Renée Gailhoustet, who has just been announced winner of the Royal Academy Architecture Prize, is, even in the world of architecture, an unknown name. She still lives in one of the apartments she designed 50 years ago in Ivry-sur-Seine, in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris, where she was appointed town planner by the communist mayor following the events of May 1968.
It was Gailhoustet who brought in the architect Jean Renaudie, whose spiny, expressionist concrete topography became Ivry’s most recognizable image and who became, perhaps because he was a man, perhaps because its architecture was more photogenic, the figure most associated with this piece of radical city design. They became partners, in life and in work, but Gailhoustet’s name faded slightly from the collective memory of architecture while Renaudie, who died in 1981, remained something of a cult figure, his buildings the most consciously alive having recently been resurrected as social media landmarks, cropping up on brutalist fan sites and Instagram feeds.
Born in Oran, Algeria in 1929, Gailhoustet is apparently, understandably, frail and was unavailable for an interview, but the president of the RA jury that selected her for the award, architect Farshid Moussavi told me about their decision.
“One of the things that you can say the French have understood well, from Haussmann to the present day, is housing,” she says, “and more particularly the idea that you don’t just design houses, but when you design buildings, you’re also designing a piece of the city.
“Housing is maybe 40% of the city,” says Moussavi. “What Renée Gailhoustet and Jean Renaudie did was a reaction, or perhaps a confrontation with the designs of Le Corbusier [the prevailing influence at the time]. It was a reaction to open space slabs and towers, a more urban idea that I think resonates with what we need now.
Renaudie’s pointed, triangular grid might have become Ivry’s totem in the 1970s, but Gailhoustet’s own designs for buildings in the neighborhood (mainly social housing and mixed-use buildings) were softer and perhaps more private. “Renaudie used a triangular grid, explains Moussavi, but Gailhoustet used an octagonal grid; they both allowed them to create multi-oriented apartments with light and views in different directions, each different.
It was the age of building systems, prefabricated panels and repeating units. “They both saw geometry as a way to provide choice and diversity to residents, so they could use their own creativity to make interiors their own.”
Gailhoustet’s octagonal grid created a more organic assemblage of staggered terraces, with lichen-like planes spreading across the surface of a rock. Some of the buildings are home to shops and arcades, others are full of greenery cascading from terraces and balconies. All are strikingly individual with quirky, even sci-fi openings and columns at curious angles. All apartments have ample outdoor space so that they look like stacked gardens or inhabited concrete mountains.
Perhaps those grand visions went a little out of fashion by the end of the 20th century, when a more conservative historical idea of the city as an orthogonal grid once again became orthodoxy. But now, with central Paris fully gentrified and the suburbs still widely seen as failing, perhaps we can return to what has once again become a hugely popular place to live, as well as photograph and post on social media. We can appreciate the benefits of what still seems to be a radical and successful experiment in terms of housing and urbanity.
“Gailhoustet’s master plan for Ivry was a real vision”, says Moussavi, “anti-functionalist, inclusive, diverse, mixed, a refusal of modernist zoning, a vision of living together”.
The greatest testimony to his creations is not that they still appear daily on Instagram and on the Internet, but that they remain remarkably successful places to live, real fragments of urbanity that suggest that there could be infinitely rich and varied ways of conceiving a city. .