Renée Gailhoustet, who has just been announced as the recipient of the Royal Academy Architecture Prize, is, even in architecture circles, a little-known name. She still lives in one of the apartments she designed 50 years ago in the south-eastern Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, where she was appointed master planner by the communist mayor in the wake of the events of May 1968.
It was Gailhoustet who brought in architect Jean Renaudie, whose spiky, expressionist concrete topography became the most recognisable image of Ivry and who became, perhaps because he was a man, perhaps because his architecture was more photogenic, the figure most associated with this piece of radical city design. They became partners, in life and work, but Gailhoustet’s name faded slightly from architecture’s collective memory while Renaudie, who died in 1981, remained something of a cult figure, his more self-consciously vivid buildings having been recently resurrected as social media landmarks, cropping up on Brutalist fan-sites and Instagram feeds.
Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1929, Gailhoustet is apparently, and understandably, fragile and was not available for an interview, but the chair of the RA jury who selected her for the prize, architect Farshid Moussavi, spoke to me about their decision.
“One of the things that we can say the French got right, from Haussmann to the current day, is housing,” she says, “and more particularly the idea that you aren’t just designing homes but when you design apartment blocks you’ re also designing a piece of the city.
“Housing makes up perhaps 40 per cent of the city,” says Moussavi. “What Renée Gailhoustet and Jean Renaudie did was a reaction, or perhaps a confrontation to the designs of Le Corbusier [the prevailing influence at the time]. It was a reaction to the slabs and towers in open space, a more urban idea which I think resonates with what we need now.”
Renaudie’s sharp, triangular grid might have become the totem of Ivry in the 1970s, but Gailhoustet’s own designs for buildings for the neighborhood (mostly social housing and mixed-use buildings) were gentler 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 flats with light and views in different directions, each one different.”
This was the age of system building, of prefabricated panels and repetitive units. “They both saw geometry as a device to provide choice and diversity to dwellers, so that they could use their own creativity to make the interiors their own.”
Gailhoustet’s octagonal grid created a more organic assemblage of staggered terraces, with plans resembling lichens spreading out over the surface of a rock. Some of the buildings house shops and arcades, others are overflowing with green cascading from terraces and balconies. All are strikingly individual with eccentric, even sci-fi openings and columns at curious angles. All the apartments have expansive outside space so that they appear like stacked gardens or inhabited concrete mountains.
Perhaps these grand visions went out of fashion a little in the late 20th century when a more conservative, historical idea of the city as orthogonal grid became the orthodoxy once more. But now, with central Paris fully gentrified and the banlieues still widely seen as failing, we can perhaps look back at what has become once more a wildly popular place to live, as well as to photograph and post on social media. We can appreciate the benefits of what still seems a radical and successful experiment in housing and urbanity.
“Gailhoustet’s master plan for Ivry was a real vision,” says Moussavi, “anti-functionalist, inclusive, diverse, mixed-use, a rejection of modernist zoning, a vision of how we can live together.”
The greatest testament to her designs is not that they are still appearing daily on Instagram and across the internet, but that they remain remarkably successful places to live, real fragments of urbanity which suggest that there might be infinitely rich and varied ways to design a city .