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Architecture and France

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.

47 comments to Architecture and France

  • Lexington Green

    Corbu was Swiss.

    Otherwise, right on.

  • Verity

    Sorry, Jonathan, I don’t think the government has a role in providing housing at all, never mind making it look pretty.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, I do of course not believe that government has a role in public housing. However, given that governments the world over have buggered housing up, they can at least perform an elementary act of contrition by knocking the crappy housing estates down and letting the market provide something better. The status quo is not much of an option, certainly not from a libertarian point of view.

    Lexington, oh bugger, I’ll run a correction. Thanks for fact-checking my ass!

  • Verity

    Again, Jonathan, I do not think governments should even be demolishing public housing projects unless they’ve reached the stage where they’re a danger. OTOH, if the private sector wanted to provide low cost housing, demolishing the old in the process, that is a different matter – as long as the customer was the tenants and not the government. In other words, no subsidies out of the public purse.

    We need to move away from the state providing whatever anyone can’t/won’t provide for themselves.

  • Oddly enough, if you read Jane Jacobs’ seminal book, you learn that knocking down all this ghastly government housing is not always necessary. Sometimes it is beyond redemption, because it leaks, collapses, etc., in fact often. But often, a complete redesign of the open space just outside the front doors, and the removal of aerial bridges joining up the aerial walkways will achieve remarkable improvement. If potential plunderers can only reach all the households in a slab or block by walking past a desk, just the one desk, manned by a human being, they tend to give up.

    The book that explains all this is called Utopia on Trial, by Alice Coleman, published in 1985. This book has done more good for more people than just about any other book that I know of, as a result of not only being extremely good, but also extremely influencial. Only the other week, I saw a news report about how they had refurbished a notorious housing estate in north London, and it was pure Alice Coleman.

  • Verity

    Brian – Do you have any links to photos of the improved look?

  • M. Murcek

    Of course the public housing was going to look hideous – the government types who caused it to be built were thinking of their beloved soviet utopia.

    Fogeyish habit? I was reminded of a John Hartford lyric: “Looks like a ‘lectric shaver now where the court house used to be.”

  • Peter Crombie

    The riots in France are, I believe, justified and it will not be long before it happens on a large scale here in UK – it has started in Manchester over last weekend. What exactly is happening and why? There is no-one simplistic answer but a number of real issues making the electorate ‘pissed off’ with politicians…
    1. Politics is not about ideology but about POWER.
    2. The political ‘elite’ in France [and UK] have, like all others, only 24 hrs a day. The eat, sleep and copulate for say 12 hours thus leaving 12 hours to ‘do their thing’ and the lowest of their priorities is the so called ‘underclass’ who are ignored because of lack of time.
    3. So the ‘underclass’ who have brains, arms, legs and balls, just like the so-called elite. are saying ‘thus far and no further… it’s time we had our say’.
    4. To paraphrase Newton… To every action [or inaction] there is an equal and opposite reaction. A French minister says ‘they are scum’ and there is a reaction which is not surprising. Even the Queen of England and the French President use toilet paper… some readers will see the connection… most won’t.
    5. France today… UK tomorrow? Blair and his mates should be trembling… but why should they bother.. salaries on us, expenses on us, pensions on us.
    6. We need the metaphorical equivalent of a brigade of tanks in Whitehall with guns aimed at 10 Downing Street. The French ‘peasants’ are their tank brigade. Where are our tanks?
    7. Our tanks are the middle and lower working class. They do not have time or resources to mount a campaign because they are too busy ‘chasing the cash’ to pay mortgage and credit cards. This is New Labour’s weapon at work.
    8. Summary. The riots in France are not ‘riots’ but are a legitimate expression of frustration with government who pursue their own elite agenda. It’s exactly the same in UK.
    Sir Peter Crombie PhD
    Consultant – Organisational Behaviour

  • guy herbert

    But inventive people get something interesting even from the bleakest environment.

  • “legitimate expression of frustration,” eh, Sir Peter, PhD?? Checked your car lately to see if any frustrated “youth” has bombed it? How many will die before the “racaille” are sent back to live in places like Cairo’s “City of the Dead” and the garbage dumps in the Mokkatam Hills? I bet Algiers and Lagos have plenty of properly designed “lower-income housing”! I can’t believe the idiot Europeans beating themselves up about not having given idle violent bitter fools free places to live that were not designed in accordance with quite the right esthetic.

