Les Espaces d’Abraxas

The Parisian suburbs are known for their grands ensembles, massive suburban apartment complexes built in the 1950s and 1960s. Square, monofunctional and surrounded by open spaces, they are the materialization of the reigning Modernist ideology of the time and are the first view foreign visitors get from Paris as they arrive from Roissy Charles De Gaulle or Orly Airport, as in the view of Sarcelles below.

Less well known, but no less spectacular, is perhaps the subsequent wave of urbanization that occurred in the 1970s and 80s around Paris. In reaction to Modernist principles, the designs of the new housing developments were characterized by a return to classical forms of architecture and ornamentation. A group of young architects, wanting to shy away from the mere “functionality” of Modernism, took advantage of the new urban plans of the 1970s, the villes nouvelles, which provided them with an opportunity to implement their burgeoning ideas. Using the most advanced building techniques at their disposal, they attempted to show that building mass housing  at a reasonable cost with unique details could be possible through standardized production.

With this idea in mind, I surmised that taking a day trip to check out these developments would lead me to those buildings where you have the impression that the architect went crazy and nobody told him to stop…I was right.  Here are a few choice cuts.

1. Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1982, Noisy le Grand)

Les Espaces d’Abraxas, was conceived by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill as an inhabited monument in the context of the ville nouvelle of Marne-La-Vallée. The 591-unit complex is made up of three main parts: the Palacio, a 19-story high apartment building; the théatre, a curved section of apartments demarcating a plaza in the center; and the arc in the center, modeled on a triumphal arch containing 20 apartments.

The central space, in the form of a lawn-covered plaza enclosed by the surrounding buildings, is an all-embracing open-air theatre. Mastery of concrete structures and of the system of prefabricated facades made it possible to use a comprehensive and highly complex architectural idiom. Although the methodology employed for Les Espaces d’Abraxas is related to previous projects by Bofill, this work is nonetheless the first volumetric exercise in space of such large dimensions. This proposed alternative to standardized, anonymous construction in the suburbs is an example of how the architects managed to embrace different scales of architecture, from the conception of basic volumes of the the complex design of facades and urban furniture. The details in the architecture are neo-classical elements, all as a way to elevate this modern social housing.

2. Les Arènes de Picasso (1985, Noisy le Grand)

Not far from Espaces d’Abraxas is Les Arènes de Picasso. Buildings are organized in an octagonal layout with two 14-story tall circular units on two facing sides. A green park with a large figural sculpture is in the center. The complex accommodates 540 dwellings, a kindergarten, a high school and a few convenience stores. In the post-Modernist tradition, Spanish architect Manolo Nuà  ±ez Yanowsky intended to break with standardized, functional modern architecture. The overall setting is highly symbolic–the two circular modules are aligned on an axis parallel to the Equator and are meant to represent the wheels of an overturned chariot. Repetition in design is avoided through a host of architectural details reminiscent of a Native American or Aztec art-deco aesthetic.