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).

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