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'Brutalist Paris': uncovering unknown facets from within the known city

The book Brutalist Paris by Nigel Green and Robin Wilson, published by Blue Crow Media, presents the first cohesive study of brutalist architecture in Paris.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Jun 08, 2023

There is a stepped high-rise building in my hometown in Kerala, India. The first time that I remember seeing it, the building has been abandoned owing to legal issues. There were multiple stories associated with the building—of ghosts, smugglers, black magic, drug-addicted youth living there, madmen, illegal construction and more. As a kid, seeing a building that is unused, in ruins with wild plants and trees growing in it and has many tales associated with its abandonment, imbibed a kind of fear in me. Later in life, buildings of such nature raised curiosity, a curiosity to question why it was built and abandoned, what was its initial purpose and why is it still thriving. After watching it for years, it grew on me. A structure of monumental scale standing raised from the ground in all its mighty, facing the cars eye to eye as they pass through the flyover adjacent to it, and its visual presence in the context. Even when it wasn't relevant for all these years, it was still there, as physically prominent as ever. This building was my first encounter with brutalist architecture. A soaring high building in the strength of concrete, fearlessly exposing its materiality, going against all principles of traditional architecture and existing amid nature like a dominant manmade matter, on its best and worst days. Honestly, I don't think brutalist architecture ever has bad days or good days. For people who love it, the lifespan of a brutalist building is in continuum and for those who hate it, the whole existence of brutalist architecture is a boon.

As an architect, I cannot hate brutalist architecture, in fact, a lot of my favourite structures during my college days were iconic examples of brutalist architecture. But I understand what critics mean when they say the worst things about brutalist architecture. I recently read English cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple talk about brutalist architecture: The buildings are portrayed as vast empty tombs, but without the grandeur (or archaeological interest) of the Pyramids." I definitely smiled at his words and at what followed before and after this statement in his essay. I understand what he is saying, and he isn't quite wrong. Brutalism isn't a style created for the users, it mainly came into existence to address the many problems after the Second World War. Therefore, the style is also heavily influenced by the socio-political scenery of the then world and economy. The architecture emphasised ethics, the rawness of activism and necessity over aesthetic senses, long-term influence and socio-cultural impact. It might also be one of those architectural styles that don't confine to one region, country, culture or time period but rather reciprocate with a global necessity. The best example to support this statement is that, though the term 'brutalism' comes from the French word Béton brut (the name does not find roots in the English word 'brutal' like some critics sarcastically claim), the brutalist architecture of France is the least discussed.

  • Brutalist Paris is the first thoroughly researched, English language study of Brutalist architecture in and around Paris | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Brutalist Paris is the first thoroughly researched, English language study of Brutalist architecture in and around Paris Image: Courtesy of Blue Crow Media
  • Drawing on over five years of research, interviews and photography conducted by Robin Wilson and Nigel Green of Photolanguage, <em>Brutalist Paris </em>represents a substantial contribution to the study and exploration of Brutalist architecture | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Drawing on over five years of research, interviews and photography conducted by Robin Wilson and Nigel Green of Photo language, Brutalist Paris represents a substantial contribution to the study and exploration of Brutalist architecture Image: Courtesy of Blue Crow Media

This was the main reason why I was interested in Nigel Green and Robin Wilson's latest book Brutalist Paris. Paris is known for many things, but perhaps not its brutalist buildings. However, the iconic array of buildings in the city defines the best (and worst) of the architectural style in an impeccable manner. The book is published by Blue Crow Media as a follow-up to the duo's Brutalist Paris Map published in 2017. Brutalist Paris is a unique photographic record of over 50 buildings across Paris bringing forth a new interpretation of brutalism in the French context. Accompanying the intriguing architectural photography by Green, which captures the geometric conceptions of Parisian brutalist architecture in the light of social abstraction, are the detailed essays by Wilson. The book begins with a discussion of 'The brutalist 'figure' of an alternative Paris' where the style is defined as the 'beast of late modernism.' While trying to unravel the lesser-known parts of brutalism in Paris, the duo presented another Paris to the familiar one, an unknown city within the known. Wilson's writing continues to define how their map was perceived across the globe and how it paved the way for people to familiarise themselves with a rarely spoken discourse. "Our record of Parisian brutalism necessarily develops as both an architectural, historical account and as an encounter with buildings in their current state of use, maintenance, restoration and, in some cases, their ruination and destruction," states Wilson in the book.

