Greetings from Marne la Vallee: redesign in de Villes nouvelles

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During our research project ANA goes Europe, we investigate the role of the architect in the future European housing assignment. The trip we made this autumn led to Paris and its suburbs. The French solutions for matters such as living quality, densification, transformation of the Grand Ensembles and gentrification are instructive for the Dutch practice. The fourth postcard comes from Les Espaces d’Abraxas, the illustrious housing project of Ricardo Bofill in Marne la Vallee.

At the time the Dutch government incorporated the growth centres policy in the Second National Spatial Planning Policy Document (1966), the French government was forced to deal with an enormous housing shortage top-down. This is how the plan for the Villes Nouvelles derived. There are five around Paris. The largest is Marne la Vallée with almost 300,000 inhabitants, consisting of no less than 26 municipalities.

We visit the very first part of the new city that was built at the beginning of the 80s: the quarters Monts d’Est and Pavé Neuf both located in the commune of Noisy le Grand. These two neighbourhoods are located next to the A4, which connects Marne with Paris. The distance from Noisy le Grand to the Paris city center is only 20 kilometres. On the edge of Monts d’Est is Les Espaces d’Abraxas, a megalomaniac residential complex designed by Ricardo Bofill.
This project, extreme as it is, has regularly been used as a movie decor in science fiction productions such as Game of Thrones and Brasil. Les Espaces consists of three components: the Palacio, Theater and Gate. The Palacio in particular is an extreme residential building, a high, dark cavernous gap in precast concrete opens up to 441 single-sided oriented apartments.

Current problems
Les Espaces is in a poor condition. It is badly maintained. The public areas are dark and dirty and there is no supervision at all. We can imagine that people do not feel safe here. The project is completely isolated, on the one side it is restricted by a large parking garage and on the other by a busy access road. Because of these poor conditions it was investigated whether the project could be demolished, but this idea had been abandoned on grounds of high costs. In addition, some 600 households should be housed elsewhere. In order to improve the situation the municipality of Noisy le Grand opted for a different strategy. A continuous park strip must connect Les Espaces with the other parts of the area and bring more transparency to this densely built-up concrete neighbourhood.
An advantage of the planned park is that it also connects the new residential area, planned on the other side of the ring road, with the city centre. Very good ideas, but not yet an actual solution for Les Espaces.

We call Bofill!
Because Les Espaces d’Abraxas is such a characteristic project, the municipality Noisy le Grand asked the architect to think about the improvement. Ricardo Bofill (RBTA) initially was not interested. After he had met some of the proud residents of Les Espaces during a community festival organized by the municipality, he turned and accepted the assignment. It is very striking that in order to ‘finish’ the project he proposes to build up the same style on both sides of Les Espaces. However, its symmetrical design goes straight through the park planned by the municipality. It is not entirely clear how that is to be solved.
Unfortunately it is unclear what Bofill’s plan is for the existing building. We will have to wait and see if he is able to redesign the building in a way that solves the various problems. The chosen approach converts one of the weaknesses of Les Espaces, the isolated location, into a force. By using the free space around the building for more varied new buildings, a larger social mix can arise in the neighbourhood.

Pavé Neuf renewed
In Pavé Neuf, the adjoining neighbourhood, the renovation has already mainly been carried out. Again, the known range of interventions is visible. Just like in Monts d’Est (the neighbourhood of Les Espaces) this district is extremely impenetrable due to the layout with parking garages on the edge and a completely car-free centre. That is why some breakthroughs have now been realized. There is a high level of investment in public space. In Pavé Neuf, for example, a large new neighbourhood garden has been realized on the site of a parking garage. The buildings have also been insulated and refurbished. Pavé Neuf is already very dense, therefore it lacks space for new buildings.
As in Bobigny, it is striking that the approach shows a great respect for the original architectural and urban plans. Everything looks refreshed, but the question is whether there is sufficient improvement in the socio-economic field.

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Greetings from Bobigny: hybrid solutions for the dense city

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During our research project ANA goes Europe, we investigate the role of the architect in the future European housing assignment. The trip we made this autumn led to Paris and its suburbs. The French solutions for matters such as living quality, densification, transformation of the Grand Ensembles and gentrification are instructive for the Dutch practice.

The second postcard comes from Bobigny, a small town in the middle of the poor north-eastern part of the Métropole du Grand Paris. This is the area where in 2005 the famous Banlieu riots broke out. We cycle through Bobigny in search of a few Grand Ensembles, large concentrations of social housing, built in the 60s and 70s.

