10 Surreal Modernist Housing Estates of Europe & Israel

park-hill-flats-sheffield (Image: Paolo Margari; the modernist architecture of Europe & Israel’s housing estates)

The term ‘housing estate’ all too often conjures images of monolithic concrete high-rises, urban decay and misery. While it’s true that some estates fall into this category, not every urban housing project is doomed to such mediocrity and despair. Across the world, many visionary architects spent the 20th century experimenting with different ways to deliver low-cost apartments. The results were frequently strange, sometimes oddly beautiful, and always interesting. This article explores a series of modernist architecture in Europe and Israel, from the bleak and brutalist to the controversial and downright quirky.

Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Paris (France)


Les-Espaces-d-Abraxas-Paris-2 (Images: Daehan; Charles-Antoine Perrault/Untapped Cities)

In the 1970s and ’80s, Paris underwent its second great wave of urban expansion. The previous wave, in the 1950s, had gifted the city an endless collection of identikit modernist blocks. The second wave, however, was much stranger. Young architects kicked back against the functional dictates of their older peers, designing grand housing estates that today seem like something out of a Sci-Fi film. One of the grandest of all was Les Espaces d’Abraxas.

The work of Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, the estate is a strange inversion of what we expect housing to look like. Bofill wanted to create an “inhabited monument” in the most-literal sense of the phrase. The centre-piece was a block containing 20 apartments modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by a larger, 19-story block that curved like an amphitheater. From a distance, it looks like a grand citadel. Up close, it’s hard to believe anyone actually lives there.

The result is an imposing set torn straight from a dystopian nightmare (Terry Gilliam filmed around the area while making his futuristic Orwell/Kafka mash-up Brazil). Yet this bizarre monument isn’t even the strangest block in Paris.

Le Viaduc et le Temple, Paris (France)


Le-Viaduc-et-le-Temple-2 (Images: Gildas Fremont/Untapped Cities)

Another creation of Ricardo Bofill, Le Viaduc et le Temple began life with the grandest of ambitions. Bofill wanted to  “magnify [the] daily life” of people living there, elevating them from workers to characters in an epic drama. To do so, he mixed in influences that ranged from Versailles to the Greek Parthenon. The end product is one of the most-surreal housing estates in the whole of Europe.

At one end sits a giant temple complex that curves around the artificial lake, secretly housing hundreds of apartments. Down the other end, a great bridge to nowhere juts out into the waters, its support pillars home to dozens more houses. The whole thing is conducted on an astonishingly grand scale. Doing a full circuit of the lake alone would take up the best part of an hour. For those who moved there from the inner-city, it must have felt like stepping into a surreal daydream.

Sadly, Bofill’s ambitions were not fully realized. Today, these two grand structures are the frequent targets of ire from local residents, who dismiss them as boring and complain about the lack of amenities. Oddly though, when the city proposed tearing them down those same residents protested en-masse to save their unusual homes.

Torre Blancas, Madrid (Spain)

torre-blancas-madrid (Image: Luis Garcia; grand modernist architecture in Madrid)

The work of architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, Torre Blancas in Madrid is one of the most-imposing buildings in a city full of them. A series of interlinked concrete tubes rising haphazardly 71 meters above the skyline, it’s the sort of structure you can imagine JG Ballard having nightmares about.

Made entirely from exposed concrete, the tower is weirdly asymmetrical. Balconies seem to scoot from one side to the other. The gigantic discs at the top seem to jut out at odd angles. With its grey exterior, porthole windows and somber air, you could easily imagine it jutting out the surface of Mars in some 1970s sci-fi movie.

Today, the modernist tower is considered a Madrid landmark, and a hugely desirable space to live. Much as London’s Barbican estate bucked the trend of bleak postwar housing projects, so too has Torre Blancas become something much more than just another concrete tower.

Ramot Polin, Jerusalem (Israel)




Ramot-Polin (Image: Google Maps; Nehemia G; Ramot Polin: controversial modernist architecture in Israel)

Since before its creation, Israel has been a magnet for architects with strange visions and grand dreams. We’ve previously written about the modernist White City in Tel Aviv. The Ramot Polin neighbourhood in the northwest of East Jerusalem is its hallucinatory opposite.

Designed to resemble a beehive, the building consists of dozens upon dozens of pentagonal units, stacked on top of one another to create an enormous grid, rising from the barren earth. It looks like somebody has attempted to stack around fifty drum kits as quickly as possible, resulting in an accidentally impressive structure. At least where speed is concerned, that might not be so far off the mark. The work of Polish-born architect Zvi Hecker, Ramot Polin had to be thrown up in record time in 1967, to establish control over land claimed during the Six Day War.

Interestingly, the neighborhood today looks much less formal and far stranger than in Hecker’s time. Over the decades, residents have taken to adding windows, balconies and washing lines, sometimes even reshaping their flats entirely.

Park Hill, Sheffield (England)


park-hill-flats-sheffield-3 (Images: Julian VarasThomasB443; brutalist architecture in Sheffield, UK)

The largest listed building in Europe, Park Hill flats in Sheffield is postwar brutalist architecture on steroids. It’s a vast, sprawling concrete complex of never-ending angular lines and hard shadows; the sort of place people who hate modern architecture would consider a living nightmare.

That’s not to say Park Hill was a quick, thoughtless project. The complex – which contains over 1,000 homes – was built across one of the Steel City’s seven hills. To maintain the perfectly flat roof, architects were required to have the building rise from four storeys at the top of the hill to thirteen at its base. The result is modernist architecture that appears to be growing out of the landscape, towering over the rest of the city far below.

