The architecture of Ivry, a series of encouters

The public works programme that the communist-run town of Ivry-sur-Seine launched in 1962 for its renovation lasted for more than twenty-five years. It was only at the end that the main thrust emerged clearly and that the project took shape; in the meantime people grew accustomed to living in provisional surroundings, with changes taking place in bits and pieces, and bursts of demolition depending on the state of the municipal cash-flow, and buildings going up like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as yet illegible. The first operation was the appearance in 1968 of a tower block of ninety-six apartments opposite the venerable town hall, causing some perplexity in the municipality. The next stage was in 1970, when Jean Renaudie showed the future inhabitants the model of the Casanova building and its eighty apartments: a founding moment. There was some intrusion of political developments into daily life, and doubts as to the legitimacy of the project (was it really suitable for the working class ?), the desire to complete what had been started, or to be done with the whole thing, and the ever-pressing need for new housing. Here we merely describe one aspect of the story: what those who worked on the transformation of the district wanted to achieve, the builders, the architects, but also those who commissioned the work, and whose passionate involvement made the operation possible.

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Jeanne-Hachette, the terraces. Above the shopping center, public terraces, gardens of the housing, climbing of the external accesses. © Paul Maurer

Renée Gailhoustet, architect

October 1st, 2022
6 min.
The public works programme that the communist-run town of Ivry-sur-Seine launched in 1962 for its renovation lasted for more than twenty-five years. It was only at the end that the main thrust emerged clearly and that the project took shape; in the meantime people grew accustomed to living in provisional surroundings, with changes taking place in bits and pieces, and bursts of demolition depending on the state of the municipal cash-flow, and buildings going up like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as yet illegible. The first operation was the appearance in 1968 of a tower block of ninety-six apartments opposite the venerable town hall, causing some perplexity in the municipality. The next stage was in 1970, when Jean Renaudie showed the future inhabitants the model of the Casanova building and its eighty apartments: a founding moment. There was some intrusion of political developments into daily life, and doubts as to the legitimacy of the project (was it really suitable for the working class ?), the desire to complete what had been started, or to be done with the whole thing, and the ever-pressing need for new housing. Here we merely describe one aspect of the story: what those who worked on the transformation of the district wanted to achieve, the builders, the architects, but also those who commissioned the work, and whose passionate involvement made the operation possible.

The relationship between Ivry and other architectural projects aiming at serving the interests of “large numbers”, as defined as early as 1953 by the Team X creators in relation to post-war issues, may be compared with more distant situations. Admittedly Ivry is very different from the 19th-century factory-towns where employers built the static alignments and proliferating standard segments, which housing estates were to duplicate to infinity a century later. A book, Le Petit Travailleur infatigable (the tireless little worker), by Lion Murard and Patrick Zylberman, 1976, describes that world of the inevitably troublemaking poor, and restores to urban configurations their abrupt significance in terms of social control. Renaudie was wont to quote the book with passion. The ideology has taken on more hypocritical forms, but renovation projects have often only made the speculators happy. The Ivry town council took steps to remain in control, and the woman who ran the Office d’HLM (agency in charge of social housing) became the official head of the project: the prime aim was housing. The convictions shared by the architects were in line with such an aim. Nevertheless, there had to be the affirmation of a distance between social needs and architectural production. Such a debate now seems obsolete, but at the time it was necessary to distinguish oneself from those who refused to admit the influence of politics on architecture, and those who lumped the two together, both attitudes being condemned to ineffectiveness.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, socially minded architects, who had been trained against a background of standards of hygiene, had managed to escape from the contradiction. The interest shown very early on by Henri Sauvage for workers’ housing, for example, was closely linked to that of the city, as evidenced by the astonishing rue des Amiraux (Paris, 1922), where apartments and a public swimming pool are fitted into the same structure. During those inventive twenties, the Soviet architects of “common homes” wanted to create a revolutionary habitat, and Michel de Klerk, a member of the socialist association Architectura et Amicitia, built Eigen Haard in Amsterdam, workers’ apartments and a lesson in urban life.
In these achievements, the growth of towns is clearly the main field of action for architecture, and housing is very much to the fore. Housing is not, as a senior official of the Villes Nouvelles built around Paris wrote, “a technical object designed to protect the occupants from the rain and nuisances”. Such a definition does not fit the Ivry development. When the Casanova project was revealed, the sociologist FranНoise Lugassy remarked, among other reactions that were ambiguous, enthusiastic or anxious, those of people who “wanted to break with the past and adopt a new style of living”. Such wishes certainly sprang from the vivid dreams of that tempestuous moment in French political life, the 1968 upheaval. Some remained doubtful. The reaction however of a senior official shows that the political motivation for such a wish goes back much earlier than 1968. It was also more intimate: when she visited the subsequent very spacious apartments on two levels, designed to be sold, she felt the pangs of uncontrollable jealousy. These were not for workers. She only expressed this years later. And yet the renovation programme created 1,100 low-rent homes for 260 co-ownerships. There is no difference in appearance; they all present the sober, and not always popular, aspect of bare concrete.

The centre of Ivry is an odd collection of accommodation where the buildings are all different, each characterised by their volumes projected into space, their unfettered vegetation cascading among the terraces set back from each other. Such forms are possible thanks to the homogeneity of each construction, which gathers within the same structure the platforms of the parking lots - which is banal, the constraints of the streets and paths - which is more unusual, and especially the public areas, the shops and the supermarket, the welfare services, offices, a school, an arts centre, artists’ studios and craft workshops. The town is a whole. The areas it harbours, that it needs, have certain requirements in terms of space, specific depths and heights, several different levels, a particular luminosity. The bold idea was to use these differences to vary the housing, to take advantage of the geographical potential of the uneven land and hillside locations where the buildings dovetail into each other. This escapes the rigid narrowness of an apartment block, enjoying a depth that gives room for terraces and patios. Community life develops above the stultifying enclave of the supermarket.

