The renovation of a utopia

[2018] During 1957-1990 one of the most important urban renovation processes in Europe took part in the centre of the town of Saint-Denis (centre de ville). The old housing that in many cases was considered unhealthy, had to be torn down giving its place to big complexes of social housing. The center of the city got divided in different urban islands (îlots), each one meant to be designed by a different architect. When the designing of the new buildings started the ideas of a new urban world that marked the 60s were already in the air. The new center of Saint-Denis had to offer housing for thousands of people in a limited surface, the city had to be radically transformed, the public space should be organised in a way that would create private yet playful meeting places to keep together a new type of community life. ILOT 8 is a remarkable example of the spirit of the time. Located at Saint Denis Basilique in between the Town Hall and the old market, it is a local landmark because of its striking architecture: a huge volume of fair-faced concrete shaped into discontinuous non symmetrical triangles. Designed by Renée Gailhoustet, who was already well-known for her social housing projects, the building hosts 182 apartments and one commercial center. Today, we could say that Gailhoustet’s work may have mainly been about massive buildings but never about uniformity. She always tried to create buildings that would respect peoples’ private identities. This thought might explain the reason behind the intermediate common spaces in the interior of the complex which propose an experimental use of the city protected from the noise of the street, the fact that each one of the apartments seems to be different from the others and last but not least the fact that terraces were designed as private green spaces where people could plant from grass to trees. Though today, almost 30 years after the completion of the construction, the reality of the inhabitants does not seem that easy. All the people I met say they love the design of their homes, although they all agree that their apartments face basic practical issues: the terraces leak into the apartments in such point that some inhabitants got seriously ill from the long-term exposure to humidity, the flats are cold because of lack of insulation and on top of that most of the windows were not designed to open at the first place which makes ventilation difficult and the conditions of life unhealthy for once more. It looks like that these issues are a result of cheap construction back in the 80s. But there is also another issue which relates to the change of society during this time: the intermediate places often become a place convenient for illegal activities such as drug dealing. These are the issues that make urgent the renovation of ILOT 8, which is now discussed between different entities, the inhabitants and the architect herself. The photographs that follow mean to pay an homage to this kind of architecture which accepts the challenge to create new ways of living, as well as to honour the everyday life of the people who inhabit these building we are mostly used to see from the outside.
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