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14 June 2016

Letter to Alejandro Aravena

What shall we do about “large ensembles?”

Dear Alejandro,

So many towns in France had to be rebuilt after WWII, quickly and at a large scale. The French government was deeply committed to building millions of housing units in the form of “large ensembles,” more commonly known in France as “cités.” At the time, the country was under the sway of Le Corbusier and a modernist movement that extolled a discontinuous, hygienic, and standardized vision of the city made up of independent elements immersed in a system of public and collective spaces for the inhabitants.

This progressive utopianism, both a social and an architectural project, resulted in a social policy for habitats that, despite its best intentions, ended up by creating large ghettos. Reality quickly drowned the utopia, and the values underlying such modernist projects rapidly became their greatest sources of weakness: mono-functionalism, segregation, undefined spaces, and isolation. The situation became so out of control that in the 1973 circular titled “On the urbanization forms known as ‘large ensembles’ to ‘fight against social segregation through habitat’,” the government itself signed the death warrant of this urban development policy.

Most of these sites today are areas in crisis governed by “the survival of the fittest,” ones which have a logic and forms of governance all their own. Do you know that the 50 most at-risk neighborhoods in France are all “large ensembles?”  Who can forget the 2005 riots, for example?

Is architecture itself responsible for the state of these places? Not completely, but definitely to some degree.

So, what should we do about “large ensembles?” This has become the question of the day. What strategy, besides demolition, can help these neighborhoods evolve towards other scenarios than the ones they are currently living? What would the positive aspects of these forms of urbanization be on which to base their transformation?  Can we reverse trends to the point of considering these sites as part of our heritage and even a valuable resource?

Some very pragmatic efforts have already been expended, largely based on privatizing these spaces as much as possible. The housing units have become progressively more and more fragmented, and the public space has obeyed the same logic, which has resulted in the progressive carving up and hierarchization of the public and private, and the reduction of poorly used collective spaces. This approach has been full of pitfalls: public spaces have been impoverished, the ground has been privatized in a homogenous manner, all against the very principle underlying the “large ensembles,” namely that of the open plan.

The project for the Génicart neighborhood tries to reconcile this carving up with the open plan. It began with the positive aspects of this urban model to build a new identity. The project took advantage of every opportunity provided by the need to intervene on the buildings in this neighborhood. The overall strategy was to render new housing blocks more visible by using a more individualized architectural treatment while retaining a more public, open, green, landscaped approach by fashioning new green spaces. This has totally transformed the neighborhood.

From residence to housing blocks, from no man’s land to urban parks

The buildings have been reconfigured as identifiable entities; the logic of residences has given way to that of housing blocks. Work on the facades began with thermal insulation for the buildings and improving energy consumption; this became a veritable opportunity for a dual approach to rehabilitation. On the one hand, we were able to create more spaces, additional living rooms, and more spacious loggias and balconies, and on the other, this project defined a new architecture that was distinct for each block.

This project tries to restore identity and especially a sense of pride. It was conducted while the site was occupied. The Génicart neighborhood represents only 10% of the town of Lormont’s surface area, but it houses 50% of its population, approximately 10,500 inhabitants. Everyone was informed, and everyone had an opportunity in one way or another to participate in this process. The challenge at the outset was to gain their trust and then to mobilize their energies so that they would experience their neighborhood as a special, unique place, not as just another cité.

We think the message was delivered. Since the completion of the works, the neighborhood has been totally transformed and its life has changed completely. We have the impression that the battle has been won, at least for the moment.

Umberto Napolitano
Benoit Jallon 

Lormont 01 Lormont 02