Sunday, July 4, 2010


On Saturday, June 13th 2009, I visited Clichy-sous-Bois, the infamous Paris banlieue (outlying town) where the 2005 riots began. The police steer clear of Clichy-sous-Bois; helicopters hover over it in broad daylight; reporters have been threatened by its gangs; and it is common knowledge that Presdient Sarkozy would not dare to set foot there.

From the Cité Universitaire, I took the RER B to Gare du Nord. Here, I bought another, more expensive ticket to the Le Raincy/Villemomble/ Montfermeil stop located in the 4th zone of the Paris metropolitan region. I had been reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in which these towns are mentioned. In 1862, Hugo wrote:

Paris no longer has the same outskirts, and what might be termed the face of circum-Parisian life has wholly changed. Instead of the post-chaise we have the railway-carriage, and instead of the sailing-cutter, the steamboat... Paris in 1862 is a town with all of France for its banlieues.[1]

Here I was, setting out towards the very same banlieues almost a hundred and fifty years later. It seemed that Paris was the same small town but that its banlieues now represented the entire world—particularly, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and other twentieth-century French colonies.

At Gare du Nord, I found myself in line with African men, women and children that seemed out of place in Paris because they were dressed differently. The train zoomed with a speed that made the NJ Transit seem like Hugo’s post-chaise. At the Montfermeil station, I realized that I would have been fine without a ticket: I could have just jumped over the automated ticket barrier like most other people did. I then had to take the 601 A/B bus to a station located in Clichy-sous-Bois. The bus dropped me off in the middle of nowhere: there is no actual place to arrive in the town.

Despite the grand scale of the housing towers, there was no “wow” moment. The emptiness gave the town an underwhelming character. Except for a few scattered shops, there was nowhere to go. However, not all the architecture was dilapidated. The public spaces, the pilotes, the large windows, and the abstract compositions in some of the better-designed buildings were beautiful. It was like seeing the Modernist dream realized, but knowing that somewhere along the line something had gone wrong. There was an entire spectrum: traditional French cottages in neat streets; clean and well-maintained gated apartment enclaves; large modern building that seemed airy, comfortable and bourgeois; and finally, the countless scale-less buildings with flat featureless façades, and repetitive doors and windows. These buildings lacked character. Instead, the clothes, bicycles, broken appliances, laundry and trash that hung from the windows gave the buildings their identity.

I had a sandwich at a Muslim place. It was adorned with Islamic art and its walls and menus had Arabic on them. The man behind the counter, who was Tunisian, was pleased when he found out I was from Pakistan. I got a “Mashallah” (an expression of approval) from him. A few Arab gang members came in and shook hands with everyone, including me. I was blending in. Was I still in France? I don't know. There was a small can for the collection of funds to build an Islamic University in the neighborhood. There was a drawing on it—a gaudy elevation of a grand building. The people here seemed out of touch with the rest of France. The super-modern RATP buses that passed were a reminder that this was still France.

Later as I took more pictures, an Arab man yelled at me at the top of his voice. I held my breath and walked away as quickly as I could, only to find that a lot of these housing projects had iron fences around them, inhibiting free movement and dividing the town between rich and poor. To my amazement, I walked into a beautiful park, complete with a lake, dense trees, and people picnicking and fishing. None of these people were black or Arab, and the park was fenced off from the Grand Ensembles.

I came back not with answers but with an awareness of the complexity of what I was trying to understand. The volatile nature of the social fabric in this great metropolis was troubling. Even though I experienced it as an outsider, I could identify both with the bourgeois Parisian and the frustrated immigrant teenager in the banlieue. I believed more than ever that it was time to confront the divide by addressing it through my own studies as an Architecture student. This thesis is a starting point for a discussion on how architecture can mediate the urban and social fabric of the Paris banlieue.

[1] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (Volume I, Book 3, Chapter 3: Four and Four).


I want to express the deepest appreciation for my adviser, Professor Esther da Costa Meyer, whose enthusiasm for architecture is remarkable and contagious. The energy her lectures exuded in the very first course I took with her inspired me to study architecture and to travel to places like the Dessau Bauhaus and the Athenian Acropolis. Her thorough critiques and insights for this project helped me to find a specific direction and to have faith in my own abilities. I also want to thank Professor Christine Boyer who graciously accepted my request to advise me as a second reader. Her class on Cities of the 21st Century gave me an appreciation of the challenges that we as architects have a responsibility to address in our work.

Second, I want to thank Andy Chen ’09 who discussed and debated with me the ideas I tackle in this thesis, took the murky trek with me to visit the Cité de la Muette at Drancy, and proofread the paper when it was done. Without his intellectual and emotional support, this thesis would not have been possible.

I am grateful to the following people for their kind support with my research: Janet Parks at the Avery Library at Columbia University, Rebecca Friedman at Marquand Library, Nolwenn Rannou at the Cité Chaillot Archive in Paris, and Hannah Bennett and Shabeha Baig-Gyan at the Princeton School of Architecture Library.

I am thankful to the following people who have been influential in my education at Princeton, which the senior thesis is considered a culmination of:

Dean Stan Allen, whose introductory course converted me from artist to architect, and Joaquim Moreno, whose enthralling precept always went way beyond the allotted 50 minutes;

Spyros papapetros, who counseled me against binaries;

Jane Harrison, Stephen Cassel, Adam Yarinsky, and Ron Witte, whose studios provided an opportunity to test theoretical concepts in architectural design and practice;

Dr Caddeau, who refused to accept any excuses for doing poorly on academics;

Margo Handwerker and Britt Eversole, for organizing the Senior Thesis workshops; and

Professor Ed Eigen, whose thesis-prep course prepared us for our great adventures that were only possible here at Princeton.

Jeffrey Kipnis, for telling me my thesis was “wrong” and therefore inspiring Chapter 4 in which I propose alternatives.  Architecture, says Kipnis, has the ability to give a choate expression to emergent political stirrings that cannot find any other confirmation in reality.

