The Olympic theme was a marketing tool, but there was also initially a plan to incorporate a vast complex of sporting facilities into the development, making the Olympiades an environment that would inspire healthy living. Without leaving the development, or stepping into the streets of Paris that surrounded the city within the city, residents would have been able to access gymnasiums, swimming pools and athletics tracks. The final result though was far from these initial plans.
Although the Olympiades is still very much a self-contained block today, it is difficult to look at it without investigating the environment in which it is situated. It stands in the 13th arrondissement, which has seen almost three-quarters of its surface area restructured since the 1960. Much of this development has been high-rise, with a total of 44 towers now standing in the arrondissement. 29 of these towers line the roads around the Place d'Italie, with a small forest of these forming the Olympiades development.
Chief architect and urbanist for the development was Michel Holley, the man we also have to thank - or to blame - for the Front de Seine constructions, and a person who designed and built more high-rise buildings than anyone else in the history of the city.
The Olympiades development was part of a wider project called 'Italie XIII', which was described as being "la plus vaste entreprise d'urbanisme jamais tentée depuis Haussmann" (the biggest urbanism project attempted since Haussmann). Although the rows of towers are still the most distinct elements of the local landscape, it probably should be pointed out that they are just a fraction of what was originally planned. Over 50 towers were on the drawing board, with the Avenue d'Italie sketched as an urban autoroute into and out of the city.
Holley was unsuprisingly - by his own admission - a 'dingue de Corbu' (fan of Le Corbusier), and much of his work was inspired by Le Corbusier's Athens Charter. The Olympiades development incorporates some of these doctrines - notably high-rise housing blocks and free circulation, but is (almost) entirely devoid of green spaces.
Describing the application of these concepts at the Olympiades development, Holley said "Il nous fallait sculpter l'espace, organiser les vides, les pleins, l'avenir" (we had to sculpt the spaces, organise the emptiness, the solids, the future). More than just an environment in which over 11,000 people live, it was a carefully designed concept, a self-contained machine adrift from the rest of the city. So has it been a success?
Judged from a social viewpoint, the general sentiment is that it is one of the rare high-rise environments to have achieved a successful mix of economic backgrounds. This is no ghetto, but instead home to people from across the social spectrum. Secondly, it has a vibrant commercial life, thanks largely to its adoption by the Asian community, even if they are no more widely represented as residents than elsewhere in the city.
To this end, the experiment can be considered a success, but what of Holley's 'urbanigramme'? Well-designed and well-maintained high-rise blocks in central parts of the city will always attract acquirers. The apartments at the Olympiades - with their sweeping views across the city's left bank - have featured in numerous films and television programmes, but does this necessarily mean that the Olympiades is a desirable location?
To find out, let's begin at the bottom. A peculiarity of the development is that it was actually built on top of a train station, the old Gobelins terminus which welcomed goods trains up until 1996.As part of the agreement to build the Olympiades in the late 1960s/early 1970s, a new station was built, some small traces of which still exist underground. In front, the tracks have now been pulled up, leaving a patch of scrubland and what looks like a giant - but empty - car park.
The actual car parks of the development sit behind the old train station within a curious rabbit-warren of underground roads. These are real Paris streets, although privately-owned and forbidden to pedestrians for large stretches. The Olympic theme continues here underground - there is a Rue du Javelot (Javelin street) and a Rue du Disque (Discus street), and both are possibly unique in Paris in that they are entirely subterranean.
In addition to offering access to car parks, the roads are used for deliveries to the shops and restaurants of the Olympiades. Holley's 'circuler' environment in his vertical zoning model is certainly strange, but not without life. Pedestrians clearly use this level, entering from surrounding streets and passing through doors that obviously offer unsuspected shortcuts to other parts of the development.