While trying to sort out my thoughts concerning the mayhem engulfing the huge public housing projects ringing Paris for the last week or more (11 days’ running) it struck me that one of the basic problems is just how dreadful is the style and character of the architecture of such places. Among the many contributory factors to the present dismal mood in poorer parts of France, it seems to me, is the relentlessly cheerless atmosphere of such places. Many of the buildings are vast tower blocks, without gardens or private enclosed spaces. Long walkways – ideal for muggers and drug dealers – connect the blocks. Without an organic sense of place, there is also a lack of spontaneous neighbourliness that is much easier to create in a terraced street.
I am not going to push this point too far. The terraced housing areas of north-west England were scenes of violence involving young Britons from different ethnic groups only a few years ago. If the French government were to demolish the greying monoliths tomorrow and replace them with low-rise homes, it would hardly represent a major advance towards solving the problems of that country. But I think it would have an effect. Perhaps someone should send a copy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities to Jacques Chirac and his cabinet as a matter of urgency. Compared to some of the advice the French administration may be getting, they could do a lot worse.
Let’s not forget that one of the high priests of Modern Architecture, Le Courbusier, was Swiss (born just over the border from France), and had a huge impact on thinking about mass public housing for much of the 20th Century, and also influenced thinking in other parts of the world, including Britain. To be fair, though, I resist the fogeyish habit of damning big modern buildings across the board. I agree with fellow contributor Brian Micklethwait that there is good modern architecture that can work brilliantly and crappy modern architecture that does not. When it comes to mass housing, though, Modernism seems to be seriously unnattractive in every sense of the word.
(Correction: I originally said that Corbusier was French. He was not – by a matter of a few miles. Thanks to a commenter for setting me straight).
Meanwhile, here is a grim update on developments.