Also, thank you to Molly Steenson and Enrique Ramirez, preceptors and friends in times of mortal danger. And finally, a very special thank you to my dear friend Angela Bardes for “keepin’ it real” and my fellow Architecture majors, without whose camaraderie and support Architecture would not be Princeton’s most awesome major.


In September 2005, massive riots broke out all over France. Ten days of severe unrest were sparked by an incident in which two teenagers of African origin—sons of working-class immigrants—were electrocuted to death at a power sub-station while attempting to evade the police. On some nights of the rioting, up to 1500 cars were set on fire.[1] Reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post noted the presence of social housing architecture in the banlieue (peripheral town) of Clichy-sous-Bois where the electrocution took place. It was as if the architecture itself had played a role in the genesis of the horrific incident. Consider this report that regarded the riots as a nuisance that needed to be “curbed”: “With unrest expanding through the northern suburbs of high-rise apartments that house some of France’s poorest immigrant populations, senior government officials were debating how to curb the violence during Wednesday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting.”[2] The New York Times portrayed the same protesters as martyrs with social housing architecture looming ominously in the background: “In life, they were uncelebrated. In death, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, have inspired more than 10 days of riots that have spread from housing projects in the suburbs of Paris to cities and towns across France.”[3]

The incident set off an explosion waiting to happen. Commentators pointed to the social housing projects on the peripheries of Paris as sites of political contest and social unrest. In particular, they noted the significance of the ominous Grands Ensembles: large housing projects constructed in the mid-twentieth century, each containing at least 1000 repeated units. In the 2007 Architectural Record, Sam Lubell denounced the formal elements of these slab-like apartment buildings. He called them “tinderboxes for trouble,” advocating architectural interventions to “stave off a sense of alienation and resentment” in their residents.[4] In a 2007 article in Volume, Steven Wassenaar called for “livable, spatial architecture (urban ‘healing’).”[5] As far back as 1997, Pieter Uittenhove identified the “Modern” architecture in the banlieues as a “space of exclusion.”[6] All three rejected Modernist idealism that had “set itself up as a sort of Noah’s Ark to save civilization from ruin.”[7] In their rejection of Modernism, they focused on formal architectural elements such as the use of reinforced concrete, the repetition of housing units, and the abundance of “towering blank walls framing empty courtyards.”[8] In other words, they identified ways in which this architecture had failed to provide comfortable shelter for the working class in order to “diffuse revolutionary tendencies.”[9] Once regarded as prototypes for housing around the world, these towers now seemed to herald violence everywhere.

This paper takes a long-range view and seeks to contextualize these peripheral “spaces of exclusion” within Paris’ social and urban history. In 1923, Le Corbusier predicted that mass-produced architecture would stave off revolution: “The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs…. It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of to-day; architecture or revolution.”[10] Today, the mass-produced house—which he described as “a machine for living in”—has become a machine for social unrest and revolution.[11] Architects have repeatedly introduced formulaic interventions in specific projects but have failed to curtail rising social dissent.[12] It is more valuable, I argue, to study the banlieue architecture in relation to its urban context and to situate it within the longue durée of Paris’s social and political history. Because social housing is presumed to be mass-produced and objective , architects and planners have failed to take into account how inhabitants subjectively internalize their surroundings. To understand the role of architecture in the systematic social exclusion of France’s immigrants, it is important to look beyond the formal elements that constitute it. Today, the banlieue architectural type has come to symbolize immigrants’ exclusion. It is the objective correlative of Paris’s fractured social fabric.[13] Loaded with meaning and inscribed with graffiti, it has performed over several decades as an instigator of social strife.

Social housing is subject to governmental regulation. It cannot, therefore, be separated from the political context in which it exists. The 2005 riots occurred soon after current President and then Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy remarked that the banlieues needed a “Kärcher” treatment, referring to the German manufacturer known for its high-pressure cleaners.[14] Sarkozy’s patronizing statement posits that the solution to the banlieue problem is merely to wash it of filth. It presupposes that the quality of space is rational: designed for control and surveillance, and easy to wash. By contrast, following the riots, Cherif Bouaoud, a banlieue inhabitant, pointed to invisible barriers restricting physical and social mobility for him and other residents of Clichy-sous-Bois: “[T]he treatment of the sons of immigrants, or the sons of those who have been colonized, is … the same (as) how our parents or grandparents have been treated.”[15]

This view of the banlieues as machines to civilize and integrate the working class dates back to the 19th century. Chapter 1 of this paper explores the history of the Paris banlieue. It tracks their genesis as the byproduct of the radical rebuilding of Paris by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the 1860s under the Second French Empire of Napoleon III. Haussmann’s painstaking renovation of the city improved circulation and sanitation. But a price was paid by workers whose homes were demolished in the process. This and the rising land value in the city center exiled the poorest residents to an area outside the new city limits.

With the help of three case studies— the Cité de la Muette in Drancy, the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, and an 1959 housing project in Aulnay-sous-Bois—Chapter 2 traces the idealism of the architects of early 20th Century Paris, and their belief that new building materials and processes such as prefabrication—products of the industrial era—could solve the housing problem. These theories were implemented piecemeal and were exclusive to the banlieue, which became a peripheral space of social experiment. The result was a new space disconnected from the city center without a sense of shared memory.

