Wednesday 26 June 2013

The Cité 212: Where Social Housing Meets the History of Aviation

Living within sight of an airport may seem undesirable today, but there was a time when such locations were considered glamorous. Although the areas surrounding the Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports are today dominated by warehouses, motorways and modern box hotels, a glimpse of this previous era can still be seen opposite Paris's Le Bourget airport.

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.

If the residency's links to aviation have slowly been eroded, what does remain from this original period of its existence? Housed somewhere on the site is apparently a model apartment still furnished in a 1930s style, but I have not yet been able to track it down. That said, I was not made to feel particularly welcome on my last visit, with small pockets of young men eyeing me suspiciously as I took photos of their territory. 

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.  

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Frank Pleasants said...

Interesting post and photos. I had never thought that an airport neighborhood might have been one of prestige, but then it makes sense ... back in the days.

Tim said...

Great piece, and love the shot of the pedestrian boulevard!

Adam said...

Frank: I'm not sure it would ever have been a prestigious address, but it was certainly 'avant garde' - and the architecture is an interesting example of this. What is interesting here is that it remains frozen at this period in time. Had Le Bourget remained the city's leading airport, this whole area would be buried under concrete, motorways, train lines and high-rise hotels.

Adam said...

Tim: That photo was taken from the rear. The same angle from the front is probably more interesting still, but that entrance was 'guarded' by around 15-20 young men who didn't seem keen on having their photo taken!

Linda said...

Adam, have you located the original-style model apartment yet? How confident are you that it - amazingly - still may exist? I assume that would include 1930s furniture as well as the original apartment fittings. Also, I want to take advantage of your offer to non-Smart device owners to receive the itinerary of your Concrete walking tour, including a Germain Dorel site. How do I do that?

I'm thrilled to have recently discovered your site searching for Art Deco-related addresses. Thanks very much!

Adam said...

Linda: I haven't located the apartment, but have no reason to believe that it doesn't exist. Like you, I'd love to visit it one day.

If you'd like a walking tour itinerary, send me a mail (adam (@) invisibleparis (.) net)

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