I went to go find the large mural to Thomas Sankara, painted on the side of a housing block on Rue Hoche1 in Ivry.

sankara mural

The mural was commissioned for the 30th anniversary of Sankara’s murder. After exploring the housing estate, I also found this graffiti on the back of a shelter.

sankara graffiti

I took the afternoon to walk around the district and visit some unique buildings, beginning with Cité Louis Bertrand.2 It’s an extension of the park into a residential area, surrounding the tower blocks with trees and bushes. No roads, just paths.

You can see imagine the designers starting out from a fairly specific vision of living in an urban forest, and it works. Whether intentional or not, the place gets across the illusion of ‘nature taking over’ straight from the set-pieces of something like Planet of the Apes. What’s more surprising, this is social housing, and the park conversion was done in the early 2000s. It’s all the sort of experimental design you would expect to find in Britain on housing estates dating back to the 1960s.

The roads leading down to Louis Bertrand were interspersed with new wood-framed offices and clusters of old houses which I guess were never cleared when the estate was originally built.

I walked further down to Place Voltaire3 and stopped in a left-wing bookshop. The southern edge of the square stretches over the Avenue Georges Gosnat4 with a pedestrian bridge, leading to a multi-layered complex. Along with the apartments, the buiding also contains a pharmacy, an opticians clinic, a butchers shop, several bakeries, a bank, a cafe, a hairdresser, a supermarket, an art gallery, and most visibly from the road - a local union office of the CGT. The back of the complex includes a small garden with plenty of benches and a theatre. The road running under the complex has a dedicated bus lane with multiple shelters and stops dotted around the place, and if that’s not enough there’s a metro entrance on the corner. When you take it all into account you begin to notice the underlying plan, everything is there for a purpose, all designed very deliberately to meet the needs of local residents.

etoiles ivry

All these housing blocks were previously owned by the municipality, now they’re under a housing co-operative called Ivry Habitat. The administrative council which runs Ivry Habitat includes representatives from the municipality, trade unions, tenants unions, social security organisations (CAF/UDAF), and an architect. It’s a structure which aims to represent the needs of the community. Corporate housing developers and property speculators have no power here.

Out of curiosity I walked to the building opposite Ecole Gabriel Péri,5 finding a public sculpture in the entrance. Many of the buildings here are adorned with works of art, which only compounds the feeling that the place was built with considerable love and attention.

Matthieu and me were talking about how this compares to Oxford’s new Northern Gateway development, an inoffensive sprinkling of offices and housing on a large field adjacent to a motorway junction. Look at the Oxford expansion plans side-by-side with a map of Ivry and the lack of imagination is glaring.

The red fortresses surrounding Paris were consciously built with a new society in mind. I was curious about Villejuif for the same reason, as an area governed by the PCF for almost a century, it represents a little outpost of social progress. You notice that there are campaign posters for Fabien Roussel all over the place. The Communist Party’s candidate might only be polling 5% nationally for the presidential election, but in Ivry they’re visibly the dominant force. When the Socialist Party were forced to sell their fancy headquarters in Solferino, they moved to a big building in Ivry just across the railway line. In an election period where a significant portion of the French electorate appears to be balancing between different shades of the far right, it’s encouraging to go and visit these places where the left is popular.

  1. Named after a general in the French Revolutionary Army. 

  2. Named after a French-Algerian novellist. 

  3. Named after a central philosopher of the enlightenment. 

  4. Named after a French communist politician. 

  5. Named after another French communist politician.