Chapter 3 illustrates the fallacy of architects and urban planners who sought to domesticate banlieue inhabitants through rigid conceptions of space. I classify spaces in the Paris banlieue into two broad categories: spaces of power and spaces of vulnerability. I then analyze these spaces through the review of three films – Playtime (1967), La Haine (1995), and Entre les Murs (2008). I then use sociological writings about the production and manipulation of space and its effects on society to construct a mise-en-scène of the late 20th century Paris banlieue. All three films start with a top-down, utopian vision that aims to civilize people and to integrate outsiders into modern French society, but which quickly degenerates into dystopia. In all three films, “local authorities” transgress the fascistic spatial structure imposed by architects, rebelling against the condescending constructs that have been designed to domesticate them.[16]

Chapter 4 analyzes how architects have dealt with banlieue housing in recent years. Though a survey of AMC Le Moniteur Architecture over the last decade, I analyze how architects have taken isolated building projects and introduced formal interventions to improve the quality of life. I argue that by classifying this kind of architecture as social housing sui generis architects have limited the scope of their interventions. Additionally, I argue that planners have collapsed discussions of architecture and urbanism in the Paris banlieue, which in turn imposes a singular vision over multiple scales. While I advocate for a comprehensive plan that acknowledges social and historical context, I caution against a plan that is too specific. This will create the condition for community involvement and innovative architecture.

[1] Jean-Louis Cohen, “Burning Issues in the Banlieues,” Log 7 (2006): 90-99.
[2] Molly Moore, “French Rioting Spreads as Government Seeks an Answer,” Washington Post, Nov. 3, 2005, A12. Emphasis added.
[3] Thomas Crampton, “Behind the Furor, the Last Moments of Two Youths,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 2005. Emphasis added.
[4] Sam Lubell, “In Wake of Paris Riots, Public Housing Authority Builds More, and Better Projects to Stem Dissaffection,” Architectural Record 195 (2007): 26-27.
[5] Steven Wassenaar, “The Power to Annihilate: State and Architecture in France,” Volume 5 (2005): 5-14.
[6] Pieter Uittenhove, “Letter from Paris,” Archis 5 (1997): 50-51.
[7] Pieter Uittenhove, “Letter from Paris,” Archis 5 (1997): 50-51.
[8] Sam Lubell, “In Wake of Paris Riots, Public Housing Authority Builds More, and Better Projects to Stem Dissaffection,” Architectural Record 195 (2007), 26-27.
[9] W. Brian Newsome, “The Rise of the Grands Ensembles: Government, Business, and Housing in Postwar France,” The Historian, Vol. 66, 2004.
[10] Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture (London: J. Rodker, 1931), 269.
[11] Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture (London: J. Rodker, 1931), 4.
[12] This treatment of social housing as an isolated architectural typology is explored in Chapter 4.
[13] The Oxford English Dictionary defines objective correlative as “the physical equivalent or manifestation of an immaterial thing or abstract idea; spec. (and usually, following T. S. Eliot) the technique in art of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of symbols, which become associated with and indicative of that emotion.”
[14] Dominique Vidal, Le Monde Diplomatique – English Edition (December 2005), (accessed February 19, 2010)
[15] Daniel Strieff, “Forging a voice in ‘France’s high-rise hell,’” MSNBC, May 9, 2007,, accessed Feb. 21, 2010.
[16] Michel de Certeau. The practice of everyday life, Volume 1 (University of California Press, 1988), 106.

Chapter 1: Genesis of the Paris Banlieue

On January 1st, 1860, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine and Louis-Napoléon’s right-hand man for the transformation of Paris, extended the city limits to incorporate the outlying faubourgs, its immediate suburbs. The tax barrier moved outward to the new fortifications that had been completed in 1844,[1] adding 9300 acres and 351,189 inhabitants to the city of Paris.[2]

The annexation of the faubourgs marked a shift in the nature of the Paris periphery. There was a new city limit and outside it, a new kind of suburb—the banlieue. Matthew Gandy and Kathleen Adler have attempted to establish the banlieue as a logical counterpart to the city: Gandy argues that its irrationality is a substitute for the old Paris sewer, which was rationalized under Haussmann,[3] and Kathleen Adler suggests that it is the domain of the flâneuse, the female counterpart to the artist/stroller of modern Paris.[4] In this chapter, I argue that the post-1860 banlieue was an entirely new phenomenon. It was not a harmonious complement to the new Paris, but a melancholic space that resulted from the destruction of the old Paris, a space devoid of memory and reserved for the banished. I will use T.J. Clark’s term “melancholic” as a lens in order to suggest that the banlieue was an unprecedented entity that resulted from a systematic class-based exclusion.[5] Much more isolated from the city than the old outskirts, the faubourgs, the banlieue’s space was the product of an increasingly capitalist society.

There are three main reasons for this claim: first, throughout the second half of the 19th century, Haussmann’s new city-limits marked a sharp boundary between Paris and what lay outside, a boundary more distinct than the old city walls that had been taken down by Louis XIV or by Haussmann himself. Second, the space outside Paris was contested—both the very poor and the very rich lived in the banlieue. Finally, Haussmann’s transformation of the city did not, as Gandy claims, lead to a shift in spatial segregation from the architectural section to the urban plan, but rather took the dense fabric of a congested city and transformed it into an architecture of surveillance, defined neither by plan nor section, but generated by the façade.


Until 1860 the limits of the densely urban city had been marked by tax-collection barrières such as those designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in 1785. Beyond these lay the zone, “a barren stretch of land adjacent to the fortifications, originally reserved for military purposes.”[6] Then there was the faubourg, an ambiguous space between the zone and the new fortifications erected by Louis-Phillipe. Beyond these fortifications there was the open countryside.

Faubourg, a masculine noun which refers specifically to working class suburbs, is described by the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, 6th Edition (1835), thus: “Part of a city that is beyond its gates and its walls. A long faubaoug. They enclosed the faubourg into the city.”[7] Despite acknowledging the existence of city walls, the definition considers the faubourg to be an extension of the city. After the annexation of the faubourgs in 1860 a change occurred in the perception of the new periphery. Consider, in contrast to the above definition, the meaning of the word banlieue in the 1932-35 edition of the same dictionary: Extent of country or land surrounding the city and is often dependent on the city. “The banlieue of Paris, Rouen. This village is in the banlieue of Paris.”[8] This definition describes the banlieue as an entity separate from the city (pays means country but not necessarily countryside). At first this sharp separation seems contrary to Haussmann’s goals: “the development of the city [says Haussmann] ordinarily results from the confluence of circumstances that are beyond prediction, beyond calculation, and which most often no human will can direct.”[9] Why would someone who considered the city to be an organic entity, and who declared that its boundaries must be taken down, create a deeper separation between the city and its surroundings?

