Design in the Crisis of Representation, or a Cultural Center for Ivry-sur-Seine’s City Center Urban Renewal

Vanessa Grossman

The radical master plan that architects Renée Gailhoustet and Jean Renaudie designed for the city center urban renewal of Ivry-sur-Seine, considered to be the “capital of French communism,”1 was strategically structured around a cultural center, responding to the plea of communists leaders who championed the idea of culture as a means for workers to join the struggle for social and political change.2 The dismissal of the cultural center epitomized the challenges that the master plan faced, when the problem of representation of the working class created a scission between communist architects and leaders. The project lasted almost 25 years, spanning the period before and after May 1968, which meant a profound questioning of modern architecture, communism, Marxism and culture altogether.

In the beginning of the 1960s the widening of two perpendicular streets merging at Ivry’s downtown triggered the idea of an urban renewal. For local communist leaders, the modernization of Ivry's city center was a means to fight against land-speculation and thus safeguard social balance through the combination of new social housing estates and amenities in what would be the city's first ever master plan. For its conception, Roland Dubrulle, the appointed chief architect in 1962, soon hired Gailhoustet, a newly graduated architect, to develop the ambitious project relying on sociological surveys, which led to the diagnosis that the derelict urban fabric of Ivry’s central district should not be preserved.3 Henceforth, the master plan became the object of successive revisions, all of which overlaid the historical accumulation of buildings.

The first version of Dubrulle's master plan followed an urban solution that was widespread in France’s post-1958 urban planning era. It consisted of mixed-function towers and slabs, including housing, public spaces, shops, offices, hotels and parking lots, sitting on elevated pedestrian platforms and bridges, all organized around a low-rise cultural center.4 The convergence to a cultural facility was not anodyne; local communist leaders took pride in their policies by stating that, unlike the state, they devoted a significant part of their budget to cultural amenities.5 The costly policy of rehousing the displaced population on the site made it necessary to split the master plan in different mixed-use zones and carry out the work in several phases. The third zone, structured around the cultural center, remained undeveloped. In the plans and elevations of 1969, the cultural center was featured a series of shifting stacked volumes. Two housing towers, Raspail and Lenin, located in zones 1 and 2, were the first to be built.

Gailhoustet was alone in charge of their design as high-rise versions of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, inside which she ingeniously combined variants of semi-duplex typologies, drawing from the research that Team 10-member Georges Candilis had carried out in French-colonized Africa in the 1950s.6 In 1968, the 18-storey Raspail tower was erected entirely of reinforced raw concrete. Regardless of its large and sunny apartments, its tectonic aspects associated with raw concrete gable walls stirred up polemics among communist city councilors for Ivry’s constituency.7 They foresaw the contrasting material townscape that the new master plan would produce in Ivry when completed inasmuch as the inevitable comparison to Ivry’s most celebrated postwar social housing achievement, the adjacent 14-storey Cité Maurice Thorez inaugurated in 1953. Designed by local architects in the first years of the Cold War, it alluded both to the city’s working-class vocation of which communists were proud, as well as to its communist politics; its red bricks were a reference to the city’s factories, whereas its monumental features, crowned with a spire, evoked the official socialist realist architecture that was built in the USSR under Stalin’s rule.Its hues paid honor to “Ivry-la-Rouge,” and the building was ultimately baptized “the Kremlin.”8

This clash over the issue of raw concrete in Ivry, which took place against the backdrop of May 1968, led to the resignation of Dubrulle and Gailhoustet’s appointment as chief architect of urban renewal in 1969. A year later Renaudie, one of the co-founders of Atelier de Montrouge (1958–1981), joined her as joint chief architect. This happened since Renaudie left the Atelier after disagreements with his partners on the utopian resonances of the drawings he conceived for the study of Le Vaudreuil, one of France’s new towns.9 Paradoxically, Renaudie and Gailhoustet’s co-authored master plan became more radical as the economic and political panorama grew more hostile.