  • Some of you might want to check out Tom Wolfe’s book “From Bauhaus to Our House” . Its the story of how rich Americans and giant capitalist corporations bought into the architectural ideas of Europeans who just wanted to build ‘Socialist Worker Housing”.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I think the architecture of the buildings is less important than the will to impose law and order in them.

    Hey, the early and 80s constituencies in Singapore were likewise dreary lines of buildings at strict right angles, with every flaw that Jon described. Newer towns are a lot better, with embedded gardens, trees, and other aesthetic features, but the early ones were really ugly. That didn’t make them into cauldrons of violence.

    And note, they were provided by the government at a time when there was a drastic shortage of housing and nobody to provide it. Waiting for the market was akin to suicide and massive social unrest.

  • Fred the Fourth

    Isn’t this just the Cabrini Green issue again, decades later? Why is this a surprise to anyone? HIstory, folks, as in “doomed to repeat it…”

  • Patrick

    The architecture of the buildings is truly horrible. They do look like they were supposed to be slums. If they didn’t have stupid zoning controls, impossible construction permits and perverted rent controls, they wouldn’t have needed half as many HLMs in the first place and people would have been able to move out of them – remember one of the biggest problems is how hard it is to get out of the HLM circuit – it is very hard to rent in urban areas, full stop. The artificially inflated price is not at all the biggest barrier.

    But they would have needed some: the conditions in the makeshift camps around mainly Marseille for the algerians who had been on the French side and were ‘repatriated’ to France in the 70’s (Harkis) were truly ghastly. Much more inspired by Stalin than these buildings, and those were their friends who had risked life, limb and family for them (the french)!!

    Ah, how policy: one mistake spawning another ad infinitum.

    Incidentally, these buildings do have one architectural plus or minus: they make great death traps for non-local pursuers.

  • Verity

    Wobbly – You don’t mention the heavy-handed racial quotas in Singapore public housing! Each race represented by the exact percentage it holds in the general population. Frankly, I think that backfired and bred resentment. People want to live among their own kind. They’re perfectly happy to work with all the races, and eat lunch with them, and meet them for drinks after work, but they want to go home to their own kind. A lot of people I worked with hated this quota thing.

  • Katie Bartleby

    Someone commenting on my piece (inspired by YOUR pice) over at the sharpener made exactly this point, quoted an apprentice of Le Corbu who warned of circumstances like these, and then recommended a book. Go see.

  • Arty

    France has nice architecture, but it’s too flammable to stand the test of time.

  • Midwesterner

    Interesting case in the US I recall from a few years back. In St. Louis, I think. Control of each sub-unit (IIRC approximately 20ish apartments each?) was turned over to the legitimate, approved and registered tenants. They were given authority to set rules regarding just about anything a condo association can restrict. They could even evict other tenants with enough votes.

    These facilities quickly turned into very nice, attractive, safe places to live, generally run by mothers and grandmothers.

    Dalrymple’s piece mentioned an elderly couple trapped in the housing. These are the people who should be running the housing projects. Not the limousine liberals entirely detached from reality.

    As I recall, the system was discontinued because it failed to meet some regulation or system or other.

    If anyone out there remembers more about this or other cases involving similar management of public housing facilities, it would be interesting.

  • lucklucky

    This was the “architecture” of a Portuguese bindonville in France in 60’s. They escaped Salazar dictatorship put a stiff lip, had ambition and worked hard.


    It’s the people that makes the building dirty, piss smelled and even then that is not necessarely a factor for revolt . The architecture can have a marginal effect if any.
    The gangsta scene is a fight of egos and power.

  • mike

    Midwesterner: the case you mentioned of tenenants being given control over their own ‘sub-units’ and this resulting in marked improvement – is not at all surprising. There does exist a substantial 30 year psychology literature on the benefits of environmental control.

    France’s unemployment problem may have a lot more to do with the troubles than architecture.

    Having said that, perhaps another underlying aspect of the problem is cultural – not in the narrow sense of deep-seated Islamofascism (though there may be that going on too) – but more generally memetic.

    The US racial problems in the 60s’ were, at least partly, about inequality between the races in how the rule of law was implemented – african americans wanted to join in on ‘the american dream’ so to speak. There was a ‘social individualist meta-context’ (as our Samizdata page calls it) available to them.

