Les Espaces d’Abraxas, an architectural utopia overtaken by reality

NOISY-PE-GRAND: In the morning, when the city of Espaces d’Abraxas is still sleeping, a few tourists venture there to Instagram its monumental dystopian architecture famous as far as Hollywood. But from noon in this Parisian suburb, the lookouts settle down on their folding chairs and hunt the curious: the drug trade resumes its course.

Behind its retro-futuristic decor prized by directors of music videos and films (“Hunger Games”, “Brazil”…), this city inaugurated in 1983 in Seine-Saint-Denis, in the northern suburbs of Paris, has known the gears of impoverishment and disappearance of the social mix characteristic of sensitive neighborhoods.

The municipality of Noisy-le-Grand is now trying to revive this emblematic place.

However, the Abraxas were intended, from their conception by the Spanish star architect Ricardo Bofill, to break with the soulless social housing bars of large housing estates.

“It was a time of utopian ideology,” Yann Minh, a 65-year-old artist who has been living in the Theater building since 2017, told AFP. “The speech of the time was that one can, at the industrial level, manufacture palaces for the people: buildings which are not arid and ugly”.

The post-modernist architecture of the place thus uses prefabricated concrete elements of 18th century neo-classicism (pilasters, Doric columns, triangular pediments, etc.), its passageways bear the names of royal architects.


Visible for miles around, the Abraxas have the hostile appearance of a closed fortress, hence their nickname “Alcatraz”.

But once inside, we discover a city made up of three buildings around a square, which materialize almost exactly the distribution of the 600 apartments: two thirds in social housing, one third in private property.

For tenants of social housing: the Palacio, a massive 18-storey bunker where you go from one elevator shaft to another via a labyrinth of passageways and outdoor walkways, and the Arche, a triumphal arch converted into apartments .

To the owners: the elegant semi-circular structure of the Theatre.

Two worlds that look at each other like earthenware dogs and rarely mix. “As locals, we always say that there are the rich at the Theater and the poor at the Palacio. At the Theater, sometimes you don’t even know what’s going on at the Palacio”, schematizes Mareme Fall, tenant for 19 years and a key figure in the Abraxas.

At the foot of the Palacio, the premises where Bofill imagined businesses are abandoned and condemned to avoid squats. In the common areas, ripped false ceilings testify to searches for drug caches by the police. Several elevators are out of order, the ocher facades ooze with humidity.

A decay far from the modern and functional city that Samir Rouab discovered when he arrived at the Palacio in 1989, at the age of 15, in the luggage of his mother who held two jobs.

“In the elevator, there was a large mirror, a railing and red carpet. There were four guards available every day, by telephone or at the lodge. And the people who did the maintenance came daily”, bitterly remembers this 48-year-old tourist guide.

Gradually, describe all the interlocutors met by AFP, the allocation of social housing leads to a change of populations in the Palacio and the relative mixture of the beginnings disappears. Households from immigration are more numerous, the “French” leave.

“It started to derail a little. The middle categories left the building and we brought back families in great difficulty. Little by little, it became a difficult district, not to say ghetto”, says Michel Pajon, mayor socialist of Noisy-le-Grand from 1995 to 2015.

Insecurity appears. While the violent gang wars that shook the neighborhood in the 2000s are no longer relevant, cannabis trafficking is taking hold there, taking advantage of the convoluted architecture.

At the same time, donors are reducing costs. The walls are deteriorating, the guards are becoming scarce. Cleaning agents only come once a week.

Electoral negotiation

Judging the Abraxas beyond the point of no return, the socialist municipality abandons them and wants to raze them to build a convention center.

But in the municipal election of 2015, the opposition is committed to rehabilitating the city in exchange for the votes of the Palacio, reports Mareme Fall, today delegate to priority neighborhoods for the right-wing mayor Brigitte Marsigny.

Winning bet. Instead of abstaining, the Abraxas went to the polls en masse and Michel Pajon was beaten by… 33 votes.

The new majority then reinvests the Abraxas, to which the figuration in 2015 in one of the blockbusters “Hunger Games” gives a new boost of notoriety.

“Our policy is to enhance this space, to bring it what it lacks: green spaces around it, socio-cultural animation, to support it in a new district,” the deputy mayor told AFP. habitat, Pascal Laguilly.

A city-stadium and a children’s park appear. Festive events, such as a Halloween costume party, regularly bring together hundreds of locals. A new neighborhood with local shops is in the making next door.

In the Palacio, a socio-cultural center opened its doors in 2021. “There was no activity for the kids, now there is only that”, greets Samir Rouab, “when there is no school, there are plenty of outings for the children. When it’s summer, departures to the sea, etc.”.

As part of the rehabilitation of degraded condominiums, a major renovation of the Abraxas should take place in the coming years. What to embellish the life of the residents, and the Instagram photos of the curious?

Les Espaces d’Abraxas, an architectural utopia overtaken by reality