Despite his claim that “no human will” could direct the city’s growth, Haussmann set out to do just that. Everything about his plan was rational, calculated and predictable. The only way to allow this rigid urbanism to extend into the faubourg was to annex them all and impose upon them the same kind of order. His minister of interior, Delangle, provided another possible reason for the annexation. Delangle emphasized the “strategic-administrative considerations” for annexing the suburbs, citing that there were a total of 68 policemen there, or 1 for every 140 acres or 5165 inhabitants: “how can there be effective surveillance with so few men?”[10] The annexation and rational reorganization of the faubourgs then was a logical step because it fit into the general theme of cleansing the city. By opening up large boulevards Haussmann opened up the city to circulation of goods and capital. In addition, he rendered future revolt impossible. Because Haussmann’s urban plan was so painstakingly designed, there was no room in it for future expansion. Like a work of art, it ignored everything outside its frame.

Melancholic Space

In “The Suburban, the Modern and ‘une Dame de Passy,’” Kathleen Adler describes the suburb as the domain of the flâneuse. She contests mainstream urban theories by Georg Simmel, Balzac and Baudelaire that paint the modern city as interesting and heterogeneous: “they seldom engage with the concept of the city as gendered,” she writes, “and in consequence they inevitably privilege the masculine.”[11] By setting up the city and suburb as opposites, she says, and by devoting all their attention to the city, these writers have ignored the true worth of the suburb as an equal complement to the city. Adler describes the artist Berthe Morisot as the female counterpart to the flâneur:

Instead of Baudelaire's “ebb and flow” of the life of the boulevards, Morisot represented the ebb and flow of other kinds of lives, the lives of women and children in the suburbs…. The suburb is neither heroic nor epic, but the site of small scale daily rituals and occurrences.[12]

This view of the suburb as a gendered space is reflected in Matthew Gandy’s essay, “The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space.” Gandy links both the Paris sewer and the suburb to female sexuality, stating that “the association of women with impurity is not, of course, an invention of modernity, yet it is the reworking of pre-modern beliefs in the context of capitalist urbanization that is of interest here.”[13] The Paris sewer, a kind of repressed underbelly of the city, which for a long time had represented the female—in the form of mystery, intrigue, and seduction—was now thoroughly rationalized and lit up by Haussmann and photographed by Felix Nadar. In the wake of this transformation, Gandy argues, the banlieue became the new “obverse to the rational [male] city.”[14] He quotes T.J. Clark’s term “melancholic banlieue” to describe what he believes to be the new domain of the female: “a muddle of suburban sprawl, small holdings and displaced communities on the outskirts of Paris.”[15] While Gandy’s claim is interesting, it is ultimately flawed. Indeed, the sewer could be linked with female sexuality because it was historic and dense, an exact and tangible subterranean negative of the city above ground, and connected to it physically and psychically by the passing of water and waste. The post-1860 periphery, however, was a vast stretch of land with a very different kind of physical connection to the city. It was a place devoid of any history or memory, and could therefore not be linked with ideas of mystery, intrigue and seduction.

Adler, too, uses the term “melancholic banlieue” to frame her argument; while Gandy embraces this description of the suburb, Adler rejects it. She glorifies the suburb using her example of the middle-class suburb of Passy. In doing so she ignores the poorer suburbs to the east of Paris and limits her description to pre-1860 faubourgs, since Passy was annexed to the city at that time. It is worthwhile to trace the term “melancholic banlieue” back to T.J. Clark.[16] In the Painting of Modern Life, he argues that while Paris was being renovated under Haussmann, beyond its boundaries the “opposite of the urban was being constructed.”[17] He quotes Victor Hugo to describe the process of severe order that was being imposed on the urban fabric inside the city: “I do not despair [says Hugo] that Paris, seen from a balloon, should one day present that richness of line, that opulence of detail, that diversity of aspect, that hint of the grandiose in the simple and the unexpected in the beautiful, which characterizes a checkerboard.”[18] This incredibly designed “checkerboard” grid inside the city was met at the fortifications with wild, open spaces, marking a sharp divide between rational Paris and the severely irrational banlieue outside.

It is interesting to compare this to Gandy’s assertion that “the city can no longer be meaningfully conceived as a holistic or autarchic entity, but emerges as a dynamic intersection of the circulatory processes based around the exigencies of economic exchange.”[19] T.J. Clark, writing before Gandy, seems to agree that these “exigencies of economic exchange” are the primary determining forces in the new form of spatial segregation, but argues that that occurs despite a sharp boundary between the city, which is now even more an “autarchic” entity, and the banlieue, to which the poor are banished. He considers class—and not gender—to be the dominant force in the new spatial reorganization of the city:

Economic representations [are] the matrix around which all others are organized. In particular, the class of an individual—his or her effective possession of or separation from the means of production—is the determinant fact of social life.[20]

Clark believes that possession of or separation from means of production correlates with the possession of or separation from Haussmann’s new bourgeois Paris. All other beliefs, habits, preferences and morals, he says, are “articulated within particular worlds of representation… constricted and invaded by the determining nexus of class.”[21] It is important to remember, however, that class status in 19th century Paris was often correlated with gender and race. The post-1860 banlieue is melancholic, then, because it represents a denial of the working class and the problems associated with them. It is a neglected space.

