A photographic promenade in the south-western suburb of Vélizy, a transitory territory of anonymous destinations and invisible architecture. At first sight at least…
For most Parisians, Vélizy is synonymous with two things; a sprawling shopping mall and a procession of office blocks and industrial units. This double axis of work and consumption could seemingly provide the town’s maxim.
The geography is a thin strip of land, running between a forest and an airport, both of which are suggested but rarely seen. More obvious is the motorway that also traces the line. There is also now a tramway, but this is a kingdom of the car and a landscape placed at their service. The avenue, the slip road, the car park, places where pedestrians are not welcome and not visible.
Vélizy is a place of destination – the office, the shop, an industrial unit. These are locations people drive to every day, delimited territories often behind high fences. In their mental memory maps, there is a line to and from these ultra-familiar destinations, but outside are only vast swathes of indiscriminate grey.
But what is there to grasp in a zone with no landmarks and only the interchangeable architecture of multinationals and chain brands? Office blocks are constructed with inbuilt dates of destruction, an ever-changing horizon that no-one notices. It is a town without a single building or object listed in France’s cultural heritage inventory, but is there then nothing to see?
In many ways it is the archetypal non-place, a landscape of super-modernity, described by sociologist Marc Augé as “crowded places where thousands of individual itineraries converge for a moment, unaware of one another.” Move off the central line though, and evidence of life begins to appear.
Not at the Villacoublay airport which is a military installation and hidden away behind high banks of earth. It is more often heard - a low rumble before a jet or helicopter quickly scoots off into the sky. This is where the President of the French Republic takes off and lands, where journalists are invited only to cover heroic homecomings of dead soldiers or rescued (ransomed) hostages. I risk a photo of a lookout tower after a military vehicle has bounced past, regretting only that I can’t get closer to a ruined aircraft suggested amongst the undergrowth beyond the fence.
Life is not more obvious in the leisure landscapes alongside the tramway track. Here there are gardens, play areas, skate parks and basketball courts – but no people, despite this being the school holidays. Despite an overall sensation of wealth in the town, there are traces of social problems – a mattress in the skate park, a domination of Front National posters on notice boards – suggesting that all is not well here.
Alongside though is a sign pointing towards the ‘village’. Could there be an ancient heart, a primitive community that was slowly swallowed up by the capitalist machine that mushroomed around it? There is mention of a battle here in 1815, between the French and the Prussians, a conflict won by the eastern invaders who pillaged what they found. Seemingly they left little behind, as almost nothing remains from that era.
Instead what I find is a facsimile, a 20th century invention based on the village prototype; the church spire, the town hall, the garden, the places of commerce. Curiously, there are also ponies. Lots of them.
Still though there are no people, although the village is clearly a residential zone. The village shops – the butcher, the baker, the newsagent – are all closed for lunch. Alongside is a strange confrontation, a face to face clash between the old and new versions of the town hall. The older building is perhaps the most ancient in town, after the tiny Saint-Denis chapel which apparently dates from the 17th century but which – like the town hall – has been supplanted by something bigger, brasher and more modern.
Walking through the village I come to what is perhaps its historic heart – 1950s houses, called chalets here – and a 1970s shopping centre, built on a raised concrete plateau. At last there are people, but in restaurants, hunched enigmatic figures behind windows steamed with condensation. There is also a Rue du Lavoir, an indication that once there was an old wash house here somewhere. I take the ramp up to the Louvois shopping centre, but once again I could be in a post-apocalyptic world.
It's even impossible to window shop. Everything is behind blinds, curtains and shutters. The restaurant blinks 'open', although it quite clearly isn't. Perhaps I'll come back sometime.
Beyond, the residential slips slowly back into the industrial, although it would be difficult to say what any of the companies here do. They live their anonymity as a protection, an additional barrier behind the walls and barbed wire.
As I jump onto the tramway that passes by, it seems that I'm experiencing the landscape as it was designed. A slow moving procession of duplicate blocks, of over-familar brand identities and forms that enter my cortex then quickly fade away. It's the perfect landscape for our ultra-modern amnesia.
This is a territory I'll grow familiar with, learn to map and navigate, but that seems like almost a subversive act.