    What memetic prisms are there for this minority of frustrated french arabs and french africans to view their society through? French ‘fraternity’? Give me a break…

  • Midwesterner

    Mike, thank you for the link. It’s a bit out of my subscription budget but maybe the libraries? It sounds like we share similar concerns about the full origins of this problem.

    As I’ve watched the situation in France unfold, it occurs to me that ‘multi-culturalism’ is left-speak for segregationism.

    While the nature of Islam is certainly the greatest obstacle to peaceful liberty world wide, in the French case I think the political environment is a close second.

    If there is any truth at all in Dalrymple’s assessment, the future for France is bleak indeed.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, you say that the state should do nothing about the housing projects unless they are in danger. Well, they are in danger now. Maybe some sort of Thatcherite policy might be needed to jump-start a move in a better direction, encouraging owner occupation, and so forth. The State brought about this disaster; as a matter of natural justice, it ought to help set in train a way to fix it.

    As someone who has written several times about the evils of eminent domain, it hardly needs to be said that if the residents of these god-awful places did not want to move, they should of course stay.

    Brian, thanks for the Alice Coleman reference.

  • mike

    Midwesterner: academic journals are easily got at via either a university with a relevant academic department (they might let you photocopy) or, in the UK at least, use of the British Library which allows you to order photocopies for a trivial fee. I wouldn’t know about libraries in the US unfortunately.

    Anyway, I wonder how much the purported causes of the riots (unemployment etc) are resonating with the wider, fiery French public…

    My bet is the majority will be sticking to lightly toasting a grand rustique or two…

  • What do you expect from government? We’ve had so many examples in the ex-soviet bloc of government designs and none ever worked. Even the best intentioned bureaucrat can only take into account a finite amount of parameters, contrary to the market. Which means that every government sponsored project will always fall short. At best it will solve yesterday’s problems.

    As for the ethnic concentration, it’s due to many factors but the 2 main reasons are:

    1. The environment in those cities has been so bad for years that most non muslims have either fled or been pushed out.

    2. It’s just impossible for someone without huge financial guarantees to rent in the nice neighbourhoods. Another example of unintended consequences: because the tenant protection is so high and because it’s just impossible to get rid of a tenant not paying his rent, noone will ever rent to someone if they suspect he will not pay. Not good for students, immigrants, artists and so on… In practice to be able to rent a place, you need the guarantee of your parents, plus a stable job (means civil servant in France), and sometimes even a full year of rent in advance… and if you look somewhat tanned, please abstain!

  • Pete

    My wife grew up in an HLM in the suburbs of Lyon, in what is perhaps the ugliest building I’ve ever seen, yet I’ve never known anyone with a closer attachment to the community she grew up with. 20 years later they have dispersed to nicer places but are still a tight-knit group despite the various problems and tragedies that life inevitably throws their way.

    You wouldn’t even dare drive anywhere near there now though.

    Architecture, my ar$e. It’s people and their culture that make these places hell.

  • Freefire

    Sociologist Sebastian Roche has made some interesting comments:

    As Mr Roche sees it, one reason for the failure is that urban policies have focused too much on “urban regeneration”.

    In the late 1990s, for instance, the then Socialist-led government launched initiatives like 50 Great City Projects and 30 Urban Renewal Operations.

    Since 2002, the centre-right government has continued with this approach, demolishing high-rise blocks with gusto and investing heavily in new buildings.

    The bricks-and-mortar approach is all very well, Mr Roche says, but the underlying causes of the crisis, such as bad schools, have not seriously been dealt with.

    Furthermore, the crisis of the suburbs may reflect structural problems in France rather than misguided action by any individual government.

    Mr Roche points out that to improve education, you must allow local schools to choose their teachers and set higher wages.

    But this is unthinkable in the country’s heavily centralised education system.

    France is also characterised by a high degree of social protection and many labour-market rigidities.

    This helps those already in work but prevents the creation of low-skill, entry-level jobs.

    The result is 25% unemployment among the young – and zero job prospects for the poorly-educated youths of the ghettos.

  • Verity

    That the youths (read “Muslim youths”; let us not morph into the MSM) don’t have an education is entirely at the door of said Muslim youths. French education is good, despite the burdensome bureaucracy that is designed to serve the teachers, not the students. But an education that will gain them entry to the job market is available to all.