T.J. Clark’s description of the banlieue as a melancholic space finds an echo in Anne Cheng’s exploration of melancholia as it relates to race and social exclusion. In “The Melancholy of Race,” Cheng argues that covering up hurtful collective memory or banishing the marginalized makes the problem of collective loss more severe: “those subjected to abjection hover on the edges of the dominant progressive narrative as objects at once ungrieved and unrelinquished.”[22] Cheng’s exploration of melancholia and exclusion are important toward understanding Haussmann’s Paris, especially when we consider new patterns of spatial segregation. Haussmann’s new Paris is melancholic precisely because of “what it excludes but cannot forget.”[23] Its banlieue is the new home of the working class, a home devoid of any history or memory. The melancholic banlieue is “that ghostly presence [that]…participates in [the inhabitant’s] self-denigration.”[24] By covering up the loss experienced by the Parisians who were forced out of their homes, Haussmann’s grand narrative of Paris’s transformation polarized the metropolitan space along class lines. From now, the city center was an exclusive space. This polarization made the spatial exclusion of the working class an eternal part of Paris’s future. If there was a gendered relationship between the city and its periphery before 1860, the post-1860 Paris and its banlieue were divorced. An expansion of the city limits is difficult today precisely because of the nature of the new boundary that Haussmann created. Yet, while the urban fabric of the city and the periphery were polar opposites, the social fabric was more complex:

We have sewn rags onto the purple robe of a queen [wrote Louis Lazare]; we have built within Paris two cities, quite different and hostile: the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged, by the city of misery…. You have put temptation and covetousness side by side.[25]

Contested Space: The Determining Nexus of Class

In Les Premiers Banlieusards, Alain Faure rejects any unambiguous reading of the social fabric of the Paris banlieue. He establishes that there are several different types of banlieues in the late nineteenth century, whose growth has resulted from varying migration patterns from the center. The census of 1891, says Faure, began to categorize the various types: rural and agricultural communes, working-class communes and bourgeois communes populated by employees and pensioners.  He calls them images of Paris because they are amplified reflections of the “social geography” of the city.[26] For example, the extremely rich live in the western suburbs, such as Versailles and Poissy, and the extremely poor inhabit eastern suburbs such as Montfermeil, a setting for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The name of Faure’s book is a play on words: banlieusards means commuters, and for Faure it is this single act of commuting to the city center that unifies the various banlieuesards (banlieue-dwellers) better than any other descriptive feature.

Faure’s view of the banlieue as an image of the city’s social geography can be traced in population trends. Even before Haussmann’s transformation of Paris began, a loss in population and a process of urban gentrification had begun in the heart of Paris. Population declined sharply in the area around the Palais de Justice from 1801 to 1856, especially with the demolition of the Grand Chatelet and the Pont St-Michel.[27] This decline was accelerated in the wake of Haussmann’s renovation of the city. The population of the four central arrondisements reached a peak before 1860, and continued to decrease by a third in the second half of the 19th century.[28] During this period, the population in the 5th, 6th, and 9th arrondisements was constant. All other neighborhoods in central Paris reached a peak in population somewhere in the second half of the 19th century. The population of the suburbs, on the other hand, saw a continuous rise after 1860 (Figure 2).[29] Paris’ boundaries had been sealed and new towns were emerging beyond them—false images attempting to replicate various quarters of the glimmering city.

At this time, a new social class was emerging: the petit bourgeois. T.J. Clark cites the period’s uncertain vocabulary for the description of class status as evidence of a new class structure in the making: from peuple to  prolétariat, from classes laborieuses  to classe ourviére.[30] The petit bourgeois included: (1) “men and women whose trades had previously allowed them a modicum of security in the city’s economic life,” but were now forced to the periphery; and (2) “new groups of workers—clerks, shop assistants, and the like—who were the products, offensively brand new and ambitious, of the same economic changes.”[31] This class was the true inhabitant of the banlieue because the banlieue produced it. It co-existed with the proletariat at an equal distance from the city and, according to Clark, “from the realm of art.”[32]

In establishing the nature of the post-1860 periphery, it is important to explore why artists ceased to paint there. The banlieue could not be captured in painting because it was too dilute. There was nothing of visual interest there. It had neither the charm of the open countryside nor the intimacy of the dense city. It was identifiable only by a “foreignness of an unexotic kind—of the classes of people who came to occupy the new terrain. They were the petit bourgeoisie, but also the proletariat.”[33] The banlieue was most compellingly depicted, I argue, in paintings of the city itself. There is a melancholy void in Caillebotte’s depictions of Paris. The working class has been flushed out, and all the bustling activity that they had once contributed has been replaced by en eerie silence.

François Loyer celebrates Haussmann’s urbanism. He claims that its depiction in late 19th century art is a mark of its success: “the Paris of Zola and Caillebotte was the worthy heir of the Second Empire.”[34] As examples of art that epitomize a “loyalty to a system” he includes Caillebotte’s Pont de l’Europe and Rainy Day (Figure 3A) among photographs of the new Paris.[35]

The artists’ inflammatory proclamations were accompanied by an extraordinary durability of principles and modes of production…while the artists loudly attacked Second Empire Paris, neither the typology of the apartment house not the structure of urban space underwent any significant transformation.[36]

Clark is more skeptical of this view, suggesting that Caillebotte’s painting in fact reveals Paris’s “unexpected desolation.”[37]

The typical scene—this the new painting certainly suggested—was likely to be one in which the classes coexisted but did not touch… the worker looking out of the street without sides in Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe, and the bourgeois engaged in the mysterious transaction with a woman—his wife, his mistress, a passer-by, a prostitute, who knows? Class exists but Haussmann’s spaces allow it to be overlooked.[38]

Indeed preliminary sketches for the painting suggest that Caillebotte meticulously developed three main features of the painting: the narrative that juxtaposes the classes, the endless repetition of architectural facades that fade into the distance, and the concept of a speedy movement through the city, a city whose streets no longer allow intimacy. The worker in Pont de l’Europe represents the banlieue. He no longer belongs to the city he helped create. He has nowhere to recede or relax in the Paris of the “spectacle.”[39] He is watched everywhere and will be forced to exit the city at nightfall.