The word brutalism is not in common usage in French architectural circles (although it has been more consistently used in the French architectural press in recent years). - Nigel Green and Robin Wilson, Brutalist Paris

From this perspective of the inception and progress of the architectural style in Paris, the book moves to its contemporary influences before separately looking at the structures across the geographical categorisation of Centre, South-West and West, North, and East and South-East. Best defining their stand in the interpretation of Parisian brutalism, Wilson writes, "Renée Gailhoustet's bridge creates an urban horizon complexity, its series of projecting, triangular forms create (in the brief moment that it is glimpsed in-frame) a crown of incomprehensible urban form, as if representative of a yet greater threat of the unknown urbanism to come, as the police team head out eagerly into the 'wilds.' In many ways, this is the perfect presentation of the spectacular, mediatised form of brutalist architecture: an architecture of shock that remains remote and incommensurable; a gateway to an unknown city, of dark interests." By imbibing a thought in the reader that each of these building become a structural portrait displayed as urban objects, the series of black and white photographs and architectural examples segregate into its destined directions.

  • The <em>Orgues de Flandre</em>, a group of residential buildings in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, France by architect Martin van Trek | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    The Orgues de Flandre, a group of residential buildings in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, France, by architect Martin van Trek Image: Nigel Green
  • <em>Ivry Cité Voltaire</em> by architect Nina Schuch| Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Ivry Cité Voltaire by architect Nina Schuch Image: Nigel Green

While talking about the various definitions of brutalist architecture the book cites and discusses a prominent one by critic Reyner Banham in his essay for The Architectural Review in December 1955, where he refers to the works of architects Alison and Peter Smithson to define brutalism. While placing Banham's opinions in different structural examples of Paris, Wilson also points out that Banham's journal criticism, then, "provides a set of working principles for identifying brutalist buildings, such as the occasion requires, and which transfers across different materials and techniques of construction: 'memorability' and, indeed the 'ruthlessness' of the spatial system as image." The chapter deconstructs the many definitions of the architectural style put forward by writers and critics of the 1950s and 60s and discusses them in the light of buildings of Paris which imparts a thought in the readers that the city's brutalist icons aren't just examples but a culminate archive of brutalism's birth, progress, death and revival.

Cité de la Maladrerie Aubervilliers</em> in Paris | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
Cité de la Maladrerie Aubervilliers in Paris Image: Nigel Green

One of the prodigies and early pioneers of brutalist architecture was Le Corbusier. His Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1952) was the best example of the Swiss-French architect's love for Béton brut and expression of material as found. In the discourse of brutalism, one has to talk about Corbusier's contribution to the style. Mentioned in Brutalist Paris is Corbusier's Maisons Jaoul in Western Paris (1955), which is a pair of family houses inspired by the barrel roof construction of Mediterranean vernacular architecture. But unlike the Corbusian fans, here the writers don't talk of the greatness of his designs but rather critically analyse it in the light of brutalist evolution in Paris. The book goes on to discuss this project of Corbusier's from the perspectives of architectural historian Adrian Forty, and critic and historian Andrew Ayers. Forty and Ayers were vocal critics of the project then, questioning the work for the level of contradiction between means and end, stating that "the brickwork was executed by skilled and experienced craftsmen who were instructed to conduct the work with a loose hand."