Molecular biology and structural Marxism, whose imbrication with politics reached a climax in May 1968, afforded Renaudie insights into the concept of “the city is a combinatorics,” which he tested in Ivry. The latter was a manifesto proclaiming an urban theory for an open system of architecture aimed at innovating the discourse on human agency, sociability, and urban life.10 Combining, on three-dimensional level, constituent elements of the city in all of its “complexity”—urban space conceived as a succession of shortcuts and medieval courtyards— it called zoning principles into question through a structuralist emphasis on “relations” rather than on “elements” constituting the whole.11 Renaudie also aimed to make every dwelling unique to favor an architectural expression of individuality that was directly opposed to modernist mass production. Postindustrial standardization —the social flattening that had permeated the communist paradigm for decades— was suddenly displaced to accommodate social difference; a political right with personal choice.

Hence, by 1972, their co-authored master plan had progressed to a topological entity conceived as a communication system blurring the boundaries between public and private. While the cultural center was put on hold, the first parts of their master plan to be built were two mixed-use complexes entirely designed in raw concrete, namely Danielle Casanova and Jeanne Hachette. Sitting on ground-floor retail spaces, both projects consisted of unusual star-shaped layouts for various apartment types that were superimposed and interconnected by proliferating pyramid-like structures fanning outward, intended to be transformed into mountainous, leafy cascading terraces. The implication, for Renaudie and Gailhoustet, was to grant the population new ways of experimenting, customizing and even self-managing space together, from within the domestic confines to the city and its very townscape.

These buildings came to incarnate, however, a turning point in the financial evolution of the master plan. On the eve of the 1973 oil shock, the state decided to backtrack from the urban renewal to which it formerly assured support. No longer involved, it claimed that the city should promote real estate other than social housing and use new public-private mechanisms to financially rebalance itself; a controversial alternative for French communists who were obliged to include different kinds of tenancy and homeownership, giving the impression of privileging the middle and upper classes.12 Worse yet, both buildings changed downtown Ivry’s urban morphology once and for all.

A letter sent by a reader published in a 1976 issue of Ivry ma ville, the municipal newsletter, is a case in point:

I share my thoughts on the transformation of Ivry’s downtown referred to as 'RENEWAL.' Well, there was much to do because of its material obsolescence; the lack of the most basic comfort, but this was not a reason for making the city look uglier, with all this RAW CONCRETE, these COLD GEOMETRIC forms […] If this is still possible, I am surely not the only one to ask you to stop these vertical structures, and to provide a central green space (not all of us can go outside to the city’s fort in order to breathe...).13

There were many reasons that destabilized all meanings engendering the “lack of popular identification.”14 Sociological surveys15 especially commissioned at a ministerial level at the time showed how they encompassed reluctance vis-à-vis a new architectural vocabulary of triangular layouts fostering a new sociability —with large living rooms and much smaller bedrooms— which inhabitants found difficult to furnish.16 For Ivry’s elected officials, this data evidenced a questioning of their own social policy, and therefore of the master plan. The consequence was the dismissal of the cultural center, which Renaudie further developed to comprise an elaborate program intertwining workshops, an indoor public market, a library, a transforming theater, and even apartments and retail spaces. In the latest versions of the master plan, the cultural center came to embody Renaudie’s earlier plans for Le Vaudreuil, borrowing patterns from the architect's utopian urban thought. Its organic structure unfolded into different levels of concentric circular units with terraces connecting to Jeanne Hachette and other surrounding buildings and streets, as if the whole master plan converged into a convoluted spiral of culture.

However, the master plan as it evolved in the 1970s, was never fully achieved. Despite successive public campaigns, the municipality struggled to fill the project’s holes. The image of Jeanne Hachette, with an amputated-like bridge, persisted for a decade, even after Renaudie’s premature death in 1981, the same year of France’s presidential elections that marked the PCF’s irretrievable decline. The impaired overpass was completed in 1986 with Voltaire, a housing project designed in lieu of the cultural center by Nina Schuch, Renaudie’s design partner.

