between past and present. Then I discovered from 2011 other examples of monumental and spectacular architecture around Paris and in the capital. I became interested in the history of these estates, origins of their construction and their place in the actual society. I am fascinated by their oversized urbanism and their look both rough and poetic. Often criticised, they fascinate or bother but leave no one indifferent.

The architecture of the Grands Ensembles brings to mind in the urban landscape. I am fascinated by admiration and curiosity. Through Souvenir d'un Futur, I wanted to question the story of these large estates and to understand how their inhabitants had adapted themselves to them. I wished more particularly to confront the times and the projects through the memory of the seniors.

JF: The term brutalism was coined by Le Corbusier who would go on to be seen as a major figure in French architecture. Do you feel these buildings are the finest examples in the world of this school?

LK: I think we need to discuss the term Grand Ensemble, to better understand what it means. 

The Grands Ensembles are a large set of collective lodgings, often in large numbers, from hundreds to thousands of homes, built mainly between 1953 and 1973, marked by a design of boxes and towers inspired by the requirements of modern architecture. France is the only western capitalist country to have massively opted for the "boxes and towers" to resolve their housing crisis. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia have chosen garden cities, low buildings, detached or terraced homes in rows, as well as the odd high rise. Only the former Soviet countries offered the same choice.

A certain number of these buildings are considered to belong to the category of high rises, although they were mainly built before 1953, or after 1973. But there is little agreement on the exact definition, in terms of minimum homes provided, how it’s funded, how they’re occupied and the urban form. 

One definition seems to have some consensus: universal formal abstraction, rigorously orthogonal paths, a balance between the boxes and towers, industrialised components (concrete, but also stone). And yet, some architects like Emile Aillaud have muddled these denominations with different designs, for example, by refusing to include the orthogonal paths. 

And brutalism is more or less the same. It describes an architectural style, which was born from modernism. But what exactly does this cover? 

Brutalism is the term given to an architectural revolution that took place in England between the 1950s and the 1970s. A revolution of building materials, of shapes and functions of the habitat or public buildings. The difference seems to have come from the vision of those who came up with the movement, which was more ethical, philosophical; the vision of the people on the other hand was a little more sensitive. 

But not all brutalist buildings are made of concrete. There are other buildings which could be called brutalist simply because of their huge appearance, or because they exhibit materials or basic shapes, which are usually hidden. 

So there is also confusion over the meaning of ‘brutalism’. 

JF: Your choice to only photograph the older residents of the properties feels important, can you explain this decision? 

LK: I desired to question myself about conditions of their existence, to pour some light on the generation that we forget sometimes. I wanted to undertake a project, which associates men and architecture. It was thus essential to gather these two worlds in one same photographic series. While tackling the large housing estates issue, I wondered whether urban structures were adapted to the needs of their inhabitants. By switching from portraits, which imply facial emotions, to landscapes, in which the person is lost in the vast neighbourhood, I wanted to show the scale ratios and interactions between the person and his city.

Through this series, I aim to draw attention to old age. At a time when all the attention is directed on youth, maintaining indifference and prejudice toward seniors, this vision creates a shock by recalling the existence of these people and by highlighting their problems. In spite of their melancholic look, these elders, with the strength of their dignified and elegant posture, assert their fight against their age and their placement in these housing projects. 

I made this series with the will to keep the memory of a generation so that in the future our society and its architecture allow by their structures and their services departments to give back a social role to our elders, and thus, the legitimacy and the respect, which are owed to them. 

In a fast moving world, I should like to arouse an awareness of duration and intergenerational links, of our social average and long-term responsibility as well as of our solidarity. 

JF: There are feeling of solitude and abandonment within this work, with only a few people being seen in such large structures, why did you chose to create this? 

LK: I 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 organisation of the city. The majority of my images have been made early in the morning to emphasise this feeling of post apocalyptic other world and to get the soft and magic lights which to my taste romanticise the city, glorify it and give to it some mystery. I wished to enhance the seniors in focusing our attention only on them. 

JF: I am personally very interested in the use of these structures, from how they were designed to be lived in to how they are actually lived in. Where do you see the successes and failings in these projects?

LK: Large housing estates following World War II gave access to modern comfort for the largest number of people. In 1945, houses were dilapidated and families piled up in very narrow and not well-equipped apartments. These estates supplied larger flats, as well as domestic equipment, while improving the sanitary conditions. After the war, they were praised as places where men could blossom, away from the agitation of big cities.

In the 50s and 60s, these new towns were built in extremely quickly, and possessed a monotonous and standardised shape of uniformity. Far from the capital, without social and cultural activities in the surroundings, this housing created a feeling of solitude, isolation and thus a sensation of exclusion.

From the 70s, in reaction to the monotony of the first buildings, more singular architecture appeared in both form and structure. These were inspired by diverse influences and give the inhabitant the impression of being somewhere else. The imagination is stimulated thanks to symbols such as Greek temples, theatres, the Palace of Versailles and Chenonceau, and terraced gardens. 

The utopia in the case of large housing estates materialised during Post-war economic booms with the hope of access for all to a modern world where everyone could live happily and in harmony. In the 50s and 60s, these estates were presented as an ideal solution to solve problems of housing and demographic growth. From the 70s, these districts were more often described as bedroom towns and debated. There was then a swing in opinion about the idyllic representation of this housing, which increased in the 80s, until the break with this formula. 

These buildings have a strong singularity in the French landscape and even all over the world. They are emblematic of the architecture of this time. In my opinion, they must be preserved. But they are aged and require a redevelopment. It is necessary to rethink them and, instead of envisaging a demolition, reorganising the town planning of these districts, renewing an environment that deteriorated over time for lack of investment and of maintenance.

— Joe Faulkner