Brutalist architecture shows a different side to Paris

Examples of Brutalism abound in Ile-de-France. Here are some of the region’s finest raw concrete structures.

Considered innovative and modern in the period following the Second World War, then gradually abandoned in the late 1980s, Brutalist architecture invariably sparks strong reactions. This post-war architectural style classified as a variant of modernism can mostly be seen in the immediate outskirts of Paris, where larger spaces were available. Beyond the appeal of raw concrete, there was a desire at the time to revolutionize social housing, and this explains the sheer size of the buildings. Here are some of the most striking expressions of this movement.

Just outside the capital

The Espaces Abraxas [a monumental apartment complex] in Noisy le Grand are undoubtedly an important expression of Brutalist architecture on the outskirts of Paris. Built by Ricardo Bofill in the early 80s, they are particularly popular having attracted photographers and film makers. They have been the location for many films including Brazil, Hunger Games, Who killed Pamela Rose? as well as many music clips.

In Nanterre, the ‘cloud towers’ or Aillaud towers, named after Émile Aillaud, the architect who designed them, were built between 1973 and 1981 and bear the ‘remarkable contemporary architecture’ label. Their blue-and-white-painted undulating façades are now emblematic of this northwestern Paris suburb.

Further east, in Bobigny, Brutalist structures include the local police headquarters, the Préfecture; the Bourse départementale du travail, a lesser-known work by Oscar Niemeyer comprising an extraordinary auditorium and the offices of the labour exchange, which satisfied his need for ‘rigour and simplicity’, and the arrestingly rectangular Hôtel de Ville.

In Pantin, the administrative centre created in 1972 by Jacques Kalisz has a façade alternating slit-like openings and raw concrete cubes that together compose one long wall of concrete along the Canal de l’Ourcq. In 2004 the building was converted into the Centre National de la Danse. To the southeast, in Créteil, the ‘choux’ (cabbage) buildings designed by the architect Gérard Granval owe their nickname to their cylindrical balconies. A short distance from here, the Palais de Justice law courts building designed in 1978 by Daniel Badani and Pierre Roux-Dorlut rises up like a huge open book symbolizing the law, together with the scales of justice.

In Paris

Although Paris proper has few examples of Brutalism, there are a few noteworthy exceptions. The UNESCO headquarters in the 7th arrondissement, nicknamed ‘the three-pointed star’ because it is Y-shaped, was co-designed by three great architects: Italy’s Pier Luigi Nervi, Frenchman Bernard Zehrfuss and the American architect Marcel Breuer. The latter created a towering concrete canopy at the entrance to the main building, while the interior has an austereness typical of the late 1950s.

The Front de Seine area has several tall buildings dating to the Brutalist period. The Tour de Mars, Tour Panorama and Tour Évasion 2000 were all designed by the architects Henri Pottier and Michel Proux. Not far away, in the 14th arrondissement, the design of the Maison du Brésil was naturally entrusted to a Brazilian architect, Lucio Costa, working in collaboration with Le Corbusier. Together they designed this residence hall for Brazilian students following the strict aesthetic of Brutalism, but incorporating a range of bright colours. One of the designers of the monumental Communist Party headquarters was also Brazilian – Oscar Niemeyer, who worked alongside Paul Chemetov and Jean Prouvé to create this landmark building in the 19th arrondissement. Intended to exude power and modernity, the headquarters consists of an impressive building and a white dome. The interior of the dome, with its colours and curves, fully reveals the building’s architectural interest.

A stone’s throw from here, the dizzyingly high Orgues de Flandre, also referred to as ‘cité des Flamants’, or flamingo estate, is made up of several buildings, one of which is the highest residential building in the capital. Finally, there is the Centre Universitaire Mendès-France designed by Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat, an impressive reinforced concrete structure in Rue de Tolbiac.