The second postcard comes from Bobigny, a small town in the middle of the poor north-eastern part of the Métropole du Grand Paris. This is the area where in 2005 the famous Banlieu riots broke out. We cycle through Bobigny in search of a few Grand Ensembles, large concentrations of social housing, built in the 60s and 70s.

The first project we encounter is Cité les Courtillières-Le Serpentin designed by Émile Aillaud from 1954. Seen from above this is a fairly extensive neighbourhood, consisting of an endless winding building around a courtyard of 500m x 200m, and two clusters with residential towers.
We speak to one of the four complex managers of Le Serpentin. He is present on site daily from 9 to 5 and knows all the inhabitants of the 600 houses in the complex. He tells us that the renovation of Le Serpentine, funded by the ANRU, a national renovation program, is almost complete. The façades are insulated and lined with subtly coloured tiles, the elevators have been renewed, the houses have been renovated inside and PV panels (which, actually do not work yet) are placed on the roofs. The central park of 4.2 ha will also be completely renewed. A small piece of the long pendulum has been demolished to improve the connection of the complex with the surroundigs. The layout of the public space looks much better with more abundant planting. Previously there was only grass and trees. The new playing area for children is already being used.

The first project we encounter is Cité les Courtillières-Le Serpentin designed by Émile Aillaud from 1954. Seen from above this is a fairly extensive neighbourhood, consisting of an endless winding building around a courtyard of 500m x 200m, and two clusters with residential towers.
We speak to one of the four complex managers of Le Serpentin. He is present on site daily from 9 to 5 and knows all the inhabitants of the 600 houses in the complex. He tells us that the renovation of Le Serpentine, funded by the ANRU, a national renovation program, is almost complete. The façades are insulated and lined with subtly coloured tiles, the elevators have been renewed, the houses have been renovated inside and PV panels (which, actually do not work yet) are placed on the roofs. The central park of 4.2 ha will also be completely renewed. A small piece of the long pendulum has been demolished to improve the connection of the complex with the surroundigs. The layout of the public space looks much better with more abundant planting. Previously there was only grass and trees. The new playing area for children is already being used.

However, according to the complex manager, the problems are not resolved. “La drogue, la drogue!” he calls several times during our conversation. He also refers to children who are playing in the park without parental supervision. He finds this a bad idea in this neighbourhood. He also tells us that recently new homes have been realized on the outskirts of the area, with the idea to bring more social diversity into the area. Whether the theory works out in practice, the he unfortunately could not tell.
Our biased view of the northeastern suburbs being one large concentration of social housing in large-scale buildings, turned out not to be true.

We continued cycling through endless low-rise neighbourhoods in search of Cité de l’Abreuvoir. This ensemble was also designed by Aillaud. In this district, with 1500 homes from the 1950s, the renovation, again financed by the ANRU, has yet to be started. The municipality has already formulated ambitions. Dialogues with the residents take place. The same problems arise here as in all large social housing complexes from the 1960s and 1970s: poor insulation, small dwellings and outdated public space. The positive thing is that not only the complex and the public space are being improved, but that public transport is linked to the area to improve the connectivity. The current residents are worried about the affordability of their homes after the renovation, and whether they can continue to live there. After all, one part will be demolished to make room for new housing to attract people from outside the neighbourhood.

With mixed feelings we cycle back to Paris. The spatial approach of the Grands Ensembles focuses primarily on aesthetic renovation, not on programmatic, social or management renovation. On the one hand it is nice to see the original plans being respected. Rigorous demolition to introduce other forms of living and thus to achieve a better social mix as has happened in the Bijlmermeer and the Western Garden Cities in Amsterdam, are not to be expected here. The ensembles are left intact and reinforced in their original idea. The renovation of Cité des Courtillières has been done very well. Residents can once again be proud of their neighbourhood and finally may feel that they have been heard. On the other hand, this approach also raises questions. The houses remain small and dark, they still do not have outdoor spaces and the plinths are still anonymous. The park is beautifully designed but has a big surface that requires intensive maintenance. Will there be sufficient budget for this in the future; experience learns that this is rarely the case. It is also questionable whether this renovation enables the neighbourhood to reinforce its social economy; Is it possible to achieve a more diverse composition of residents, given the limited realization of new owner-occupied homes in relation to the large number of existing social rental homes? It is impossible to answer these questions now. For that, our visit to Bobigny is far too short, the approach was only recently implemented, and the problems of the Banlieus are far too complex.