Situated to the north-east of Paris and surrounded by the kinds of towns where nobody chooses to live, Le Bourget struggles to retain any glamour today. Nevertheless, it is still one of Europe's leading airports for private jets, and can also now boast an exclusive Gogasian art gallery in one of its old hangers.
The airport itself - and some of the architecture on its periphery - is a living snapshot of a particular period in time, the 1930s. The Cité 2012 housing project, facing the main terminal, is perhaps the best example.
A rather imposing structure alongside its neighbouring low-level buildings, the Cité 212 was built to serve the airport, and originally counted 581 apartments. It was built between 1933 and 1936 by the architect Germain Dorel, and is clearly inspired by contemporary Austrian designs.
Le Bourget was not just a take off and landing space for aircraft - it also built and repaired them. The Cité was designed to house these workers, but it also attracted pilots as well as a lady named Jeanne Fontaine who is said to have been the world's first air hostess!
It's easy to see how its rather heroic, polychrome architecture could have attracted people in this initial pre-war period, especially given its position opposite the most important place in France for the nascent aviation industries. In addition, the whole site was designed according to hygienist principles, with small gardens and an encouraging of the circulation of air around the development and through the buildings.
It is these aesthetic choices that are still most striking today. The site is made up of seven separate buildings lined up like horizontal dominoes, and at the centre of each building is a giant archway topped with statues in feminine forms. A central pedestrian boulevard runs through the arches bringing an unusual and unifying grace to the whole development.
With the decline in the Le Bouget airport following the creation of Orly and then Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, the development had fewer people to shelter and fell into disrepair. It became a barracks for a while, then a giant storage space, until it was finally saved from demolition after being given historical protection in 1996.
The site was then renovated, with the number of apartments dropping by nearly half (there are now 265 on site) - the logical result of a near doubling in size of each apartment! Initially three room apartments in the development averaged 37m² (approximately 400 square feet), which was considered an acceptable size at the time.
With these renovations came a new name. The Cité 212 (the number representing its position in the street in which it stands) took the name of its designer, and is now known as the Résidence Germain Dorel.
Over 10 years after these renovations, the site is once again looking in need of a slight refresh. The polychrome facades are missing their original zest, even if the fixtures and fittings, still in their original forms, seem to be in good shape.
However, rather than the walls of these buildings, it is their residents that are in greater need of care. Whilst at the origin the people housed here were in full employment, generally within walking distance of the Cité, today the buildings house disenfranchised immigrant communities. It is unlikely that many of those living here today spend much time at the Le Bourget airport and its Air and Space museum - and even less likely that they will have visited the Gagosian gallery.
Their distrust though is easy to understand. What difference does it make to them that they live in a listed building of historical importance if it - and they themselves - today stand isolated and cut off from the places of power and importance? When this Cité was built it was connected directly to Paris Opéra by tramway, and stood opposite one of the busiest and most important airports in the world. Now it must feel like that was all such a long time ago.
- A short Invisible Paris history of the Le Bourget airport.
- Another Germain Dorel polychrome building, this time alongside the site of the 1924 Olympics in Colombes (scroll to bottom for the photo!).
- A Germain Dorel building is also featured in my latest walking tour, Concrete Paris, centred on the city's 16th arrondissement.