The social reorganization by class status was accompanied by physical changes in the urban landscape. Jeanne Gaillard’s study of “ordinary Parisian’s” opinions around 1860 describes these changes.[40] Although she rejects “polemic” accounts such as Louis Lazare’s, her own conclusions are similar to them: “in 1852 [she says], the suburb is still a village, but no longer in 1870.”[41] An accelerated and unnatural urban reconstruction inside the city, she says, led to an industrial society and “a new kind of conservatism” which was inexplicable at the time.[42] This “new conservatism” is a reflection of the bizarre and inexplicable landscape of the new banlieue. I have illustrated in Figure 4 the stark difference in the nature public space in the city and in the banlieue. Loyer describes the difference in the density of the urban fabric thus:

Anarchy reigned as sheds and little houses sprang up next to four- and five-storey buildings. Since the surface available for construction was too big it could not be built up as coherently as the old faubourgs were… a unified urban façade of blocks could not be formed.[43]

In a report for the Laboratoire de Demographie Historique, Paul-André Rosental explores the nature of the Paris banlieue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He studies the banlieue as the site to which many Parisians have been forced to relocate. Rosental makes a distinction between a living space and an inhabited, emotionally “invested” space (1409).[44] Rosental defines the excluded worker’s relocation of home in terms of a source (invested space) and destination (neutral space). According to Rosental, two scenarios are possible. In the first, migrants decide to invest in the new space and make it their own. In the second, migrants continue to “reference” the place from where they came (the city center) in every action, and concerning every expectation. In the case of the early post-1860 banlieue, the destination space is a “space with a secondary status, strictly instrumental.”[45] While the destroyed homes of many Parisians in the city-center were permanent and “invested” spaces, the banlieue is an open, neutral space. It lacks the dense architecture of the city that acts as an anchor and foil for social traditions and provides a sense of shared history. The banlieue forces the inhabitant to relocate constantly and is marked by a sense of placelessness. Victor Hugo evokes the pre-1860 faubourg as the limit of the city of Paris, beyond which even the barefooted gamin (street urchin) will not go:

They can no more escape from the Parisian atmosphere than fish can escape from the water. For them, nothing exists two leagues beyond the barriers: Ivry, Gentilly, Arcueil, Belleville, Aubervilliers, Menilmontant, Choisy-le-Roi, Billancourt, Meudon, Issy, Vanves, Sevres, Puteaux, Neuilly, Gennevilliers, Colombes, Romainville, Chatou, Asnieres, Bougival, Nanterre, Enghien, Noisy-le-Sec, Nogent, Gournay, Drancy, Gonesse; the universe ends there(Figure 5).[46]

After 1860, everything outside of the new boundary of Paris is dead. People forced to relocate there are like fish thrown out of the water. Susanna Magri describes the banlieue as reculons, or “backward.”[47] Relocating to the banlieue, for Magri, is a shameful thing because it represents a stepping down on the grand escalier of social class. She describes Parisians’ seemingly irrational “dedication” to the city, calling it a kind of “patriotism.”[48] As the space in Paris becomes more and more limited, the space on the “social network” becomes limited too, and sociologists and historians have found that this increases people’s feeling of belonging to and nostalgia of the “urban entity.”[49]

Cultural practices and leisure… Paris music halls, famous universities, festive and political parades”—all these things give rise to the material and symbolic identity of the space of the city, the opposite of which is the suburb.[50]

According to Magri, the allure of the city far surpassed the benefits of a better home in the banlieue. Parisians preferred lowering their standard of living and moving to substandard housing somewhere within the bounds of the new city, to migrating to the banlieue.[51]

In order to better understand the transformation that occurred after the annexation of 1860, it is important to trace what the city and suburb represented before and after that date. In 1799, the year when Napoléon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory to replace it with the French Consulate,

the streets of Paris reflected both the poverty of the inhabitants and the luxury of the tradesmen, tax collectors and their mistresses who lived on the body of the dying Republic…at the barriers one met decrepit coaches drawn by old nags harnessed with rope.[52]
One of Napoleon’s deputies declared that the “skeleton of the Republic” had fallen into “the hands of the vultures which fought over its fleshless limbs.”[53] According to André Castelot, the “‘hands of the vultures’ symbolized the Parisians of the suburbs, who had become very passive but whose reactions were still feared.”[54] This metaphor of the city and suburb attempting to cannibalize one another is recurrent. In 1840, Edmond Texier laments the assault of the city on the suburbs:

A craze for building reigns like an epidemic: the tide of houses rises as we look, overflowing the barrières, invading the banlieue and making its first assault on the outworks of the city’s fortifications. Can we stop this fever, this mania for piling stone on stone?[55]

The dynamic of pre-1860 opposition between suburb and city was healthy for the growth of the city because it represented a political and social heterogeneity, and a negotiable buffer that separated the two. Haussmann’s sweeping annexation of the faubourgs in 1860 was an attempt to subdue the periphery once and for all, and in doing so, to silence all voices of opposition and revolt. It shifted the tenuous balance and allowed the city to cannibalize the periphery. This made the problems of the new outskirts, the banlieue, a permanent part of the new Paris.

Louis Lazare accused Haussmann of “building a second industrial Paris on the edge of the old, and waiting for low rents and the promise of work to lure the working class out to it…. Artisans and workers are shut up in veritable Siberias, criss-crossed with winding, unpaved paths, without lights, without shops, with no water laid on, where everything is lacking….”[56] It was evident to him and others that the division between the city and the new banlieue was drawn along class lines: “the center is destined to be inhabited in the future only by the well-to-do.”[57]

An Architecture of Surveillance

Françoise Soulignac argues that, even though term banlieue has medieval origins, the “entity” it describes today has evolved gradually and is specific to France because it is linked with the progress of France.[58] I would go a step further to claim that the banlieue is specific to Paris because other cities in France, such as Marseilles, do not display a sharp divide between the city and its suburbs. Soulignac defines banlieue as “that part of space, now agglomerated into a compact, which extends between the central city and further afield.”[59] Just as the city is locked within the banlieue, the banlieue is locked between the city and the countryside. 