Plan-masse Plan-masse
Plans de logements Plans de logements
Jeanne-Hachette, the ramp of the shopping center The ramp, through the geometry of the glass panes that border it, overhangs the shops, reflects the superstructures and dilates the interior volume through the flare of its facets. Andréa Mueller Jeanne-Hachette, the ramp of the shopping center The ramp, through the geometry of the glass panes that border it, overhangs the shops, reflects the superstructures and dilates the interior volume through the flare of its facets. Andréa Mueller
Le Liégat The circular terraces of Le Liégat envelop the dwellings and multiply the views on the surrounding city. Glass windows cross them and open the lower level to the sky. Géronimo Padron-Lopez Le Liégat The circular terraces of Le Liégat envelop the dwellings and multiply the views on the surrounding city. Glass windows cross them and open the lower level to the sky. Géronimo Padron-Lopez
All the urban elements are in contact with each other, as Camillo Sitte strongly recommended, for the visual pleasure of the visitor and the sound economics of the builder, who can avoid spending vast sums on “costly supporting structures and stone cornices”. Ivry makes do without cornices, but the cohesion of the construction has had a novel consequence: the use to which it is put can evolve. Evidence of this is the present debate between the town council and the occupants, in strong opposition, concerning the future of Jeanne-Hachette. This profuse collection of apartments, offices and terraces also harbours a shopping centre that needs rehabilitation. Its extraordinary interior volume, with the glass windows that spread outwards each side of the access ramp, deserves better than destructive standardisation. It could, it should be part of a new project, with areas assigned to cultural activities.

The superposition of programmes, the crossing over of volumes, the conjunction of the public and private sector, all this multiplied the relations between forms, but also among people. No break between streets and blocks is allowed. In the town, the land belongs to everyone; people go their various ways and meet each other. Despite the installation of digital door-entry systems, barred access to some terraces, and a few illegal privatisations, the generosity of the original intention is still present. On the ground level there are the covered paths that run through the blocks, not only for reaching the entrance halls, but forming a network linking the main streets and branching off in several directions, lit by the skyline and the internal courtyards. Along the busiest route, between the métro and the town hall, pedestrians, usually channelled along like the traffic, can walk through the buildings on two constantly communicating levels. Wide steps, recessed zigzagging ramps, homes on bridges over the flow of traffic, but also passages across the facades and unobtrusive flights of steps for the regular users. There are also steps that climb straight up the terraces, providing the Jeanne Hachette apartments with a second access, like the garden gate in country homes.

The same spirit of reaching out to others is found in the apartments themselves. In CitО du Parc they look over the school playground (which itself is on several levels, for gardening). Jean Renaudie’s bevelled shapes, projected towards the light, deliberately create opportunities to see one’s neighbours, like the mingling of curves of LiОgat, the small distance between buildings and the intimate scale of Marat, and everywhere terraces for doing what one wants to do: children’s games, eating out of doors, the smell of barbecues, ambitious gardening ventures. Over the years the terraces have changed, surreptitiously altering the intentions of the architect, for whom these places that were both private and open provided the best opportunity for contact among neighbours. The profuse vegetation now protects their intimacy.

Times change, and not only gardens. It is still the done thing to want to meet one’s fellow creatures, even those who are different. Rich towns however refuse to have low-rent council housing. The gated communities, where timorous Americans lock themselves inside guarded enclosures, are the temptation of the day. Can one resist the security-first trend, in the name of the mirage of a fantasized past, full of friendly neighbours, all identical? Our society is moving towards a more diverse and coloured pattern. Will architecture produce a sufficient variety of forms for everyone to find a place ?


CHRONOLOGIE
Studies for the renovation of the city centre of Ivry-sur-Seine began in 1962. The first building to go up was the Raspail tower block (1968, Renée Gailhoustet, arch.), which was followed by three other high-rise buildings. Jean Renaudie appeared on the scene in 1969; he designed the 80 apartments of Casanova (1972), and Jeanne-Hachette - shops, offices, 40 apartments and an arts centre - built in five stages from 1972 to 1976. In 1972 Spinoza (Renée Gailhoustet, arch.) was completed: 70 apartments, crèche, meeting place, children’s library and artists’ studios. The cultural centre project (Jean Renaudie, arch.) was never built. In 1978 there followed Jean-Baptiste ClОment (Jean Renaudie, arch.), 11 apartments, and in 1980 Bernard Palissy (François Gaussel, arch.), 50 apartments. Jean Renaudie died in 1982. The following projects were then carried out: 143 apartments at CitО du Parc (Jean and Serge Renaudie, arch.), including the Einstein school (Jean Renaudie, arch. and Nina Schuch, arch.), 136 apartments with 25 artists’ studios at LiОgat (Renée Gailhoustet, arch.), then Marat, with 140 apartments above a supermarket (1986, Renée Gailhoustet); and lastly place Voltaire and its 132 apartments (1987, Nina Schuch, arch.).


First publication in the book "Housing subtance of our cities", under the direction of Nasrine Seraji, Pavillon de l'Arsenal edition, 2007.



Renée Gailhoustet, architect
Nationality: French
Birth: 1929, Oran (Algeria)
Place(s) of residence and work: Ivry-sur-seine (Île-de-France, France)ce)