    This said, after one has lived in France for a few months, one begins to notice that there are no ethnics on TV. Well, there’s one. A nice, humourous young Muslim man who does the weather and is a co-presenter of a children’s show. But there are no public role models that say: “This route is open to you. You can aspire.”

  • j.pickens

    Yeah, its the buildings, stupid…
    Just like in Bali and Somalia, and Southern Thailand, and Kashmir….OOPS!

  • Verity

    Jonathan – With respect, several commenters above have opined that it is not the architecture that is causing the violence; its the mindset borne of a primitive religion mired in the 800s. The rest of the world moved on. The ROPMA stayed unaspirational and stuck on stupid.

    No matter what lovely buildings you gave them with arcades and fountains, what is inside their minds would still be there. They would throw their trash in the fountains, they’d discard their fast food styrofoam packages, Coke cans, liquor bottles, cigarette packs, chip bags in the arcades as they walked through them.

    They don’t want to own their council houses. They want to own the earth.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, I have re-read my article carefully and I don’t see how it implies that architecture directly caused the violence. I even made the point of “not pressing the argument too far” and acknowledge the British experience in the north-west as a contrast. I did not mention the usual “intifada” line I have seen in parts of the blogosphere because I wanted to look at the issue from another angle.

  • Verity

    Also, Jonathan – They came from circumstances that were just as crowded, if not more so. They moved to France and brought the foetid tenaments of Alergia with them.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Verity-Oh yeah, the racial quota thing bypassed my mind. It’s heavy handed, as you said, and it has raised quite a bit of unhappiness, but not so much that people will vote against the ruling party. And for many who complained, I always suspected a bit of a racist bias, that simply cannot be stamped out. Human nature, birds of a feather, and all that, I guess. But is that the correct policy to take?

    The quota system has alleviated the problem of integrating different races by really forcing them together and living with one another. Meeting over at the workplace just isn’t enough. You really to live next door to one another in order to raise tolerance and awareness.

    Part of the problem in France could be due to insufficient ‘mixing’. If the immigrants had been spread out about the cities instead of being concentrated in a few areas, would the present problems have manifested as quickly? Maybe they would have assimilated quickly, more easily. I dunno.

  • Verity

    No. France has been a settled, mono-ethnic region for thousands of years. Hordes of primitive immigrants only began arriving 40 years ago.

    Yes, there is a lot of “racism” – if one wants to use such an imprecise word – in Singapore, despite the government’s best, if heavy handed, methods. How many times have I heard at work, or socially, assumptions based purely on race. As in “The landlord is refusing to give her back her deposit.” If you are speaking to a Chinese person, they will raise an eyebrow and say with an affirmative smirk, “Is he Indian?” If the group is Indian, someone will say, “Chinese, of course.” The Malays will say either Chinese or Indian. Even though they are all perfectly friendly, everyone thinks the worst of everyone else’s race and thinks they don’t measure up.

    I don’t think it’s any big deal. They all go out for drinks after work and go to plays and events together. There’s no real animosity. It’s just that they all suspect the worst of other races. I think this is perfectly normal human nature and don’t like using the term “racist”. I’ve also overheard comments about Ang Mohs but don’t take offence, lah!

  • However, given that governments the world over have buggered housing up, they can at least perform an elementary act of contrition by knocking the crappy housing estates down

    Sure, and look what happens when the US goes in to do rapid urban renewal in Iraq. Nothing but complaints, despite the fact that nobody knocks buildings down faster than the US armed forces. You just can’t make some people happy.

  • Matt O'Halloran

    Le Corbusier’s anthill vision of urban living made no headway in his native Switzerland, where they aren’t too keen on immigration either.

    The Parisian banlieues belong to the same marxoid social-engineering trickledown into architecture (whose practitioners tend not to be the most intellectually au fait of the professions) as postwar Britain’s elevated motorways, comprehensive redevelopments (eg East End slum clearances) and windswept shopping plazas festooned with ‘abstract’ sculpture. But the British. being more pragmatic, took the lesson of Ronan Point and the Westway faster than the Fench with their gigantomanic tendencies. We began replacing high-rise neo-slums with replicas of the old grid-plan streets of terraced houses 20 years before Paris began bulldozing the blocks the North Africans and noirs live in.

    Clichy-sous-Bois, where the current riots began, is an archetypal Sixties folie. Thousands are housed in a nondescript wilderness without even an SNCF or RER station. But Clichy does have boulevards named after John F Kennedy and Yuri Gagarin, which pinpoint the period of maximal delusion in which it was conceived.