Perhaps due to the dismissal of the cultural center —allegorically conceived in some of Renaudie’s drawings as the radiating heart of the master plan— the urban vitality that Renaudie and Gailhoustet envisaged for Ivry’s center is yet to be fulfilled. If the apartment units are fully inhabited, despite the initial criticism, and their “ecological avant la lettre”17 terraces are abundantly planted, the collective spaces have gradually been depopulated and abandoned, especially at Jeanne Hachette’s commercial facilities. Still, it is precisely this building the object of heated debates today, led by those who advocate for the conversion of its empty retail spaces to accommodate Ivry’s various cultural activities. Once impaired, Jeanne Hachette may now be the recipient of another prosthetic operation: a long-awaited “heart transplant” in Ivry.

1 Emmanuel Bellanger, Ivry banlieue rouge, capitale du communisme français, XXe siècle (Ivry-sur-Seine: Créaphis, 2017).
2 See Roland Leroy, “Classe ouvrière, marxisme et la culture nationale” (1968) in La culture au présent (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1972), 91-113.
3 Bureau d'études et de réalisations urbaines (BERU), “Centre Ville Ilot I - Rapport économique,” p. 12, Carton 406 Etudes BERU/ Enquêtes sociales et économiques plans, Archives Municipales d’Ivry-sur-Seine.
4 See Bénédicte Chaljub, “Lorsque l’engagement entre maîtrise d’ouvrage et maîtres d’œuvre encourage l’innovation architecturale: le cas du centre ville d’Ivry-sur-Seine, 1962-1986,” Cahiers d’histoire, no. 109 (2009): 77-94.
5 See Pierre Gaudibert, Action culturelle. Intégration et/ou Subversion (Paris: Casterman, 1977), 99. See also Cyrille Guiat, “Ideology and Clientelism in the Cultural Policy of the PCF in Ivry-sur-Seine (c.1965-c.1985),” in The French and Italian Communist Parties: Comrades in Culture (London: Routledge, 2004), 85-121.
6 Renée Gailhoustet, interview with author, October 11, 2012.
7 Raymonde Laluque, interview with author, August 17, 2020.
8 Marie-Claude Vermeersch, cited in “Les 60 ans de la cité Thorez,” accessed December 4, 2017
9 See Caterine Blain, “Ombre et lumière sous la Ve République: les engagements publics de l’Atelier de Montrouge (1958-1981),” Cahiers d’histoire, no. 109 (2009): 55-76.
10 Jean Renaudie, “Pour une connaissance de la ville,” in Jean Renaudie, La ville est une combinatoire (Ivry-sur-Seine: Movitcity Édition, 2014), 34.
11 Jean-Louis Cohen, France: Modern Architectures in History (London: Reaktion, 2015), 244-246.
12 Marc Mann, Skype interview with author, January 7, 2016. See also Françoise Moiroux, “La rénovation du centre d’Ivry-sur-seine (1963-1988),” AMC, no. 154 (2005): 92-98.
13 Ivry ma ville, no. 42 (1976): 20.
14 Raymonde Laluque, “Rénovation du Centre Ville d'Ivry-sur-Seine Dossier de Clôture,” September 1985, Archives municipales d’Ivry-sur-Seine. See also Gérard Althabe, Monique Selim, B. Lége, Urbanisme et réhabilitation symbolique, Ivry, Bologne, Amiens (Paris: Anthropos, 1984).
15 Françoise Lugassy, “Les réactions à l’immeuble Danielle Casanova à Ivry. Tome 1: Réactions avant emménagement. Tome 2: Les processus d’appropriation,” Research report, Plan construction, Compagnie française d’économistes et de psychosociologues (CEP), Direction de la construction au Ministère de l’Équipement, July 1973, March 1974, Archives municipales d’Ivry-sur-Seine.
16 TLugassy, “Les réactions à l’immeuble Danielle Casanova à Ivry,” 29.
17 Raymonde Laluque, interview with author, August 17, 2020.