Since the 1990s, Park Hill has mainly been known for controversy. It became one of the so-called ‘sink estates’ and has since been sold on to developers who are now gentrifying it; another cause of local controversy.urban

Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam (the Netherlands)



Kubuswoningen-Rotterdam-3 (Images: Heush; Hanselpedia; Raul Ayres; modernist architecture in Rotterdam)

One of Rotterdam’s biggest tourist attractions is also one of the most-unique housing projects in the whole of Europe. Located in the city’s historic Oude Haven district, the Kubuswoningen mixes weird shapes, bright colours, concrete overpasses and odd angles to create something fascinatingly strange.  

The work of architect Piet Blom, the modernist estate was commissioned in 1974 to bring the city “architecture with some life in it.” It certainly succeeded. Blom firmly believed a building didn’t have to be “recognizable as a house for it to qualify as housing,” which may explain the futuristic excesses of the Kubuswoningen. Aside from the famous yellow cubes, suspended on concrete stalks like blocky flowers, it includes interesting touches like the apex of six roofs meeting to form a star-shaped hole to the sky.

Walden 7, Barcelona (Spain)



walden-7-barcelona-spain-3 (Images: Till F. Teenck; Mamendinua (1, 2); Barcelona’s imposing Walden 7 complex)

Walden 7’s been called a “vertical labyrinth.” A place where shapes and spaces rarely repeat themselves. A collection of 18 bizarre, interlocking mud red towers, straddling the Barcelona skyline. 14 storeys high, interlinked by a complex system of concrete bridges, it looks like the design for a building from another world.

With such an odd, gravity-defying shape, it will probably come as no surprise to see Ricardo Bofill’s name attached to the modernist housing estate. Built during a period when the architect was apparently trying to turn all of Europe’s social housing into works of surreal set-design, it is easily as strange as any of his Paris efforts. Irregular lanes and walkways create unique spaces among the towers, surrounded by shadows. Light arcs in at strange angles. The entrance hall looks like it leads into a gigantic church, and round nodules dotted across the surface make the estate seem like it’s still growing.

Residents can also get a good look at another Bofill oddity. Just down the road is the disused cement factory that the eccentric architect turned into his offices – looking every bit as weird as any of his estate designs.

Les Arènes de Picasso, Paris (France)

Les-arenes-de-Picasso (Image: VilleNoisyLeGrand; the amazing ‘inverted chariot”, Paris)

Ricardo Bofill wasn’t the only one to bring a truly-crazed vision to Paris’s ’70s/’80s wave of urban expansion. Not far away, Samarkand-born Spanish architect Manuel Núñez Yanowsky created the equally-strange Les Arènes de Picasso. A huge concrete octagon with two vast circular walls either end, the arena was meant to resemble an overturned chariot.

Seen up close, the 540 home estate is a kaleidoscope of circular windows, root-like concrete pillars, strange shapes and odd angles. The level of detail Yanowsky gave the structure is incredible. There are Art Deco and Aztec influences thrown in, and the whole thing is aligned so its axis runs parallel to the equator. But the craziest aspect remains the two ‘wheels’. Despite being studded with windows, it’s hard to imagine anyone actually living in them.

Quinta da Malagueira, Evora (Portugal)



Quinta-da-Malagueira-Evora-3 (Images: Google Street View; Evora’s Quinta da Malagueira complex)

Communism isn’t something you frequently associate with Portugal (like neighbouring Spain, it spent much of the 20th century as a right wing dictatorship). But the city of Évora is an exception. When local communists came to power, they charged architect Álvaro Siza with building a social housing utopia for families. The resulting Quinta da Malagueira has been called the “the last great social housing estate.”

A low collection of whitewashed buildings designed to house 1,200 families, Quinta da Malagueira is practically a town in its own right. The streets between its modernist buildings are cobbled to give a rural feel, and the houses slope gently downwards. If you were to ignore the smooth, uninterrupted white wall that makes up the edges of each estate block, you could almost be in a village in the middle of nowhere.

Évora’s flirtation with communism didn’t last, but Siza’s estate certainly did. Seen today, it shows that socialist ideals and concrete monstrosities did not necessarily have to go hand in hand.

Cité Pablo Picasso, Paris (France)

Cité-Pablo-Picasso-Nanterre-Paris (Image: John; the surreal, modernist towers of Cite Pablo Picasso, Paris)

Finally, another aspect of Paris’s surreal, utopian housing estates is the Cite Pablo Picasso. Close to Les Espaces d’Abraxas, the Cite is significantly less grand, but equally mesmerizing.

If Les Espaces d’Abraxas was an attempt to give ordinary people a grand environment, Cite Pablo Picasso transports them into the future. Great towers of interlocking cylinders rise high above the skyline, their uniform grey facades broken only by dark porthole windows. Painted with strange, pixilated designs, and capped with pyramid-like objects, they belong less in Paris and more in the opening credits of Blade Runner. Known as Les Tours Aillaud, they straddle the rest of the Cite, which hides underneath, below a network of swooping and sweeping concrete walkways.

Chiefly the work of Émile Aillaud, the towers have frequently been derided as among the ugliest buildings in the world. Yet they have a strange beauty about them, perhaps due to how unique they are. Seen today, they reflect the promise of a better tomorrow that arguably never came.

Related – 10 Weird, Iconic Houses that Break all the Rules


About the author: Morris M



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