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Beauty and the beasts

A new guide to the brutalist architecture of Paris reveals much to admire – and the odd eyesore

Les Choux de Créteil apartment blocks, designed by Gérard Grandval, 1966-74.
Les Choux de Créteil apartment blocks, designed by Gérard Grandval, 1966-74. Credit: Nigel Green for Blue Crow Media

‘It’s one of the most hideous buildings I’ve ever seen,’ says Robin Wilson, editor of the Brutalist Paris Map, a new guide to 40 examples of brutalist architecture in the French capital.

He’s referring to an uncompromising office designed in 1974 by Claude Parent and André Remondet on Rue de Mouzaia in the 19th arrondissement. ‘It pushes the boundaries of brutalism. It’s surprising to see how aggressive it was.’

Brutalism is guaranteed to provoke strong reactions. This celebration of the genre, published by Blue Crow Media as part of a series of architecture-led city maps, taps into the rising tide of appreciation for brutalism of recent years. Together with photographer Nigel Green, his collaborator in the art practice Photolanguage, Wilson had the task of researching, selecting and documenting brutalist buildings for the guide, which offers users an unusual Paris sightseeing experience.

All the brutalist buildings are outside the Périphérique, having been built in the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded to provide large-scale accommodation to house the growing population. These are not buildings the average tourist will stumble across – you need to seek them out. And that’s where the guide comes in handy, because Wilson and Green have done the hard slog already.

‘You really have to travel outside the centre to find Paris brutalism, which is very interesting as you experience the city in a different way,’ says Wilson, a writer and lecturer in architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

There’s much to admire. Oscar Niemeyer’s Communist Party headquarters is one of the better known buildings, along with Le Corbusier’s Maison du Brésil and the UNESCO headquarters designed by Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss in 1952-8. Gerard Grandval’s Les Choux de Créteil apartment blocks are particularly spectacular, resplendent with their interweaving rounded balconies. Designed by Jean Renaudie in 1970-72, the Ivry-sur-Seine apartments are remarkable for a spatial complexity that was a tour de force in a pre-digital age, says Wilson.

  • All the brutalist buildings on the map are outside the Périphérique.
    All the brutalist buildings on the map are outside the Périphérique.
  • ‘Les Etoiles’ at Ivry-sur-Seine, designed by Jean Renaudie, Renee Gailhoustet, 1970-72.
    ‘Les Etoiles’ at Ivry-sur-Seine, designed by Jean Renaudie, Renee Gailhoustet, 1970-72. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
  • Bourse du Travail.
    Bourse du Travail. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
  • ‘Les Bleuets’ apartment blocks, designed by Paul Bossard, 1959-62.
    ‘Les Bleuets’ apartment blocks, designed by Paul Bossard, 1959-62. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
  • ‘Les Orgues de Flandre’ social housing, designed by Martin S van Treeck, 1973-80.
    ‘Les Orgues de Flandre’ social housing, designed by Martin S van Treeck, 1973-80. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
  • ‘Les Damiers’ apartment blocks, designed by Michel Folliasson, 1974-76.
    ‘Les Damiers’ apartment blocks, designed by Michel Folliasson, 1974-76. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
  • Caserne de Pompiers fire station headquarters, designed by Jean Willerval, Prvoslav Popovic, 1968-73.
    Caserne de Pompiers fire station headquarters, designed by Jean Willerval, Prvoslav Popovic, 1968-73. Credit: Nigel Green/Photolanguage for Blue Crow Media
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The map also directs the intrepid to lesser known buildings such as the modest Church of Saint Andre designed by Marius Despont in 1988, and a concrete playground on Rue de la République, both in Bobigny.

It’s clear that brutalism in Paris was a real mixed bag, experimental with materials and diverse in expression. Wilson points out that these buildings were principally housing, administrative, office and university campus projects rather than cultural ones – a post-war architecture that represented a new phase in Paris’ urban history with a new sculptural and spatial language.

‘The result was a radical departure from the familiar, historical Paris, towards the establishment of multiple, satellite centres, and alternative Paris environments,’ he says.

So have these brutalist wonders aged gracefully? It’s a mixed picture according to Wilson, and often more down to what they were accommodating rather than the buildings themselves. He cites the transition of Jacques Kalisz’s Administrative Centre of Pantin (1973) into a National Centre of Dance in 2004 as a successful reappropriation, while the recent renovation of the Les Bleuets Apartment Blocks in Créteil was also a success.

Telecommunications UFO.
Telecommunications UFO. Credit: Nigel Green for Blue Crow Media

To accompany the map, Wilson and Green have put together an exhibition at Institut Français in London, with images of the buildings staged as if part of a fictional magazine from the 1960s/70s.

Having conquered Paris, Photolanguage and Blue Crow Media are now considering another addition to their series of architectural guides, this time on Stockholm. 

Carte Paris Brutaliste/Brutalist Paris Map is published by Blue Crow Media, £8.

La Review Générale Brutaliste exhibition, 24 April -1 June; talk by Robin Wilson and Nigel Green, 25 May, 7pm, both at Institut Français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT.