Dehumanizing architecture and banlieus

One of the factors that make the French banlieues such bad places to live quite obviously is the architecture of the building, and the structure of those quarters. The buildings are brutal, mass produced slabs of concrete, meant to serve as silos for their human contents. The leading inpiration for this kind of architecture came from Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, called ‘ Le Corbusier’:

Le Corbusier is without doubt the most influential, most admired, and most maligned architect of the twentieth century. Through his writing and his buildings, he is the main player in the Modernist story, his visions of homes and cities as innovative as they are influential. Many of his ideas on urban living became the blueprint for post-war reconstruction, and the many failures of his would-be imitators led to Le Corbusier being blamed for the problems of western cities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and other architects of his generation, Le Corbusier had little architectural training. But he did have a strong conviction that the twentieth century would be an age of progress: an age when engineering and technological advances, and new ways of living, would change the world for good. …

A House Is A Machine For Living In
By 1918, Corbusier’s ideas on how architecture should meet the demands of the machine age led him to develop, in collaboration with the artist Amédée Ozenfant, a new theory: Purism. Purist rules would lead the architect always to refine and simplify design, dispensing with ornamentation. Architecture would be as efficient as a factory assembly line. Soon, Le Corbusier was developing standardised housing ‘types’ like the ‘Immeuble-villa’ (made real with the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau of 1925), and the Maison Citrohan (a play on words suggesting the building industry should adopt the methods of the mass production automobile industry), which he hoped would solve the chronic housing problems of industrialised countries.

The first of his grand urban plans was the Ville Contemporaine of 1922. This proposed city of three million would be divided into functional zones: twenty-four glass towers in the centre would form the commercial district, separated from the industrial and residential districts by expansive green belts. In 1925, Corbusier’s ambitious Plan Voisin for Paris envisioned the destruction of virtually the entire north bank of the Seine to incorporate a mini version of the Ville Contemporaine. Understandably, it remained only a plan.

See also this.

While his ideas never were set into practice quite as envisioned, Le Corbusier influenced whole generations of French architects, who went on to errect houses, in the suburbs of major cities, that indeed were nothing but machines to live in, and machines that serve their intended purpose very badly, at that. The layout and geometry of the individual apartments frequently is eccentric to the point of weirdness, and the lack of of right angles downright maddening. Building like this will inflict all kinds of psychological deformities and neuroses on their inhabitants, and the layout of the banlieus compounds the damage – nothing that could serve as a kind of community center, no services, not even any kind of distraction, like cinemas ect.

The lack of privacy in these quarters – paper-thin walls, and no protection from the looks of countless people outside your appartment, also prevents the development of anything that could be called a middle-calls mentality. In fact, lack of privacy enhances the ‘territorial imperative’ so that the formation of gangs fighting over turf follows almost automatically.

One of the first steps to finally integrate Muslim minorities into French society will have to be the razing of this style of building, and the restructuring of the suburbs.

Update: Please also see my new post above, as an answer to some questions in the comments.

20 thoughts on “Dehumanizing architecture and banlieus”

  1. Calling for replacement of the banlieues beg the question of where their current occupants (let alone their future offspring) will go in the mean time.

    Deporting people of militant/separatist tendencies solves that problem.

  2. You aren’t kidding. I grew up in those very suburbs and until I turned 8 we lived in an HLM (Moderated Rent Accomodation would be a loose translation) not far from the current core of the troubles.

    It’s more than just the outside appearances though. The practicalities are awful; large high-rise towers like those need acres of parking spaces around them. And of course, such a concentration requires bus stops and other transportation clusters which are bound to be crowded.

    I actually have good memories of those days; we left before things got bad. It was very much a mix of middle-class and blue-collar folks; many immigrants but a solid half were hard-working Italians and Portuguese. Our neighbors across the hall were Italians; we went there for dinners sometimes. They made their own pasta.

    And then, beyond the ugly outside architecture, there are the apartments themselves. After seven years in the U.S., I went back to Europe in 2002 for about 18 months – to Ireland this time – and was shocked by the much smaller size of housing and apartments and the effects it can have on your spirit, however nice the place may be. It’s just suffocating.

    Given a large family, there is no way the kids can stay in there and do anything. Forget homework or privacy.

    Think old NY apartments. Except smaller.

    Lastly and most importantly, there is the overall ‘social housing’ fallacy. You can’t take broken or unstable families, those with the kids most likely to get in trouble, mix them with poor uneducated immigrants and other long-term unemployed people, pile them all on top of one another and expect positive social externalities.

    But Ralf is right. The architecture of the place is just plain murderous. Any architect who designs social housing should be made to accept living in his creation for five to ten years if the thing is to be built.

  3. This melds well with David Foster’s comment on Shannon’s post:

    “It was a Frenchman, Antoine de St-Exupery, who wrote:

    “If you want men to be like brothers, constrain them to join in the building of a tower. If you want them to hate one another, throw bread among them.” (approximate quote)”

    A good start might be a large social program, that brings people from the affected areas together with more prosperous areas to work side-by-side in planning and building communities that promote posetive social interaction.

    Architecure can play a profound role in the community, specifically the facilitation of conversation. Edward Glaeser’s essay on the economics of New York highlights this. So the the last page of this article on organizational change methodology.

  4. But Ralf, you’ve missed the point. It isn’t the architecture that is at fault – it is the people. They are resisting the march of histoiry. Privacy? Comfort? Individual & quirky taste? Some relation to the tradition of the house & the family? Some relation to nature?

    What ever gave you all the idea those were important? You are obviously too barbaric to recognize the transcendent nature of pure style.

  5. Le Corbusier sez:

    “The despot is not a man. It is the . . . correct, realistic, exact plan . . . that will provide your solution once the problem has been posed clearly. . . . This plan has been drawn up well away from . . . the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.”

  6. Corbu did have some foresight into architecetural issues that are being rediscovered today as being very important. He was one of the first modern architects to call for more roof gardens for the cooling shade and the rain water runoff mitigation. He also paid attention to things like sun angle durring summer and winter.

    Le Corbusier came out of the era of architects that puked out “manifestos” about how architects had it in their grasp to social engineer “better” people. He had an idea that humans needed certain precise things for living, in his analysis he trimmed out a lot of things he believed as being frivolous to living the ideal life so he built his apartments as extremely spartan affairs.

    Where Corbusier has made his impact is in urban planning. It is in Corbu’s urban planning where his social engineering vision is most present. He had ideas about people living in huge superblocks of low winding apartment blocks and walking or riding the train to work in tall towers.

    Unfortunately, not much of his urban planning designs were ever implemented as he intended. Instead, his designs were used by other architects and urban planners as a sort of pail of building blocks. One mistake followers made was to put the residential apartments in tall towers. Corbusier also designed his urban experiments in an era when cars were not everpresent. Fitting cars into a Corbu design afterthefact is a tremendous undertaking that ends up upsetting the way it was meant to “flow”. Rarely did urban planners build their projects like Corbu would want. Corbusier’s neighborhood designs weren’t as lifeless and cold as his followers’s imitations ended up becoming.

    So while it is true as Ginny says with some sarcasm, it isn’t the architecture that makes people bad, Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is utterly convincing that neighborhoods are the life of cities and that the Corbusier-inspired neighborhoods built by those who came after Corbu have sucked the life out of cities and make people’s lives worse.

    In America, Curbosier inspired a generation of low-income/no-income public housing that America is still suffering from. Cabrini Green in Chicago being one of the worst examples, but it is also an exageration of what Corbusier would have wanted for a neighborhood. Robert Moses in New York City built swaths of similar low-income housing apartment blocks.

    Oy, that’s a bit of a tangent. Yeah, I’ve had more than a few urban geography classes in college… I’ll stop there…

  7. aaron…”A good start might be a large social program, that brings people from the affected areas together with more prosperous areas to work side-by-side in planning and building communities that promote posetive social interaction”

    Perhaps. My concern about this would be that it would turn into just one more form of entitlement: that is, the people from the affected areas would be offered “jobs”, but the jobs would not require them to actually do work, since it’s so hard to fire people in France (and probably even harder than usual in a politically-sensitive program)

  8. I wonder if you know much about Le Corbusier.

    “and the lack of of right angles downright maddening”

    uh?! lack of right angles in a Le corbusier house bloc?

    I also found the critique of appartments blocks strangely Western Centric because we are talking about an Arab population that have a much more close personnel space(read Edward T. Hall if you want know more about personel space primer:
    And generation of Europeans like Portuguese , Italians lived there.

    Now the critic that can be made to the apartments bloc is that they are very dificult to be personalised and some have bad quality.

  9. I think we know from experience in the US that social welfare payments to able bodied adults plus high rise public housing are a formula for disaster. We have ended a lot of the social payment programs, and many cities have torn down a lot of high rise public housing.

    I do not know about Cabrini-Green, but I do know that the high rises along South State Street are gone.

  10. lucklucky,

    I wonder if you know much about Le Corbusier.

    “and the lack of of right angles downright maddening”

    uh?! lack of right angles in a Le corbusier house bloc?

    Corbusier didn’t plan any of those buildings I’m talking about here. Those architects were inspired by him, though, but they tried to get creative andused all kinds of weird angles in the layout of the indivisual flats.

  11. It could be that I’m just not getting Ralf’s main point, but it looks to me like he’s saying that living in some of the buildings that the French built for public housing will drive people nuts. He also says that the French government didn’t build enough amenities, like cultural centers and cinemas.

    Well why don’t people just get a job, save their francs, and move?

    I’m willing to debate the concept that the government has a duty to provide basic subsistence housing for those who can’t provide it for themselves. (I don’t agree, but I’m willing to discuss it.) To me that means a place where you won’t freeze to death in the winter and that’s about it. Movie theaters and community centers are a non-sequitur.

    The baseline for the post and most of the comments is that the French gov didn’t do enough to head off the present crisis. I think that is self evident, but I sincerely doubt that the Islamic youth are running wild right now because their apartments weren’t big enough.

    Ginny comes closest to the heart of the matter, but even she falls a bit short. If your circumstances don’t suit then work to change them. If the place where you live is a craphole then you work to afford a better one. Why does everyone assume that the government failed in providing for the rioters instead of thinking that the rioters failed by assuming that the government would provide?


  12. Re the South State Street High rises in Chicago.

    I attended IIT for 4 years, and was the Frat Steward for a year managing the kitchen. I got to know the black couple who did the cooking. They lived at the 23rd & state complex, and even then, (1965,) asked us to finish up dishwashing etc so the wife could get home before dark in the winter. At night, the punks “owned” the turf.

    Einstein described insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    It’s about time planners understood that vertical ghettos don’t work.

    Casey Stengal was right.

  13. I feel I need to side with Mr. Rummel on this. I have never heard that architecture could drive people batty before this post, and I read the post about six times before I could bring myself to the point where I thought that was what Mr. Goergens was trying to get across. Like Rummel said, if you live in the pits, save and get out. Just like projects or ghettoes here in the US. Of course I simplify but I simply cannot give excuses or justify rioting because the people involved don’t live in quarters with enough right angles.

  14. James and Dan,

    living in these quarters isn’t optional for a lot of Muslims. Discrimination is so pervasise in French society that a lot, if not most Muslims are unable to find an appartment outside these quarters. Landlords won’t rent out places to them, and that is that. ‘Native’ Frenchmen won’t have any to do with them, least of all have them as neighbors. Under these circumstances the French state does have a responsibility to help solve the problem, especially because it designed those dismal housing projects in the first place.

    I also wasn’t saying that the architecture alone would make all people bad.

    When I wrote :

    In fact, lack of privacy enhances the ‘territorial imperative’ so that the formation of gangs fighting over turf follows almost automatically.

    I wasn’t saying that all people would go nuts, but privacy is a necessary condition for having enough people who act decently. The importance of being able to shut out the world whenever you wish cannot be overstated, especialy in your formative years.

    Under the conditions I’m describing, there will be too many youths acting out their territorial imperative, meaning street gangs fighting over turf. That doesn’t mean that most are doing it, but still too many for the law abiding majority to fight on their own, when the police won’t do it. Violent youths also have nothing to lose, they have no way to ever get a job.

    As to the police: While they mostly lack the courage to enter dangerous areas, they act extremely provocatively whenever they feel are more numerous than the ‘opposition’. In other words, they act like just another streetgang. That isn’t going to to incerase the Muslims’ respect for French state and laws.

  15. Yes but you cant pin the angle issue in Le Corbusier. I am no fan of him (except for the church he designed and some furniture) i think is architecture is too much at industrial scale. And while your critique of angles can have some basis in some situations, i say that the heavy repetition , regularity in most housing blocs preventing some personality is also damaging. But usually is people that makes the building . If it is dirty, smells bad and no one fix things, there is no good architecture that resist that.

    Albeit much better than Eastern Europe blocs.

  16. Great post, Ralph regarding the architecture of these suburban slums. Although you articulate the consensus view about Le Corbusier’s responsibility for any of the urban ugliness brought about by modern architecture, I believe that he has been unjustly scapegoated due to the fact that he was such an easy target. You can read more about my thoughts at my blog

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