On 27 October 2005, two French youths of Tunisian and Malian descent died of electrocution in a local power station in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Police had been patrolling their neighborhood, responding to a reported break-in, and scared that they might be subject to an arbitrary interrogation, the youngsters decided to hide in the nearest available building. Riots immediately broke out in the high-rise suburbs of Paris and in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country. The unrest persisted well into November. The media attributed the widespread violence directly to the living conditions in the drab concrete housing blocks, which often formed the backdrop in images of burning cars and people throwing Molotov cocktails.
Accepted wisdom has it that the continuing social unrest in the banlieues, as these suburbs are called, is a direct result of their built form: repetitive slabs and blocks of modern housing, often in large isolated estates. But this logic—of a direct and causal relationship between the built environment and human behavior—is not at all new. In fact, environmental determinism accompanied the very making of the French suburbs in the postwar period and the development of modern urbanism more generally. Why is it that we assign so much power to buildings?
After World War II, France evolved in less than three decades from a largely rural country with an outdated housing stock into a highly modernized urban nation. This evolution was the result of the massive production of publicly funded housing and state-planned New Towns on the outskirts of existing cities. The scale of these developments was unprecedented — tens of thousands of housing units rising simultaneously.
In this development, architecture undertook a whole new role — a social project. It was shared and shaped not only by architects and planners, but also by government officials, construction companies, residents’ associations, real estate developers and social scientists alike. Even with this broad constituency, its logic and language were remarkably consistent. Never before — and not since — were modernization and modernism so pervasive and so closely allied. Never before was modern architecture built so rapidly on such a massive scale. And perhaps never before did entire generations come to believe how much better their lives were than those of their parents — especially in the material realm of everyday experience.
The French suburbs were not built in a day or according to a singular principle. To be sure, architects and planners were engaged in large-scale reorganization and modernization; but this hardly implied a unified agenda or one-off implementation. Motives competed and projects conflicted. Crime and violence in France’s mass housing did not erupt only in recent years; female depression and youth delinquency were only the most sensational problems reported by journalists and social scientists at the height of construction during the 1960s. Such concerns accompanied the rapid postwar urbanization, and during this period architecture was not only planned and built, but also inhabited, criticized, studied, modified and revised. Mass housing was not just produced but also consumed, and these processes were intimately intertwined.
In the eyes of many observers today, however, the outcome is a monstrous catastrophe. In recent decades, much mid-century housing has undergone physical degradation and been left to those with no choice to live anywhere else. Today many larger collective projects — especially those built in the 1950s and 60s — are sites of high rates of youth unemployment and crime. More than 700 projects have been officially labeled “urban problem areas” by the French government, stigmatizing more than five million inhabitants, predominantly from ethnic minorities. The continuing unrest in a relatively small number of these deprived neighborhoods (the riots of 2005 and 2007 being the most notorious) has come to symbolize the country’s (sub)urban crisis, and critical observers in France and abroad have decried the contemporary banlieue as emblematic of social and racial apartheid.
How could the architects and planners conceive of placing near-identical towers and slabs in vast, isolated and ill-defined open spaces? With Le Corbusier usually taking the brunt of the critique, three decades of building production have become synonymous with modernism’s failure: its rationalistic hubris, its inflexible and inhumane urbanism, its denial of people’s needs and aspirations. Architects and planners themselves have participated in these virulent critiques; which were not without self-interest — if the origin of social malaise lay in design, so too would the solution. But the problem with handing out blame is not that it would incriminate the wrong culprits, but rather that it reduces the history of a significant part of the urbanized world to a singular error.
In the meantime, historical shortsightedness has helped to legitimize the current policies of massive demolition. The famous footage of Pruitt-Igoe being imploded in 1971 is now shorthand for an approach that can seem the clearest way out of mass housing, and since then it has been demolition, rather than improvement, that has gained purchase. Yet rarely does this do more than simply displace the social problem of poverty; meanwhile the legacy of the golden age of state welfare is disappearing even before it has been properly understood.
Instead of the prevailing assumption of triumphant rise and spectacular fall, the history of the banlieue is one of accumulative experimentation and continual revision. It is not the outcome of a natural evolution, and public housing was not an experiment that was necessarily bound to fail. We like to blame the resulting buildings not only to legitimize certain political choices today, but also to deny the fundamental uncertainty of the present that historical awareness forces upon us.
Featured image: “Housing estate in Saint-Denis”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.