Laurent Kronental| Oct 20, 2015
They stand for a utopia of living together – and the dystopia that spelt the failure of these projects, the huge housing estate on the Paris Banlieue. Once the centers of Modernism gone megalomaniac, today they are often considered the site of social downfall. All too often, it is the architecture that is made responsible for this, with masses of concrete that do not take their cue from the human scale, but from the mind-set of architects who thought they could change the world at the drawing board.
Looking at Laurent Kronental’s photographs from the series “Souvenir d’un Futur”, one could be forgiven thinking that they reveal an ambivalence. On the one hand, the grand scale is simply captivating, on the other the sheer immoderation unsettles the eye specifically in instances where people step into the picture. For example, with his “Les Espaces d’Abraxas” project Ricardo Bofill celebrated a monumental architectural idiom, whereas the old man to be seen in Kronental’s image staring at the broad circle of the theatrical housing estate seems to come from long-gone age. Small wonder that the ensemble has already served as an ideal set for dystopian movies such as “Brazil” and “The Hunger Games”.
Laurent Kronental taught himself photography. For over four years now, the 28-year-old has found himself forever being drawn to the huge towering estates in Paris. He himself says that at a very early age he was enamored by large cities and high-rises. In 2008 he spent six months traveling round China’s mega-cities and tirelessly photographed what he saw. Back in Paris he put this passion on a more professional footing. “In the process,” Kronental recalls, he at some point discovered “a small street in the vicinity of Courbevoie. It was a surreal space where time seemed to have stood still: Almost like a village perched at the foot of the tower blocks.” There Kronental encountered an old couple, became friends with them and started photographing them in their garden – against a backdrop formed by the skyline of Paris’ La Défense district. It marked the beginning of his photo series “Souvenir d’un Futur”.
Adeline Seidel: What so fascinates you about these tower residences?
Laurent Kronental: The hugeness of the architecture compared to the size of us humans reveals our vulnerability and shows our desire for greatness and power. Their Babylonian monumentality, tentacular, almost supernatural dimensions that demonstrate our collective incoherence, our utopian ideas and our dreams of a better future that we may never achieve given our lack of mutual understanding. Their exaggerated, completely inhuman aspects, hinting at trends in Soviet architecture or so many sci-fi ideas. Their aging, their precariousness for a majority of them signifies the end of utopias of the past as imagined by their developers, and questions our contemporary vision of urbanism and social relations.
What do you focus on: the architecture, the material properties of the locations, or the people in these mega-structures?
Kronental: In “Souvenir d’un Futur” I think I have succeeded in developing themes close to my heart as regards architecture with the choice of buildings and the ambiance that I wanted to capture, the people I portrayed and their place in the environment, where they are often completely lost in the sheer scale of the places. I wanted likewise to put my finger on the originality of these residential structures, their excesses, their multitude, the relationship between humans and these spaces. At the same time I tried to draw attention to the marginalization of these unsung suburban neighborhoods, the lost illusions of a Modernist utopia, the partial dehumanization they bring with them, among other things owing to the omnipresence of concrete. And to underscore the resilience of the senior citizens who live there, lost in the face of these Pharaonic colossus.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your work?
Kronental: I regularly went to these neighborhoods. I spent a lot of time there before creating my images. I needed to immerse myself in their characters and the ambiance to photograph them better. It started with a long discovery phase where I walked around without my camera, usually in the early morning. I sometimes arrived around 5:30-6 a.m. to see the night give way to morning and then the dawn. It was an extraordinary sensation: the deserted cities, the silence of the city still asleep, scattered lights glittering in the dark apartments. Sometimes it was quite hard to move the project forward because of the insecurity I felt at some points. I needed to know the terrain closely, as my activity was not well received by some young people who watched what I was doing. I realized I would not be able to complete the series with authenticity without meeting inhabitants, so I forced myself to explain my project. I got some help from community centers, associations, mouth-to-mouth support, enabling me to meet people for whom my presence didn’t seem to be suspicious. It was a really important stage in the project.
