Willy Vainqueur’s images of the 1984 Fetes et Fort, France’s first hip hop festival, which was held at the car scrap yard Maggie Gulick

Before it becomes part of a new eco-district, artists and residents of suburban Aubervilliers stopped to commemorate the history in their midst.

Over several months last year, more than 30,000 people made their way to an abandoned scrap yard on the northern outskirts of Paris. Not a typical destination for visitors, but the occasion was irresistible for urban explorers and art lovers: an art festival, In Situ, displaying the works of about 40 urban artists from across the globe.

The festival brought together world-renowned street artists and local residents (several who are artists themselves) to set the tone for the site's eventual transition. Artists used crumbling structures and abandoned cars as their canvas. Now, the ephemeral works have been cleared as the site is readied for its future as eco-district and transit hub.

A scrapped car painted by local graffiti artists 93MC (Maggie Gulick)

The former scrap yard is located on the grounds of the long-defunct Fort d'Aubervilliers. The 86-acre former military stronghold was built in 1843 and has had a colorful history, serving as the site of a laboratory used by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their Nobel-winning research on the structure of the atom (this also contributed to its former brownfield status). It is now home to an equestrian theater and an abundance of urban garden plots.

But the scrap yard was there for decades, and for many local residents, whose tall housing blocks overlook the site, the space remains synonymous with old cars. In 1984, it was host to France's first hip hop festival and competition, the Fetes et Fort.

For the group that organized the recent festival, Art En Ville, it was important that the art celebrate the site's unusual history while including local residents. "We did not want to just 'parachute' art in," says Olivier Landes, an urban planner and the festival's founder. "We wanted to feed the project with the history of the place."

To do this, he brought together some of the world's best makers of urban street art and asked them to create pieces in their style using the theme of transition. Several world-renowned urban artists including Jef Aerosol, David Walker, Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, and Borondo, as well as local artists like 93MC Crew, Lionel Dax ("Le Cyklop"), and Sylvie da Costa, were on site using mediums from graffiti and wheat-paste posters to photography and sculpture. Many local youth participated in the festival and were introduced to the historic site, parts of it long closed to the public.

The commune of Aubervilliers is located in the banlieues just outside Paris. These suburbs have become home to a growing number of immigrants, many from North Africa. They have a high concentration of public housing, and many public spaces are poorly designed or neglected. They are also cut off from other parts of the metropolis, factors that have contributed to poverty and other problems.

The public sector seems to be making good on promises to revitalize the site, with community input. Before engaging with Art en Ville for the festival, the agency that owns Fort d'Aubervilliers began working with Aubervilliers and neighboring Pantin as well as the regional government to ensure public participation. When the site began to be remediated, a panel of residents was invited to track the cleanup and eventual redevelopment.

Philippe Madec's master plan for the future eco-district at Fort d'Aubervilliers (Atelier Philippe Madec)
(Atelier Philippe Madec)

The future Aubervilliers Eco-District, led by planner and architect Philippe Madec,* will be one of 24 new neighborhoods, the Nouveaux Quartiers Urbains. The expanded transit hub within the new district will link with existing metro lines and form an important part of the future Grand Paris Express. This unprecedented expansion (set to open in 2025) will address regional inequalities in transit access by providing better patterns of mobility between Paris and its suburbs and improved connections between the suburbs themselves.

Madec's team has designed a mixed-use, sustainable neighborhood that emphasizes walkability and connectivity both in and around the project site. Due in part to the historic nature of the property but also to input from nearby residents, many of the stone fortifications will be repaired, several old buildings refurbished, and parks and gardens restored.

The stock of affordable square footage and 19th-century post-industrial spaces in this area have caught the eye of world-class architects, galleries (like the Gagosian), and luxury brands. At this point, the takeover is just a trickle. But surrounding neighborhoods remain in real need of community engagement and shared vision where decisions (not to mention trendy architecture) aren't simply imposed on them. This latest identity for the Fort d'Aubervilliers will hopefully ensure just that.

*CORRECTION: The redevelopment of the site is now being led by Nicolas Lebunetel Architects, and Atelier Phillipe Madec is no longer involved in the project, although the goals remain the same.  

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