  • The <em>siège du Parti communiste français </em>(headquarters of the French Communist Party) in the 19th arrondissement of Paris by architect Oscar Niemeyer | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    The siège du Parti communiste français (headquarters of the French Communist Party) in the 19th arrondissement of Paris by architect Oscar Niemeyer Image: Nigel Green
  • A curving concrete ceiling defines the low platform stage at <em>siège du Parti communiste français </em>| Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    A curving concrete ceiling defines the low platform stage at siège du Parti communiste français Image: Nigel Green

The book flows in a timeline of literary and public perception of brutalist architecture worldwide, explaining the thoughts and terms in the backdrop of Parisian buildings. In the initial chapters, Green and Wilson take the readers through the beginning of the style in its early years where criticism and activism against the style were strong. They then move to establish the fact that the architecture evolved to adapt to the post-war realities, where urban rebuilding was an immediate requirement. In the later years, this was reflected in how many critics and architects moved to perceive the style as the simplest possible solution to a current problem and started experimenting with the style through collaboration and implementing it mostly in public institutions. Towards part 6, Brutalist Paris talks about the stylistics and ideological diversity of the mid-1970s, where Green and Wilson chart a series of distinct contributions to the brutalist vocabulary across different building typologies by the Polish-born, French-trained architect Jacques Kalisz and the French architects Claude Parent and Gérard Grandval.

  • Car park in Noisy-le-Grand, Paris | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Car park in Noisy-le-Grand, Paris Image: Nigel Green
  • Car park in Noisy-le-Grand, Paris | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Car park in Noisy-le-Grand, Paris Image: Nigel Green

The thought-provoking part of the book is that even though the first half of Brutalist Paris cites examples of works, essays and definitions by architects, critics and historians from across the globe, towards the end it comes back to French architects who led the architectural style in the country. Kalisz's administrative centre of Pantin was one of the earlier works of brutalist architecture in Paris and remains one of the best examples of brutalist architecture in the world. While Parent is known for his contribution to making a sharp epistemological break in France with architectural modernism, his brutalist icons are comparatively lesser discussed. His Bordeaux-le-Pecq House in Bois-le-Roi, France, Drusch House in Versailles, Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay Church and French pavilion facade for the Venice Biennale, Italy (1996) are a few of Parent's noteworthy physical manifestation that goes beyond his articles, books, and magnificent manifesto-drawings. Though Les Choux de Créteil, a group of ten cylindrical buildings in the suburbs of Paris is a famous icon of brutalist architecture and regarded as a symbol of 1970s French architecture, the rest of Grandval remains unknown to the global community.

  • Brutalist Paris Book: Grandval's <em>Les Choux de Créteil</em> in the Paris suburb of Créteil | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Brutalist Paris book: Grandval's Les Choux de Créteil in the Paris suburb of Créteil Image: Courtesy of Blue Crow Media
  • Brutalist Paris Book: Grandval's <em>Les Choux de Créteil</em> is regarded as a symbol of 1970s French architecture | Brutalist Paris | Blue Crow Media | STIRworld
    Brutalist Paris: Grandval's Les Choux de Créteil is regarded as a symbol of 1970s French architecture Image: Courtesy of Blue Crow Media

For me what Brutalist Paris does is, bring to the limelight the local architects of the 'movement' to a global platform, and talk about their philosophies and approaches to particular projects, in addition to establishing the significance of brutalist architecture in Paris. It goes beyond the design language of one project to the knowledge, research and experience they accumulated over time, from multiple projects. The book is a journey, one that words the duo's Brutalist Paris Map of 2017. You travel from one building to another across the centre to the periphery of Paris, talking about the exceptional and critical elements in every building, understanding why certain 'publicly distasteful' additions were placed and adoring the geometric raw beauty of some proportions. The book doesn't take sides. It discusses brutalist architecture as it is—loved by some and hated by some—there is no middle ground. As Wilson mentions, "As travellers within the urban conditions that surround and interpenetrate the brutalist sites- in their public spaces, undercrofts and adjacent streets, we can also validly off more than just a sterile, architectural portrait of external form, and have aimed to report back a more expansive impression of the terms of brutalism's contact, or, indeed, contract, with wider Paris."

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