Autumn of Cloud City, Nanterre, Paris (2018)

Nestling quietly in Nanterre under the shadow of the seemingly perpetual La Défense development in the business district of Paris, is the housing estate known locally as la Cité des Nuages or simply Cloud City. Once described by art critic Robert Hughes as ‘a piece of social scar tissue, gimmicky, condescending alphaville modernism,’ the distinctive towers are braced for what could be their final autumn season.

Designed by the architect Emile Aillaud and built between 1977 and 1981, the estate comprises eighteen cylindrical towers up to 38 floors high and is one of the grand ensembles of Paris. Below in the communal grounds, Aillaud, whose motto was ‘break the box’ planted a designated tree for each of the 1600 apartments and commissioned his son-in-law Fabio Rietti to create the towers’ characteristic outer skins – mega-mosaics made from millions of tiny ceramic tiles designed to mimic the look of passing clouds and verdant woodland. Aillaud’s daughter Laurence, who was a sculptor, also created the magnificent but somewhat terrifying unfurling reptile centerpiece. Fearful for their resident’s safety and perhaps their own liabilities too, the estate management team recently installed warning signs next to the sculpture stating: Il est fomellement interdit d’escalader le serpent – It is strictly forbidden to climb the snake.

Now less than forty years since their installation, the towers are subject to a state-backed urban renovation project. With failing insulation, water ingress and the spiralling cost of maintenance, the towers will change forever. With their unusually shaped single glazed windows and rudimentary rubber seals, the towers now place an unaffordable heating burden on their residents, some 46% of whom live below the poverty line. Top priority for the management company is to improve the thermal efficiency of the towers by installing an external insulation system that will ultimately call time on the clouds.

 

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