Another reason why I needed to explore the territory in such depth and go there regularly in the course of several months and in some cases years, is that it was dear to my heart to find special angles and unusual perspectives for my shots. And finally another innate difficulty was to get closer to the generation of senior citizens. It took me many visits to the place before I made headway, but this was crucial for the project, even if it required an incredible amount of energy. Many of those elderly people had real doubts about me, so it was a challenge to explain my project to them, to get their attention and convince them to have their picture taken.
There’s a touch of melancholy to the images – why?
Kronental: With this series I wanted to create the atmosphere of a parallel universe, possibly to mix the past and the future and by virtue of this kind of spatiotemporal dissonance unsettle the viewer’s perception. I wanted to convey the sense of abandoned, deserted, depopulated areas. It had to be dark and poetic, magnificent and ghostly. In this version of our world, the cities are titanic structures, gobbling up humans, snaring them in innumerable labyrinths, kindling fears. In these places, elderly people are the last survivors. They carry within them the evanescent memory of its genesis, the memory of the future as was envisaged way back when by the architects of the large housing estates.
To mitigate this apocalyptic feel I chose colors that soften the brutality of architecture – by dawn or dusk lighting. Photos at dawn show are purposely devoid of most signs of inhabitants. The few people to be seen seem overwhelmed and almost erased by their gigantic surrounding. The series is intended to prompt viewers to question the merits of these urban structures, to perceive the loneliness of the elderly who live here and to highlight our collective responsibility for them. What will our cities be like in 50 years’ time? How will we live as senior citizens?
What’s behind the choice of title - “Souvenir d'un Futur”?
Kronental: The title “Souvenir d'un Futur” recalls the melancholy of aging, lost illusions, this universe that was full of promises. This melancholy emerges, for example, in this old man in one of the pictures. He contemplates the reflections of the viaduct in the Baroque lake and seems to meditate on his life. It also comes out in a choice of lights, shadows, colors and the attitude of my subjects. Melancholy, that was not consciously intended initially. However, I instantly wanted to show both the fragility of these people and the potential they still have. I do not want to show senior citizens with a big smile, I wanted them to be completely themselves and in harmony with their feelings at that moment. There may be melancholy glances, but the postures defy that tone. The people I photographed were far from being sad and they were still valiant despite, sometimes, a faraway look. They are dignified and elegant while asserting their fight against age and rootedness of their homes.
What do the older people say about these places? Any examples?
Kronental: Certain neighborhoods have more pensioners than others and it was not always easy to find ones willing to be photographed and who were photogenic. What is weird that sometimes those elderly people are not aware of the architectural problems of their existence. They have a lot of stories to tell of their past, their family, curiously not always in connection with the housing estates or themselves. I can tell you some stories I heard from Roland or Claude, residents of “Les Arcades du Lac” in Montigny-le-Bretonneux (Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, 78) and “Cité Pablo Picasso” in Nanterre (Hauts-de-Seine, 92), I started to interview and to film the old folk in my series just for myself. I’ve chosen two paragraphs that will give you the answer to your question.