The banlieue is specific to Paris because its genesis gives rise to a new kind of architecture. Gandy claims that, with the transformation of Paris in the 19th century and with the annexation of the faubourg, “the old vertical separation of the classes in the apartment houses of pre-modern Paris was gradually to be supplanted by a new emphasis on horizontal segregation.”[60] In pre-modern Paris, the servants would live in the smallest rooms at the top of the apartment buildings. Class would be evident from what floor someone lived on, or whether they lived at the front of the building or in the rear. For example, in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Thenardier accuses Jean Valjean of being rich and indulgent: “you have wadded overcoats like archbishops, you live on the first floor in houses with a porter, you eat truffles....”[61] Gandy’s argument is that, with the exodus of the poor to the suburbs, this social separation determined by the building’s section, changed. Because only the rich now remained in the center, Gandy argues, class status became dependent on how far away from the city-center one lived. Even if we ignore the richer suburbs such as Passy, the problem of class after 1860 has become more complex than a simple shift from section to plan. While Gandy’s point is interesting, it does not explain the change in architectural responses to the new urban form. The difference in scale of the apartment building’s section and the city plan is too great; his comparison is simplistic.

In fact, pre-1860 architecture was generated by both plan and section. Figure 6A shows how housing developments favored the street, and less desirable homes were added on in a dense urbanism whose main features were density and depth. After 1860, both inside the city and outside it, the façade became the new defining feature of architecture. Haussmann set strict enforcements to regulate street facades within the city (Figure 7). Most buildings were extremely formulaic, defined only by two main features: the façade, chosen by builders from a selection of standard types, and the inner courtyard. Most of the rooms would be aligned with either the outer or inner façade. As Figure 8 illustrates, new housing projects, too, followed this formula: “low-cost housing complexes were the beginning of public housing in France [and reflect] the early twentieth-century concern with ‘healthy’ buildings. The designs show detached buildings with landscaped courtyards.”[62]

According to Anthony Sutcliffe, what characterizes this phenomenon is “the standardized apartment block as a product of industrialization.”[63] In the old Paris, housing architecture would emphasize the piano nobile and the character of the façade was determined “by the treatment of that floor, which was often related to the architect’s view of the owner’s preferences.” [64] After the massive transformations introduced by Haussmann and the new building regulations that accompanied them, “the façade treatment now tended to reflect a general sense of what the average tenant would consider appropriate.”[65]

As the post-1860 banlieue extended farther and farther away from the city, this problem of the formulaic approach to housing architecture was intensified in its open, irrational spaces. This new kind of urbanism was the setting of the first modernist housing projects of the early twentieth century, an urbanism whose features in no way resembled the mysterious alleys or hidden corners associated with old Paris. Everything about the building, and a lot about its inhabitants, would be evident on the façade. François Maspero journeys across the banlieue housing projects in 1994 and writes about this loss of depth in his book, Roissy Express:

What’s missing [in the banlieue] is not benches, or trees, or patches of grass, even if they could be preserved and looked after. What’s missing is far more serious: …an entire dimension…. You walk alongside high walls: a door, windows, a door, no windows. There’s the occasional shop—with a flat window. But what’s behind all that? There’s no depth to it. Where are the courtyards, the recesses, the shops hidden in a shaded doorway, the patch of sky where you can see the clouds sailing by and the tail of the concierge’s cat, the lazy café terrace and its awning soaking the customers in orange light?[66]

Gaillard argues that, while Haussmann tried to contain and partition a people naturally inclined to community life, the resistance to uniformity persisted, ready to spread out whenever the authorities looked away.[67]


Haussmann’s transformation of Paris took place at a time when French colonialism was becoming widespread, with France as the second-largest colonial power after Britain. In 1830, the French had invaded Algeria, and that had marked the beginning of North African immigration into the Paris region. Though very little has been documented of it, Nicolas Beau describes the immigrants’ first impressions in his book, Paris, Capitale Arabe

The first Arabs to live in Paris were officers of the Egyptian government in the early nineteenth century.... Back in Cairo, one of those students, Rifaat el Tahtawi, published in 1830 an account of his stay in Paris. Two successful accomplishments of the French society, he wrote, are “the education of people” who can read and write, and the freedom of women, “who are similar in all things to men.”[68]

Paris was the center of France’s massive colonial empire and was set to become a highly diverse city. Haussmann’s well-intentioned urban reform made the city visually exciting but proved stifling in the long run. In Italy, Louis-Napoléon sent French troops to help restore Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States in 1849 after the Pope’s rule had been overthrown by the revolutionaries led by Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi who had proclaimed the Roman Republic. In 1858, Mazzini wrote a letter to Louis-Napoléon, severely criticizing his approach to urban transformation:

You have opened new streets; drawn, for your strategic repressive purposes, new lines of communication; destroyed and rebuilt…. You whispered to the easily frightened, easily fascinated bourgeoisie fantastic dreams, hopes of a redoubled industrial activity, new sources of profits, eldoradoes of stimulated exportation and international intercourse.[69]

Mazzini identifies Haussmann’s motivations for Paris’s transformation as economic, and argues that his solution is not sustainable. Both Kristin Ross and Jean-Louis Cohen cite 1860 as a source of the social, political and urban challenges that the Paris region faced later. In Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, Ross argues that Haussmann’s goals of “[social] hygiene and security” failed as a result of his segregation of the city and suburb: “recently arrived provincial day laborers—the future Communards of 1871—labored on the urban renewal projects (thus constituting both the instruments and the main victims of the transformation).”[70] Writing about the 2005 riots in France, Jean-Louis Cohen traces the problem of social segregation back to the 19th century, citing Haussmann’s “‘centrifugal’ policy that led Paris to begin exporting its sick (with the building of hospitals), its dead (with the building of cemeteries), and finally its factories and its poor residents near the end of the 19th century.”[71]

