Renaissance of Noisy’s iconic edifices near Paris

The Connexion visits the Paris suburb where extraordinarily original architecture is alive once more

25 December 2019
The circular Les Arènes de Picasso, which are nicknamed ‘Les Camemberts’, were inaugurated in 1985
By Samantha David

Noisy-le-Grand, on the outskirts of Paris, has such extraordinary architecture that some scenes from The Hunger Games were filmed there and Terry Gilliam used it as a location for Brazil.

One of the original “Villes Nouvelles” designated in the 1960s for development to accommodate the foreseen population explosion, the outsized Neo-Classical buildings have not always been in favour.

The maire, Brigitte Marsigny, says that when she arrived four years ago, parts of the commune were in need of drastic renovation. “La Palacio, designed in 1978 by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, and inaugurated in 1983, was in urgent need of works. At one time, there were even plans to demolish it, but to me it is our heritage so I went to meet him in Barcelona, and I asked him to help restore this magnificent architecture. So he came and met people and talked to the inhabitants, and came up with a plan to improve the experience of living in it.”

The Palacio is part of the ‘Espaces Abraxas’ a development consisting of three massive constructions containing 600 flats; the Theatre, the Arc and the Palacio, which is a monumental block 18 floors high with four staircases serving 250 flats. The curving half-moon Theatre is also an apartment block divided in half by multiple stairwells which are bridged by an arch on the 7th floor; the Arc.

The development has always been controversial, some residents clinging to it with passion and others referring to it as ‘Alcatraz’. The improvements included adding shops and cafés to make the area more sociable.

Detail from Les Espaces Abraxas

The other area undergoing renovation in Noisy-le-Grand is the massive building which housed the Ecole de Lumière cinema school from 1989-2012.

Very modern, the combination of concrete and metal is forbidding and futuristic. “We wanted to do something with that too, as it is a massive space and has so much cultural history attached to it,” says Mme Marsigny.

After a long hard fight with the French government to avoid the site being turned into a prison, works are now ongoing to develop the site into a residential complex with a mix of private and social housing set around landscaped gardens and a lake.

“There will be crèches, a café, an incubator for new start-ups, and a climbing wall.” The plan also includes planting the facades of the massive building to soften the outlines and improve the aesthetic appearance. “Once transformed, it will be a very nice place to live.”

Another remarkable site in Noisy-le-Grand goes by the nickname ‘Les Camemberts’. Officially called ‘Les Arènes de Picasso’, it was designed in 1981 by another Spanish architect, Manuel Núñez Yanowsky and inaugurated in 1985.

The two massive circular constructions, set either end of a monumental public square, are supposed to evoke an overturned carriage. They contain 540 flats, a crèche, a secondary school, and shops.

“My objective is to highlight and preserve this architecture and to improve all the architecture in Noisy-le-Grand, making it better,” says the maire.

The entire area is extremely photogenic and showcases a side of France in sharp contrast to the usual image of lavender fields in Provence, beaches on the Riviera or the historic villages of Dordogne.

It makes an unusual afternoon out from Paris. To get to Noisy-le-Grand from central Paris, take the RER A to Noisy-le-Grand Mont d’Est, and head for the place Pablo Picasso and the place des Fédérés (to see the Espaces Abraxas).

While there, do not miss the massive sculpture ‘Sarabande Pour Picasso’ by Miguel Ortiz Berrocal, which used to be in Place Pablo Picasso but which is now at the end of the Allée Léon Blum leading to the ‘Arènes’.

Look carefully at the four nudes figures and you will see that each has a medallion in her hair; a self-portrait of Picasso, a portrait by David Douglas Duncan, a portrait of architect Manuel Núñez Yanowsky and another of Miguel Ortiz Berrocal with his wife and two children.

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