Levitt France (Arles-2017)

03-ARLES - Levitt France-6621-20170828

This exhibition is about a housing project designed by an American that took root in France during the 1960’s offering “ready to move in homes” for single families. A number of these towns were developed over the following years. However, the original company filed for  bankruptcy in 1981.

Bill Levitt started the company in New York State after the war; the idea was prebuilt houses which were easily assembled and affordable. Measures were taken to make the houses look different; shops and recreational areas were included. A house could be constructed in a day! A short documentary film from 1947 is shown.

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There is a song by John Hallyday shown on a video screen; it features a modern housing estate as does the film that follows called A Million Voices (2012)

Five photographers take up this project;

  1. Jean Noviel: concerned with rules required for such a project and sustainability of the architecture and landscape.
  2. Julie Balague: concerned with will to preserve a heritage.
  3. Bruno Fontana: looks at types of houses and their relationship to well being.
  4. Camille Richer: focuses on specifics and borders
  5. Vincent Frillon: examines porousness between public and private spaces.

This work considers the success of such housing estates in regard to self-segregation, Americanism, the past and French modernity.

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Noviel concerned with records about use and memory of place; the norms and regulations. Little has changed during the 40 years of these housing constructions though verandas, skylights and air conditioning have been introduced into “this rigorous management of individual property.”

The colour photographs are printed in large colour at about size A1. Typed captions run along the bottom of the photographs. Most of these demonstrate the restrictions such as “Damaging the lawn, picking the flowers, cutting down trees or carving into tree bark” all being prohibited for residents.

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Balague has been nominated an Arles award for her work; prix de la photo Madame. “Pursuit of Happiness” Series looks at different aspects of the estate focusing on people (none of whom look at the camera) and various scenes such as the reflection of a shed in water. These give some idea of what life on the estate must be like.

Vincent Fillon shows a series of black and white photographs, carefully exposed and printed, that give an impression of the place. In the centre of these six black and whites that feature different kinds of house are colour close ups of artefacts from indoors made in flat lighting which include a door handle, a light fixture etc There is audio of Fillon talking but it is in French and I understand only little.

06-ARLES - Levitt France-6629-20170828

Balague has been nominated an Arles award for her work; prix de la photo Madame. “Pursuit of Happiness” Series looks at different aspects of the estate focusing on people (none of whom look at the camera) and various scenes such as the reflection of a shed in water. These give some idea of what life on the estate must be like.

Vincent Fillon shows a series of black and white photographs, carefully exposed and printed, that give an impression of the place. In the centre of these six black and whites that feature different kinds of house are colour close ups of artefacts from indoors made in flat lighting which include a door handle, a light fixture etc There is audio of Fillon talking but it is in French and I understand only little.

07-ARLES - Levitt France-6632-20170828

Richer lived in this Mennecy housing project for 15 years. With a degree in photography, she focuses not on the Mennecy estate but the countryside around it; this suggests a desire to be beyond or outside the place!

09-ARLES - Levitt France-6634-20170828

The Cardon family share a series of negatives from the late 1970’s that show the building of a house of the “Barbizon” model. 69 negatives show the process from placement of the first block to window installation; these are carefully composed well executed images.

There is a video tribute to Levitt by Noviel; clips from 3 films that show Levitt Mennecy as a background to the action. One suggests a Mrs.Robinson scenario of love between a teenager and a wife!

Another video screen shows a couple of advertisements that use Mennecy as a background; one is for Mac Donald’s the other for Mercedes in which a group of children flock to see a man putting his car in the garage using a remote control.

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There is also an old advertisement poster for buying houses in Levitt a Mennecy with copies of the necessary documentation required to do so and vintage postcards collected by Noviel of Levitt Mennecy.

Another piece of memorabilia is a photograph of a boy who used to play for the Levitt Mennecy football team; although he left, he later returned when he had a family to live there.

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I have spent a lot of time in this exhibition because it relates to a project I have started in relation to a new housing estate being built near to where I live. The photographs here give an idea of what the place is like; the exhibition as a whole presents an in depth view of the place from it’s inception and there seems to be little political narrative trying to prove it beneficial or destructive of individuality. The viewer is free to make up their own mind.

For instance, Fontana in his series of typologies has shown uniformity while Noviel shows a body of work that emphasises the differences.

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Yet this exhibition is confined to a visual examination! What of the lives of those who grew up here or spent their adult lives in the houses. Their voices go unheard except for a boy who was part of the Mennecy football team who chose to return and bring his children up in Levitt Mennecy.

On a more sombre note, the film maker Fischli writes, “mediocrity defines our urbanised landscape much more than the few so-called great achievements of contemporary architecture.”

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