By locking the city within the new boundaries and shutting out the banlieue, Haussmann paralyzed both. From the 1860 area of 78 km2 (30 sq miles), the city limits were expanded marginally to 86.9 km2 (34 sq miles) in the 1920s. In 1929, the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes forest parks were officially annexed to the city, bringing its area to the present 105.39 km2 (41 sq miles). The city of Paris, within its administrative limits largely unchanged since 1860, has an estimated population of 2,203,817 (January 2006), but the Paris aire urbaine (or metropolitan area) has a population of 11,769,433.[72] Today, the French government subsidizes transportation costs for commuters from the suburbs by 70%.[73]

As Gaillard notes, and as the Commune of March 1871 proved, Haussmann’s open boulevards and sealed class boundaries may have restricted the success of future revolutions, but they did little to prevent their genesis.[74]

[1] David P. Jordan, Transforming Paris: the life and labors of Baron Haussmann (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 285.
[2] “Mairie de Paris,”, accessed January 8th, 2010.
[3] Matthew Gandy, “The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1999), 13.
[4] Kathleen Adler, “The Suburban, the Modern and ‘une Dame de Passy,’” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1989), 3.
[5] T.J. Clark, The painting of modern life: Paris in the art of Manet and his followers, (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999), 147.
[6] Jordan, 285.
[7]La partie d'une ville qui est au delà de ses portes et de son enceinte. Un long faubourg. On a enfermé les faubourgs dans la ville, English translation is my own.
[8] Étendue de pays qui entoure une ville et qui en est souvent une dépendance. La banlieue de Paris, de Rouen. Ce village est dans la banlieue de Paris. Les villages de la banlieue, English translation is my own.
[9] Jordan, 287.
[10] Jordan, 286.
[11] Adler, 3.
[12] Adler, 9.
[13] Gandy, 13.
[14] Gandy, 35.
[15] Gandy, 35.
[16] Clark, 29.
[17] Clark, 147.
[18] Clark, 32.
[19] Gandy, 35.
[20] Clark, 7.
[21] Clark, 7.
[22] Anne A. Cheng, “The Melancholy of Race,” The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 19, No. 1 (winter 1997), 50.
[23] Cheng, 50.
[24] Cheng, 50.
[25] Clark, 29.
[26] Danielle Tartakowsky, “Review: Les premiers banlieusards. Aux origines des banlieues de Paris, 1860-1940 by Alain Faure, ” Le Mouvement social,  No. 160 (July-Sept. 1992), 158-159.
[27] Catherine Bonvalet and Yves Tugault, “Les racines du depeuplement de Paris,” Population (French Edition), 39e Année, No. 3 (May - Jun., 1984), 463.
[28] Bonvalet, 463.
[29] Bonvalet, 471.
[30] Clark, 7.
[31] Clark, 7.
[32] Clark, 147.
[33] Clark, 147.
[34] François Loyer, Paris: Nineteenth Century Architecture and Urbanism, trans. Charles Lynn Clark (New York: Abbeville, 1988), 374.
[35] Loyer, 374.
[36] Loyer, 374.
[37] Clark, 15.
[38] Clark, 73.
[39] Clark, 15.
[40] Jeanne Gaillard, “Paris la ville, 1852-1870,” Le Mouvement social, No. 93 (Oct. - Dec., 1975), 6.
[41] Gaillard, 10.
[42] Gaillard, 10.
[43] Loyer, 102.
[44] Paul-André Rosental, “Maintien/rupture: un nouveau couple pour l'analyse des migrations,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 45e Année, No. 6 (Nov. - Dec., 1990), 1409.
[45] Rosental, 1409.
[46] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables Part Third: Marius (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company: 1893), 11.
[47] Magri, “Les proprietaires, les locataires, la loi: Jalons pour une analyse sociologique des rapports de location, Paris 1850-1920,” Revue française de sociologie, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1996), 408.
[48] Magri, 408.
[49] Magri, 408.
[50] Magri, 408.
[51] Magri, 408.
[52] André Castelot, The Turbulent City: Paris 1783-1871 (Paris: André Storms, 1962), 75.
[53] Castelot, 75.
[54] Castelot, 75.
[55] Clark, 32.
[56] Edmond Texier (1852), quoted in T.J. Clark, The painting of modern life: Paris in the art of Manet and his followers, (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999), 29.
[57] Edmond Texier (1852), quoted in T.J. Clark, The painting of modern life: Paris in the art of Manet and his followers, (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999), 33.
[58] Françoise Soulignac, La Banlieue Parisienne: Cent cinquante ans de transformations (Paris: La documentation Française, 1993), 5. 
[59] Soulignac, 5.
[60] Gandy, 35.
[61] Hugo, Marius, Book VIII, Ch. 20.
[62] Loyer, 442.
[63] Anthony Sutcliffe, Paris: An Architectural History (New Haven: Yale, 1993), 88.
[64] Sutcliffe, 88.
[65] Sutcliffe, 88.
[66] François Maspero, Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs (London: Verso, 1994), 42.
[67] Gaillard, 13.
[68] Nicolas Beau, Paris, Capitale Arabe (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995), 7. Les prémieres Arabes qui séjournent durablement à paris sont des boursiers du government égyptien du début du XIXe siecle…. De retour au Caire, un de ces étudiants, Rifaat El Tahtawi, fait paraître en 1830 un récit de son séjour parisien. Deux traits de la société française l'ont vraiment conquis: l'éducation du peuple « qui sait lire et écrire », et la liberté des femmes, « semblables en toutes choses aux homes ». English translation is my own.
[69] Giuseppe Mazzini, “To Louis Napoleon.” Cowen Tracts, (1858),, accessed 10/12/2009, 4.
[70] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 151.
[71] Jean-Louis Cohen, “Burning Issues in the Banlieues.” Log 7 (2006), 92.
[72] “Mairie de Paris,”, accessed January 8th, 2010.
[73] Gilles Pécout, Atlas de l’histoire de France XIXe-XXIe siècle (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2007), 38.
[74] Gaillard, 13.