“My name is Roland, I am 85. Here, at Montigny, in my neighborhood, it has always seemed to me that I live in the countryside, which is where I lived before: the vegetation, water and the lake. I bought a place here with my wife because I feel good here. We are in town, we have everything we need here. When I left my house in the boondocks I had to travel 40 km to find the first doctor. When I was young I lived in Montmartre with my parents, every day I encountered one brave man taking his bike up the Caulaincourt street, it was Tino Rossi. Then I lived in Choisy-le-Roi, There haven’t been any bread shops here for some months now, in the small commercial center, it is closed. This will be the last place I live. I don’t want to leave as I don’t see myself moving somewhere again. We built great architectural estates after World War II, it was a necessity, but I find that some of those districts are hardly habitable today. Before we had small shops, we knew each person in our building. Here we don’t know any neighbors. In the entire estate I only know ten families.When I first moved here, I was surprised by the density of those buildings and the shape of the viaduct that was built on the water, I found it amusing. There are no cars here, it’s wonderful. It’s all pedestrian. At my age you stay in your neighborhood. I don’t have energy to go to Paris, for example. It’s been some years since I last went there. I don’t know how to buy tickets at the public transport machines, and somehow other people tend to regard me as a peasant. At home, we’re comfortable and have everything we need. Today people are unlike back in our day. When we saw that we were getting old, bought apartments here, in great estates; now people retiring at 60-65 years tend to move to the countryside and leave the neighborhood. Unfortunately for us, we see less people. It’s been 28 years since I retired, and some of my old colleagues didn’t survive as long. I’ve had a life I can only wish for all people. I don’t perceive this neighborhood as some special place. I don’t see buildings getting older and instead I do.”
“I’ll turn 95 this year. I was born in 1920. I was not hoping to live that long even if I never asked myself this question. I’ve never felt that 95 years can be real like this, to walk as if I were 50. I lived in Sarcelles in the 1960s but I didn’t really like it. My employer had found me an apartment there. Since then Sarcelles has changed vastly and I wouldn’t want to be living there now. I don’t myself notice the architecture here. I am used to it. It’s been 35 years since I arrived. They had a great idea: to plant a lot of trees here, as many as there are apartments. It’s very pleasant in the middle of all this concrete. In the 1980s there were a lot of retired people in the Aillaud towers. From the windows of our apartments it’s like being in a plane or at sea. I don’t realize that I live in a 38-storey building, I regularly go to buy my newspaper at the neighborhood Fontenelles, I rarely leave Nanterre. It’s a pity we get old, but that’s the way life is. I live from one day to the next, as well as possible. One of the inconveniences of living long is that you lose a lot of friends. At my age and with my physical capacities, I can do less things, and it irritates me. I remember, several years ago I went to run around the Andre Malraux park after watching TV one night. In winter, in December at 11 pm in the snow, I came across another couple who was doing exercises as well, the ambiance was terrific. At my age I don’t really have any big projects. I was lucky enough to have a reasonable amount of money to lead a good life, without any excesses. We should not forget that we live in the country that went through two world wars in the last century. After 1945 it was like living in a golden age. Here we can live next to the capital thanks to all the apartments in those towers. If we had constructed individual houses we would live much more further out in the Parisian suburbs. So it would be less easy to access public transportation. I am very happy that I didn’t go into a retirement home, I am glad to be independent. I live with my wife and my granddaughter. I find it intriguing that you are interested by us; you are the only person that is interested by our life. Usually young people ignore senior citizens.”
Adeline Seidel: And what do these huge residential projects and the architecture trigger in you?
Kronental: “Les Damiers” reminds me of a huge Lego blocks placed on one another. The huge structure gives me a feeling to be higher than all other neighbors at La Defense. This impression obviously stems from the perspectives created by the global shape of the area: it offers countless angles that are very aesthetic for a photographer. A huge air extraction chimney is attached to the largest building. In winter you could be forgiven thinking you were watching a monster exhale when the smoke drifts upwards. At night, the district built high above the parking lot has a disturbing shape. I like to imagine it’s an industrial town. I feel as if this entire modular structure is almost organic, and it can be reconfigured by a mysterious metabolism.
The post-modernist architecture of “Les Espaces d'Abraxas” and its monumentality was destined to offer a new alternative to apartment blocks that were built during the post-War boom. Renamed Alcatraz or Gotham City by the inhabitants, this area of many faces sparks a wide range of emotions in me. It is some kind of isolated fortress, spectacular and visible from many kilometers away in the Parisian suburb. It makes me think of a floating castle by Japan director Hayao Miyazaki. It seems invincible. With its huge columns that stand so solemnly you might take it for an imperial city built by giants.