  • Verity

    CdG is the most nightmareish airport in the world. Why would anyone design an airport with absolutely no signage? Everyone passing through an airport is a transient. They can’t be expected to have learned their way around. And then when you stop an employee and ask for directions, they’re snippy.

    I don’t know what makes the French so pretentious and so self-congratulatory. Why do they do things like this?

  • Verity

    A friend in the US just sent me this, by the always rivetting Theodore Dalrymple. It’s about the banlieues from the Autumn 2002 edition and it could not be more apt today. http://www.city-journal.org/html/12_4_the_barbarians.html

  • matt

    Crombie : get your Sir recently? Got a mate in NuLabour have we? PhD from mail order?

    Sarko was actually repeating what a woman was shouting out of the window to him when he used the term racaille.

    The pyromaniacs are not expressing their ideology – they wouldn’t know how to spell it – they are showing their POWER.

    Politicians always ignore what isn’t the latest hot topic, whether its bird flu, unemployment or Iraq.

    Do you read anything except the Guardian Crombie?

  • mike

    The article you refer to is excellent Verity.

  • Alethea

    I have been following this thread with great interest.

    In response to Verity’s statement:
    ‘No matter what lovely buildings you gave them with arcades and fountains, what is inside their minds would still be there. They would throw their trash in the fountains, they’d discard their fast food styrofoam packages, Coke cans, liquor bottles…in the arcades as they walk through them…’

    I really do think that the point that Jonathan Pearce was making is that these people have no sense of place – no sense of attachment to these areas (although I am not for one minute excusing their behaviour). To impose an arbitrary notion of “lovely buildings” and assume that they will become attached to “arcades and fountains” that have imposed upon them is going to do no good in terms of community wellbeing.

    This is perhaps why Pete’s wife, who grew up in the suburbs of Lyon, has such a great attachment to her former community, in spite of the ugly building. We must look past the tangible, past the bricks and mortar that make up a place and look to the intangibles that foster community wellbeing. Members of a community can only define what it is that is important to them – we cannot impose our ideas of worth or ‘lovely buildings’ upon them.

  • Verity

    Oooooh, we mustn’t impose our enlightened Western advanced civilization upon them! We must understand their roots and the world as they see it.

    Well I demand – and I mean this – I demand that they see their world, embedded in the West, as I see it. That means law and order.

    Alethea, we could cater to them by rebuilding the Gardens of Shalimar and they would still throw their trash in the fountains because they are degraded human beings – degraded by their own society in a 40-year huff.

  • mike

    “Well I demand – and I mean this – I demand that they see their world, embedded in the West, as I see it. That means law and order.”

    Diamond comment!!

  • Has anyone but me noticed that the US press is almost completely silent on the French situation today? All the attention seems to have shifted to Jordan.

    “If it bleeds, it leads,” I guess, and the international news hole in US media is very small (and attention spans short).

    IMHO, the French situation is a story with much greater long-term implications.

  • Well, Verity, it looks like the French are reading your comments.

    I finally found some coverage in the International Herald Tribune, to wit:

    “…the French government on Wednesday demanded that foreigners found guilty of rioting be expelled from the country, regardless of whether they are in France legally or illegally.”

    Now for a lot of free trips to Mecca.

  • Just dug out some more coverage. Herewith:

    France’s Youth Battles Also Waged on the Web

    Via Internet, Violence Is Incited, Debated, Tracked

    By Molly Moore and Daniel Williams
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, November 10, 2005; Page A18

    PARIS — The call to arms has been circulating on French blogs and text messages for days: “All the housing projects should rise. The wait is over. Friday, Nov. 11, a meeting under the Eiffel Tower. At 2 p.m. Show up, it’s important.”

    “We are aware of it and we’re taking this very seriously,” said one Paris police official, who asked that his name not be used because of a national police edict prohibiting local police authorities from discussing the crisis with the news media. He added of the war cry, “We don’t quite know what to make of it.”

    Sounds like “must-see TV.” Unfortunately.

  • John Palubiski

    The French need to responsablise their Arab minority.

    The rioters should be forced to buy the property/apartments they live in. The mortgage payments should be deducted directly off their welfare cheques.

    Collective ownership means collective neglect. Were they to be the propriators of their own housing they’d hardly be given to burning it down.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    John Palubiski, very interesting suggestion!