"The form of a city changes faster than a mortal's heart."
I followed the demolition of two buildings in the Ile Marante housing estate in the suburbs of Paris, between September 2007 and spring 2009.
Photographic work - methodical inventory
I started reporting for I3F at the same time as the workers started on the demolition. I had responded to a call for tender from the social landlord I3F, for whom I had to collect images on the memory of a place that would soon disappear. A place like countless others in our suburbs, in no way extraordinary or spectacular, just a place where life is lived.
I quickly felt the need to act in a certain way: meticulous work, almost obsessive, floor by floor, room by room, day after day, season after season.
I was fascinated by these rooms, all of identical volume and yet distinguishable by slight variations. In a housing block 11 floors high, I beheld the apartments over and over again, whatever the weather, under various lights.
The frontal framing emerged as a possible form of dialogue between exterior and interior. A window on a world that stares back at us. The human being is only present in the subtle relics of which the walls keep a trace and the landscape takes over (as in spring when the trees almost reach into the rooms) before disappearing once and for all with the crumbling concrete.
As demolition progresses, the building is literally consumed. Rooms are left with gaping holes, their intimacy exposed in broad daylight. The progressive nibbling blurs the boundary between inside and outside and gives rise to a new space "between" the two: the in-between.
Towards the end, the 11 floors only hold on 10 or 15 metres on the ground: the image of the gutted corridor overlooking La Defense was taken in these conditions thanks to the friendliness of the workers who stopped their machines so I could go up "one last time".
In this image, worlds confront each other or attempt a reconciliation. Traditional suburban housing and modern towers of La Défense square up face-to-face.
The 2000s saw an increasing number of urban renovation plans for suburbs, theoretically aiming to remodel housing estates and create more diversity through mixed architectural modules (blocks are replaced by standalone suburban homes), leaving a variable percentage of housing for home ownership. Attempts made to somewhat defuse "tensions" in certain "sensitive areas".
The renovation project of the Ile Marante site in Colombes emerged in this context. It consisted in the demolition of two blocks each comprising of 350 separate social housing units, to replace these with 300 housing units split between several 4 to 5-storey buildings, thus remodeling the layout of the area. A hundred of these would remain "social housing" units and the other 200 would be available for rent or sold to those looking to access ownership.
In 2006, the social landlord I3F launched a call for tender for a photographer and a historian to produce a book on the memory of this place that would soon disappear.
The great utopia of the '60s
The building blocks of the Ile Marante were built by I3F in the early 1960s.
The Grand Ensemble of the Ile Marante, contrary to some of its "peers", embodies a particular model. It was built on a place steeped in history in which the profusion of green spaces contributed to enhance the quality of life and explains the genuine "love story" that developed between the site and a large number of its inhabitants, as historian Jacques Sélamé points out.
Few housing estates have or have had such an intricate relationship with their settings and the natural world. Besides the substantial wooded park, the inhabitants tended to shared gardens. For the renovation of the area, it was necessary to destroy the park and the sight of uprooted trees was as impressive as that of skeletons of concrete and rubble.
Like other such large housing complexes from the 1960s and 1970s, the Ile Marante site is one of those laden with the history of immigration, where multiple cultures rubbed shoulders to form an "other" culture, characterized by hybridity. The two buildings were home to people from 40 different nationalities. A mutual understanding seems to have existed, yielding among the inhabitants a strong sense of shared identity.
"Before being perceived as "lawless territories", large housing estates provided thousands of families with access to the comfort of modern housing, with running water, heating and intimacy." (Demolition, landscapes of expectation - Mathilde Lépine
After the decision to demolish was taken, living conditions became truly difficult. Things were left to deteriorate, acts of incivility multiplied. A climate of insecurity settled . Some inhabitants spoke of lack of maintenance and abandonment.
Mourning has been difficult for most of them. The development project did not involve them: "what will be built is not for us".
Contexts in which there is change are often sensitive.
I wonder about the disruptions brought about by this profound urban renewal: how do these families perceive these transformations of their living environment?
"(...) Urban renewal is a time when inhabitants are deprived of their capacity to appropriate space. It robs them of their history. It hijacks what they have built up over a long period of time, tiny gestures accumulated over generations are erased". Although demolition is a deliberate act legislated by competent authorities, one cannot help the feeling that it is alien to the inhabitants. What is their destiny? Is demolition a torment or a deliverance?
Contrary to demolition that is unexpected, as is the case in times of war or during natural disasters, the specificity of the razing of a large housing estate is that it is premeditated. Society decides to demolish what it has built because the production is deemed dysfunctional. Demolition reinforces the feeling of a pathogenic building that bears the guilt of a sick society (...)
Landscapes of demolition attest for the multiple temporalities of space: the haste of the construction of these blocks and towers designed industrially from prefabricated materials, the slow degradation of these buildings until they break apart, the rapid demolition and the indefinite time that follows for reordered space to be reappropriated.
These temporalities are also those of human existence: between the before and the after, residents can live for several years within a vast construction site. (Demolition, landscapes of expectation - Mathilde Lépine)