The Architect Who Wanted to Revolutionize Social Housing in France

The Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, who passed away in January at the age of 82, was known for designing the headquarters of Cartier and Dior in Paris, and of United Airlines in Chicago. However, he also created vast social housing complexes inspired by Ancient Greece. A utopian yet controversial vision.
Les Colonnes de Saint-Christophe, Cergy-Pontoise. © Gregori Civera/RBTA

It is very unlikely that you have personally seen Les Espaces d’Abraxas, a social housing complex of 600 homes built in the style of an ancient city, located in an underprivileged neighborhood of the Seine-Saint-Denis département, in the Paris suburbs. Only curious visitors venture this far. However, you may have seen – without realizing it – its monumental architecture. Comprising three enormous buildings arranged in a circle – the Theater, the Palace, and the Arch in the center – this structure fascinates the public and attracts French and American directors looking for apocalyptic settings.

The site was used as a set in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 cult thriller Brazil. It was also the capital of the dystopian world in Hollywood’s The Hunger Games saga (2014, 2015), in which actress Jennifer Lawrence fights against a society organized into a caste system. This screenplay must have delighted Ricardo Bofill, who spent his younger years as a member of the Gauche Divine, a collective of anti-Franco artists and intellectuals championing freedom and democracy. These political affinities saw him kicked out of the Barcelona School of Architecture in 1957 and forced into exile in Geneva.

Ricardo Bofill. © Gregori Civera/RBTA

Switzerland gave Ricardo Bofill the chance to perfect his French, which he spoke fluently. His elegant style – spotless shirts and tailored suits – and his stately demeanor formed the sophisticated public image of this Francophile whose influences included the Italian Renaissance, architects François Mansart and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and philosopher, poet, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Palaces for the People

In France, Ricardo Bofill devoted his time to creating grandiose housing complexes aimed at low-income communities. Commissioned as part of the “new-cities policy” launched by the French government around Paris in the 1960s, he tried to break away from the monotony of commuter towns and bring life and beauty to these often-neglected neighborhoods. Most of his projects in France were social housing units with very unusual designs. He never produced gray concrete towers, but instead focused on ambitious, ornamental architecture with white facades, pediments, colonnades, moldings, and triumphal arches.

In Montpellier, he designed a whole neighborhood spanning more than half a mile, which he called Antigone. He relied on trompe-l’oeil effects, using dyed concrete to mimic stone, and built staircases in immense columns in a nod to Ancient Greece. He even filled the green spaces with ancient statues, such as a copy of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. In the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines urban area, he drew inspiration from the Château de Chenonceau, the Pont d’Avignon, and the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia to create Les Arcades du Lac, featuring a waterfront social housing complex in the middle of an artificial lake.

Les Arcades du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. © Gregori Civera/RBTA

A Failed Utopia

His suburban housing works were supposed to be a “Versailles for the people.” However, almost forty years after they were inaugurated, these artistic feats are still divisive. In Paris, residents of the Les Echelles du Baroque complex, built in a semi-circle behind the Montparnasse train station, complain about the narrow windows. The inhabitants of Les Espaces d’Abraxas have also denounced the decrepitude of their building. The prefabricated concrete, which shines pink in the sun, turns black
during spells of bad weather. As a result, it has been alternately nicknamed “Alcatraz” and “Gotham City.”

Above all, the residents criticize the lack of green spaces and windows overlooking the outdoors, while also complaining about the crime rates in these enormous complexes where even the police are afraid to venture. This failure reveals the limits of utopia; architecture alone cannot right the wrongs of urban policy, nor provide universal solutions. Previously threatened with demolition, the complex in Seine-Saint-Denis has been the focus of a rehabilitation project, while a new 600-home program, Les Jardins d’Abraxas, also designed by Ricardo Bofill, started delivering its first units last year. It seems that the architect’s utopian vision is still alive and well!

Place de Catalogne, Paris. © Gregori Civera/RBTA
Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand. © Gregori Civera/RBTA
Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand. © Gregori Civera/RBTA
Les Echelles du Baroque, Paris. © Gregori Civera/RBTA
Antigone, Montpellier. © Gregori Civera/RBTA
Les Arcades du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. © Gregori Civera/RBTA

Portfolio published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.