‘Les Grands Ensembles’ is the moniker given to the series of large-scale experimental housing projects erected around France in the mid-20th century. Built in response to a burgeoning housing crisis brought on by urban migration and an influx of immigrants after WWII, they were initially hailed as innovative manifestations of modernist ideals and aesthetics, providing exemplary solutions to postwar housing issues. However, many of these estates later became icons of social division and crime. Nonetheless these declining complexes remain poignant reminders of an era of utopian idealism, standing as bold and unique edifices in spite of their flaws.
A number of works of this kind were carried out by Catalan firm Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, the most striking of which is Les Espaces d’Abraxas, an immense development in the young Parisian suburb of Marne-la-Valée. In 1978 construction began on Bofill’s audacious plan for a complex of three buildings which would stand as symbolic monuments, creating an iconic ‘point of reference’ for the new town. The ambitious arrangement of these three volumes is designed to quite literally place the occupants on a sort of elaborate stage set. The largest element, the u-shaped ‘Le Palacio’, forms the backdrop of this ‘stage’. The more modestly proportioned ‘L’Arc’ is placed at the centre of the site between the other two structures, standing as a huge triumphal arch which conceptually screens the backdrop from the imagined theatre. The monumentality Bofill sought to achieve is also translated very literally in that the housing takes the form of actual monuments at a gigantic scale. The dramatically semi-circular ‘Le Théâtre’ completes the ensemble, defining a tiered amphitheatre which provides a vast expanse of public outdoor space.
Despite the visually flamboyant nature of the development, Bofill claimed that Les Espaces were devised not from a place of utopian dreaming, but ‘in a state more like pessimism’. This proclaimed pessimism likely stemmed from the bureaucratic and economic limitations associated with such social housing projects, and from the fact that such developments were still required after years of tackling the problem of social housing himself. This pessimistic viewpoint inspired Bofill to work towards ‘a better, more rational architecture’, which would free him of these constraints of budget and program in order to show the true possibilities of public housing.
This conflict between the desire for a new and more successful form of housing, and the reality of a limited budget, pushed the practice to find ways of dramatically reducing building costs in order to bring their grand vision to fruition. Bofill found his solution, like many architects before him, in the utilisation of new construction techniques; in this case, developments in prefabricated concrete construction. This is what Bofill is referring to when he labels this decisively extravagant work as ‘rational’. By using prefabricated concrete elements instead of traditional masonry, Bofill could achieve the lavish, elaborate postmodern aesthetic of the complex, without the prices of specialised labour or expensive materials. El Taller was instrumental at the time in the development of this technology, bringing a new wave of industrialisation to the building site. Thus despite the historic visual cues of the structures themselves, the design is inherently contemporary in viewpoint and execution.
The form of these precast sections is drawn from classical elements; grand pilasters, columns, and friezes in delicate ‘ochre and violet-blue’ concrete, hued using oxides to mimic the appearance of stone. By creating this insular, stylistically separate universe within the complex, Bofill sought to empower the inhabitants in their everyday lives through the symbolic implications of imagery. Instead of using physical infrastructure or social manipulation to alter the lives of inhabitants, Bofill strove to glorify everyday life by providing an extraordinary backdrop for ordinary activities. He designed with the conviction that ‘daily life should not be banalized but exalted to become rich and meaningful’. The inhabitants are apparently intended to identify their lives in Les Espaces with the life of some 18th century aristocrat, and in this way also attain greater levels of contentment in the world outside their domestic setting. Referring to the failed rebellions of 1968, which attempted to rid French society of class distinctions, Bofill asserted that the ‘utopia of 1968 had vanished’. Consequently he seems to be searching for his own sort of utopia, one which could function within this pessimistic era. In Bofill’s utopia the working class are elevated to the stature of kings and nobles, and ideas of social class are transcended by imbuing social housing with the appearance of the most dignified of palaces.
Unfortunately it is difficult to truly believe that the power of architectural imagery alone, without the backing of proper infrastructure or public amenities, could adequately transform the reality of working class life. Bofill has clearly advocated form over content, and even more essentially has promoted internal domestic life over communal engagement. While the concept is interesting and undeniably romantic, one must question the appropriateness of Bofill’s chosen model for contemporary life. Why should we assume that these historical paradigms remain relevant? In his attempts to translate this civic language of magnificent triumphal arches and amphitheatres to the domestic domain, Bofill neglects to consider the realities of prosaic human routines. In the curved ‘Le Théâtre’ for example, the plans of each unit are relentlessly manipulated to fit the formal scheme, retaining the elegant external facade of towering glass columns, but creating awkward discrepancies internally where these bays fall in different rooms and at different positions in each apartment.
The use of such grand models, typically intended for civic use rather than domestic, also leads to a notable lack of human scale throughout the complex. Unlike in other El Taller social housing projects, such as Gaudí District in Barcelona, there is a complete lack of intermediate-scaled habitable space to accommodate spontaneous encounters. There is a stark contrast between very public spaces such as the amphitheatre, designed at such imposing scales that they are rendered almost uninhabitable, and completely private spaces. The only mediating spaces are in the form of labyrinthine stairways and access decks which are concealed, dark, and unwelcoming, as well as ultimately being the perfect hub for antisocial behaviour. There are essentially no spaces for comfortable semi-private activity; even the children’s play equipment is banished to the exterior of the complex, rather than utilising the expanse of open space inside. This is, overall, an effort to maintain a sublime, yet somewhat fruitless symbolic imagery.
Although Bofill set out to ‘exalt”’ everyday life, in his failure to properly repurpose his chosen symbol, the end result belittles and hides the very thing he wished to revere. All of the activities of everyday life, fundamentals such as drying clothes, socialising with neighbours, or children playing, are hidden away in favour of retaining the intimidatingly formal facades. Instead of creating a grand and beautiful stage for the everyday dramas of life to play out, Bofill unintentionally formed spaces doomed to be uninhabitable by the people they were intended to welcome.
In his pessimism Bofill adopts an argument for a purely aesthetic and form-based architecture, that is not intended to instigate a dramatic transformation of underlying social processes. The idea of providing beautiful and lavish architecture for everybody and not just the economically rich is an admirable one, and Bofill does succeed in bringing a sense of history, culture, character and place to a young suburb. There are many benefits to shaping an architecture which is visually inspiring and empowering in the domestic setting, in place of typically repetitive and anonymous housing blocks. However, the execution of the project means that its drawbacks render these benefits as trivial. Without the necessary infrastructure and an appropriate spatial response to the processes of everyday life, even the most elaborately beautiful of housing schemes simply cannot function effectively. In a tangle of symbols Bofill lost his way towards a rational utopia.