In and around Paris one can find a number of housing estates that seem almost classic from a contemporary perspective, though they were designed in the eclectic style of the 1980s. The logic behind the design decisions is hard to retrace now; questions of taste appear uncertain and the implemented solutions have already come to the end of their half-life of just over thirty years. These large constructions were to bring the urban to the periphery, for which their designs harked back to the formal language of classicism. This goes for both the surrounding cityscape and the buildings’ facades: temples and theatres, columns and capitals.
The buildings in question often serve as social housing; the prefabrication of all building elements guaranteed economic viability. There is a strong contrast between the prestigious exteriors and the modest living quarters, which remind one more of “Arbeiterschließfächer” [working class lockbox of a flat] of condemned modernity than the “small man’s Versailles”, as Bofills Arcades du Lac in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines are often called.
In his video essay Borrowed Shapes, Eiko Grimberg connects two places on the outskirts of Paris: Les Colonnes de Saint-Christophe in Cergy-Pontoise and Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Noisy-le-Grand, the former located in the north-west, the latter in the east. Between the two, we see Antigone in Montpellier. All three ensembles were designed by the architect Ricardo Bofill and built in the 1980s. Cergy and Abraxas are villes nouvelles projects, designed to serve as new centres for the surrounding communities; Antigone was conceived of as a model and today serves as a new centre next to the old one. When travelling through by train, one passes by the suburban flat blocks of the 1960s and ’70s, predecessors to the postmodern centres.
For the architect Adolf Loos, ornament was where the “excesses” of human nature were banished to. He saw ornament as the embodiment of our animalistic nature, the unconscious – our excesses transformed via sublimation into the physical structures of ornament. Where two construction elements meet, a visible join is created, which is often ornamentally concealed. If such a join becomes unnecessary due to technical advances, the ornament gains a kind of independence, becoming a reminder, an unconscious trace or “the residue of outmoded forms”, in the opinion of the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno.
Grimberg guides us through expansive, bright spaces, surrounded by equally bright and flat buildings. He shows us the everyday lives of these new cities, in which schoolchildren and shoppers move among the buildings. Where Grimberg’s recordings go into detail, focusing on, say, columns, capitals, or a station clock, the architectural elements disintegrate into fragments that awkwardly nestle up against one another, as if they want to cover something up. These buildings are made up of little more than their historical and ornamental cladding, the history of which has, however, become invisible.
Kindly supported by the Waldemar Koch Stiftung