Sunday, July 4, 2010


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.

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