The colossal grands ensembles, or high-rise public housing projects, in Paris and its surrounding banlieues, or suburbs, were built after World War II to accommodate an increasing population of rural migrants and immigrants. Today, the deteriorating buildings are largely considered failed experiments — catalysts for the alienation of their populations and a slew of accompanying social issues. Some are being renovated and reimagined but more still are slated for demolition.
In Laurent Kronental’s series, “Souvenir d’un Futur” (Memory of a Future), the product of four years of visits to nearly a dozen of these places, the modernist concrete landscapes are made to seem impossibly huge and virtually abandoned, like something out of a dystopian fantasy. The only people remaining in his vision appear to be a few solitary senior citizens, many of whom, Kronental says, are some of the projects’ first inhabitants. Photographed in carefully composed scenes with a 4-by-5 analog camera, the elderly men and women come across as resilient but vaguely forlorn, as though haunted by memories of the hopeful heydays of their homes.
For Kronental, the neglect of his human and architectural subjects are parallel concerns. But unlike some gloomy media reports, which sometimes fail to create any empathy for the individual in their hellish depictions of the projects, Kronental strove to capture a sense of humanity and poetry in his photos. By highlighting the people with the most tangible connection to an idealistic past, he suggests the possibility of a better future.
“There is actually a strength in these people. There are those melancholy glances but at the same time these solid postures. The people I photographed were far from being sad and they were still valiant despite, sometimes, a faraway look,” he said via e-mail.