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Tour de banlieue: the grands ensembles of Paris’s periphery

Index

Eight decades on, life beyond the Périphérique continues to battle with gigantism, boredom and alienation

It was with the blistering words ‘the French Republic has a debt towards its working-class neighbourhoods’ that Grigny’s Communist mayor Philippe Rio presented an unwrapped gift to Emmanuel Macron on the evening of Monday 4 February, during the grand débat session on the capital’s banlieues. ‘We are not asking for charity, but for justice’, he added. The present was a hefty tome, just published and poignantly titled Les Abandonnés, in which Xavier de Jarcy disproves the widely accepted belief that France’s enormous national effort rapidly produced new housing blocks to respond to population growth, eradicate slums and build a more egalitarian society after the Second World War.

Grigny is one of France’s poorest municipalities. Two colossal projects rapidly sealed its fate at the end of the 1960s, turning it into the dormitory suburb of the new town of Évry, itself on the periphery of Paris, before Évry even existed. At the time, voices were slowly rising to criticise the inadequacies of postwar housing and planning, and the architect Émile Aillaud contested the functionalist doctrine which divides cities into zones, reduces apartments to practical use, and converts use into uniform gestures, resulting in standardised solutions dictating every move, from the bathroom to the city. ‘These forms of urbanism are not outdated’, he argued, ‘they have always been a mistake.’

‘By meticulously recounting the projects, people and policies that shaped urban developments in France from 1935 onwards, De Jarcy exposes the yawning chasm between ambition and reality’

With its colourful walls, sinuous curves and oversize sculpted animals cast in silvery concrete, Aillaud’s design for Grigny’s La Grande Borne tried to look different from the monotonous housing slabs and tower blocks sprouting elsewhere in the suburbs. But there were to be no miracles here. Over the motorway, the failed colossal residential estate Grigny 2, initiated by the state but supported by a private developer, was getting off the ground, and between 1968 and 1974 Grigny’s population soared from 3,000 to 27,000. The thousands of children who live in the ‘cité des enfants’ imagined by Aillaud can now be found loitering and wandering idle on its threadbare congealed lawns, future victims of the town’s staggering 40 per cent unemployment rate.

The banlieues’ state of emergency did not coincide, as is commonly believed, with the 1973 oil crisis and consequent economic stagnation. The seeds of failure were planted early on, an intrinsic component ensnared in the desire for ‘hygiene’ vindicated by the authoritarian inclination of national policies and the Vichy regime. Buried not so deep in the foundations of interwar schemes, it was only a matter of time before gangrene would set in.

After Haussmann’s rigid urban plan, Paris started sprawling outwards without much structure, public facilities or asphalt roads. In response to this ‘anarchic’ expansion, local authorities sought to express order. Henri Sellier’s cités-jardins for Suresnes in the early 1920s were attractive propositions on paper, but already impregnated with darker principles of social cleansing. The economic hardship of the 1930s imposed straight lines and prefabricated elements – the low-rise landscape of detached houses à l’anglaise an impossible ideal. Directly inspired by Corb’s Plan Voisin, the towering Cité de la Muette in Drancy, inaugurated in 1929, marked the birth of a new way forward: urbanist Maurice Rotival postulates it is ‘individual freedom that has led to slums’ and coins the term grands ensembles. Yet within three years, the first grand ensemble was already a forsaken promise: a national recession put a stop to the construction with the school the only built ancillary programme and the apartments remaining empty.

‘Stark divides between centre and periphery, inside and outside, belonging and exclusion, are in the genes of the French capital and its outer rings’

The 20th century’s historical context of two world wars, colonial conflicts and the Cold War helps to explain, but by no means justifies, the cruel piling up of cheaply assembled and ever-smaller residential units in dormitory suburbs, woefully lacking any public infrastructure, employment opportunities, social services or cultural amenities. By meticulously recounting the projects, people and policies that shaped urban developments in France from 1935 onwards, bringing together the voices of politicians, architects, developers, activists, residents and journalists, De Jarcy exposes the yawning chasm between ambition and reality. From its inception, this allegedly generous and utopian enterprise created nothing but enclaves of both social and spatial segregation.

The most distressing element of the author’s thesis is that this is not a retrospective assessment. People in charge were lucid, aware of the country’s failure in addressing its housing crisis and shamefully acknowledging the inadequacy of the concrete fortresses on site at the time – yet contributing to their construction. The word segregation appears in the mid ’50s, with parallels drawn between the grands ensembles and the ‘univers concentrationnaire’. Plight, revolt and crime soon start to hit newspaper headlines, much before unemployment rates escalate. In the ’60s the Minister for Construction Pierre Sudreau attempts to stop this uncontrollable machine, warning against the extension of a new banlieue, the birth of dormitory suburban rings, the alignment of characterless buildings and desolate houses where human life cannot flourish. ‘A phenomenon afflicts all foreigners: France is becoming ugly, progressively and, in some cases, outrageously’, he declares, emphasising that, ‘this phenomenon is characterised by its amplitude’. Tarnished by the ‘sad uniformity’ of its housing, the country’s image is ‘disfigured’.

Screenshot 2019 04 07 at 23.25.12

Screenshot 2019 04 07 at 23.25.12

The very first grand ensemble was celebrated as a resounding success: as the ‘first skyscrapers of the Paris region’, the tower blocks of the Cité de la Muette are the subject of postcards, press articles and guided tours

Prophecies of doom materialise, again and again, outside Paris and elsewhere in the country. The mid-’70s put an end to (the name of) the grands ensembles, but the reality on the ground of the ZUP, ‘quartiers sensibles’ or ‘cités de banlieue’ remains unchanged, with more aborted projects and more broken promises. Tensions escalate ceaselessly, culminating in peaks of heated revolt, as during the 2005 riots exploding on the ‘other side’ of the Périphérique. There is a brief spike of hope with the ‘plan Borloo’ but it is dismissed by Macron.

Today, Grigny is home to a vulnerable melting-pot of foreign immigrants, Antilleans, and residents of the capital’s 13th arrondissement expropriated due to urban regeneration – the words ‘rénovation – déportation’ graffitied on the walls before they are erased again. Whether from the centre of Paris 25km away, or from much further afield, newcomers feel uprooted. Stark divides between centre and periphery, inside and outside, belonging and exclusion, are in the genes of the French capital and its outer rings. Discrimination is baked into the cement of the Périphérique’s tall concrete overpasses and the dark tunnels of the RER. On the edge of the abyss.

Lead image: Intended as an improvement on the original grands ensembles, La Grande Borne was envisaged as a low-rise, pedestrian-friendly poetic utopia, populated by serpentine buildings with colourful tiled facades, but it has become one of the most problematic estates in France, where human silhouettes still feel tragically out of place. © Cyrus Cornut / Dolce Vita / Picturetank

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today