On the outskirts of Paris lie the Grands Ensembles, large housing projects that were built from the 1950s onwards to address a housing crisis, urban migration and the addition of thousands of migrants. Today, these vast futuristic estates are often stigmatised by the media and many look unfavourably upon them.
But for the older locals who live there, these ambitious yet dated modernist buildings are what they call home and have been for most of their lives. Photographer Laurent Kronental was so moved by the living conditions of the Ensembles, he wanted to shed light on their older residents, people who are sometimes regarded as a forgotten generation.
Tinted with melancholy, his resulting photographic series, Souvenir d'un Futur, exposes these unsung suburban areas but reveals a beauty behind the modernist utopia that had so much promise and wonder. A project that was four years in the making, Laurent combines a mixture of sensitive portraits of older residents along with beautiful architectural photographs that offer pleasing geometric compositions of what feels like a crumbling, ghostly world.
What sparked the interest for Laurent? "I was influenced by my experience in China where I lived for six months in 2008, where I also discovered photography" he tells Creative Boom. "The big cities of this territory stunned me by their gigantic size, their tentacular immoderation, their paradoxes, their metamorphosises, their contrasts and the way the human being lives in this abundant and overpopulated town planning. I was literally absorbed by the atmosphere of the megalopolis and by its astounding mix of futurism and tradition. It certainly unconsciously stimulated the search for a juxtaposition of ages in my later projects."
In 2010, as Laurent was walking in Courbevoie, he discovered a tiny little street where he felt time had stopped for 50 years. "The place was surreal. I befriended a couple of old people and started to photograph them. Their traditional garden offered a stark contrast with the surrounding skyline of towers, bringing together two different eras, two different living styles."
It was around that time that Laurent was drawn to the architecture of the Grands Ensembles, with two areas close to home in mind: Les Damiers at Courbevoie and Les Tours Aillaud (of which they are also called Tours Nuages or Cité Pablo Picasso) at Nanterre. He adds: "I got interested in their history, origins of their construction and their place in the actual society. I am fascinated by their oversized urbanism and their look both rough and poetic."
Why focus on the older generation living there? "I have always been inspired by seniors and I had this deep feeling to put them at the front stage. I wished to communicate with them, know their life and try to deconstruct this sometimes depreciating image of the old age which arises from our society. I then said to myself that there was a subject to explore both on the passing of the generations as well as on the impact of time on the architecture and the lives which it tries to harmonise."
Of course, the Grands Ensembles are usually full of life but Laurent wanted to create an atmosphere of there being a "parallel world mixing past and future while consciously conveying the impression of towns that would be emptied of their residents".
He continues: "In this magnificent and ghostly world, the structures of our cities would be titanic, gobble the human, the product of our fears and hopes for an organization of the city. The majority of my images have been done early in the morning to emphasise this feeling of a post-apocalyptic otherworld. I wished to enhance the seniors in focusing our attention only on them. The areas are inhabited of course. They house as many people as in any other estates."
Finally, what does Laurent hope we'll take away from this series, all shot with a 4x5 camera? "I made this series with the will to keep the memory of a generation so that in the future our society and its buildings allow by their structures and their services departments to give back a social role to our elders, and thus, the legitimacy and the respect which are owed to them," he says.
"I would like that people could discover, with so much surprise as I was able to have, the large estates landscapes. I would wish that they feel so much fascination and curiosity with regard to such constructions. I want that we wonder about the future of these districts, that we pay attention to their population put aside.
"In a fast-moving world, I should like to arouse awareness of duration, intergenerational links, of our social average and long term responsibility as well as of our solidarity. I think that it is also relevant to wonder about the notion of utopia, the dream of a better world and to question how this utopia materialises. Large estates, records of past utopias are rich in teachings. They have to be kept as essential works of our heritage."