Today, it is confirmed that the great French apartment complexes, made up in large part of social housing, have seen more than 30 years, as well as the first riots, which were central to neighborhoods in the suburbs of Lyon. These were what the media then called “the hot summer of Minguettes” – a socially disseminated discredit that bears upon their urban form (low-rises and towers) and siting (outside of cities), as well as their social composition (concentrations of underprivileged populations). Faced with this triple discredit, the great complexes found themselves caught in a segregating spiral as was described by Jean-Marie Delarue at the beginning of the 1990s in her report to the Urban Affairs Minister. In order to stem this logic of “relegation,” city politicians came up with a spatial solution and concentrated their efforts on the transformation of the buildings and the reclassification of spaces, so as to change the image of these social living quarters. In other words, it was a matter of making changes on a spatial level in the hopes of giving rise to new behaviors synonymous with a more integrated and inclusive social life. But isn’t this the one belief that’s based on the debatable conviction that space determines ways of living, thinking, feeling and acting?
The different processes that led to the segregation of the great apartment complexes, or even their ghetto-ization, have called and continue to call into question their self-same existence. Consequently, shouldn’t we reflect on whether it is appropriate or not to destroy them in order to heal the “malaise of the suburbs?” Unlike numerous political decision-makers, for a long time, researchers in the social sciences and humanities, and even social housing landlords have opposed this radical measure that would mean the demolition of the great apartment complexes. The rationale they have invoked insists on the strength of neighborly relations formed over time, starting from the spaces that have become family-oriented. But in addition, they were often reminded of the importance of the loans under contract by social housing landlords and the chronic lack of social housing that made demolition en masse of the great apartment complexes unimaginable. In this sense, how could we not remember that today, this deficit of social housing remains a significant reality in France, to the degree that in 2013, the Abbe Pierre Foundation counted 5.2 million people who found themselves left vulnerable by the housing crisis (in the process of eviction or living in unhealthy co-ops). But the more and more visible deterioration of the buildings, the acuteness of discrimination, of joblessness and delinquency, among others, had the better of the initial position of the social scientists – as well as, they added, for some of them, the opinion of the numerous political players wanting to suppress the most stigmatized buildings.
When the Spatial Postulate Is Called Upon to Justify Urban Renewal
The public powers-that-be essentially support their arguments in favor of the demolition of the great apartment complexes by insisting on the excessive cost of their rehabilitation related to their disrepair and dilapidation on the building level. For that matter, they base their arguments on the fact that destroying large-scale buildings will allow for constructing buildings that are on the whole less imposing (R+4), as well as individual houses, which would result in lifting the criticism of uniformity and in developing an urban mix along the way. Additionally, it was political decision-makers who developed the thesis that the destruction of these large-scale buildings will make the elimination of social and spatial segregation possible. It is in this way that, in the name of the principle of justice based on equal opportunity and conditions, the political powers hold on to the option of blowing up buildings, which are at the core of the great apartment complexes.
Events take place as if the HLM cities were intrinsically threatening territory and pathogens that could contaminate the urban and social environment; events take place as if the great apartment complexes had become the prop for a mythology, where they appear as being the origin of all the evils that our society suffers. The strangeness that the urban form (low-rises and towers) embodies also becomes a “catch,” to borrow Isaac Joseph’s terminology – that is to say a concrete and physical hook where segregating behaviors originate. However, we should emphasize here that even if we recognize that space has its effects on social life, this does not imply – and far from it – that we should adhere to the thesis of a radical spatialism often well-manifested in urban policy, a thesis that affirms a strong determinism of the spatial over the social. In other words, saying that space exercises effects on social life is one thing; affirming that it influences behavior mechanically is another, which reveals a belief based on an ecological-ethological postulate.
However, it would seem that it is encouraged by such a belief that the decision-makers and city administrators have decided, within the scope of the National Program for Urban Renewal (a law passed on Aug. 1, 2013 about the direction of and programming for the city), to speed up and highlight the demolitions of certain parts of the great French apartment complexes. It was a matter of, through the demolition and reconstruction politics advocated by Jean-Louis Borloo while he was Minister of Urban Affairs between 2002 and 2004, producing enough of a psychological shock so as to create opportunities for rehabilitation.
The urban excisions practiced in some unlucky suburbs (since 2007, the average number of destroyed housing units has been rising by 13,000 a year) – have they attained their objectives? A certain number of researchers – notably Pierre Merlin – have affirmed that this is not at all certain. They highlight that, in fact, many intensively advertised interventions have contributed to accentuating the stigma surrounding the neighborhoods in question, without mentioning that they have sometimes been experienced as real provocations, as much as by the inhabitants themselves as by the bad people or those without any housing. In addition, aren’t these demolitions an admission of failure, seeing the demonstration of a fairly affirmed will on the part of municipalities and social housing landlords concerned about displacing difficult and insolvent tenants, and in so doing avoiding attracting others? In this logic of destruction, it is a matter of removing from the landscape the low-rises and towers, which represent negative symbols. But it should be noted that the causes of segregation – meaning the existence of ostracism, and more generally the processes that underlie poverty – have not been at all eradicated.
Why Not Preserve the Great Apartment Complexes?
The relationship between the built reality and experienced reality is far from reducible to a pure and simple opposition, as certain works have shown. More specifically, we are referring to Joan Stavo-Debauge and Danny Trom’s 2004 research on the preservation of Old Lyon. Here, we are dealing with understanding the complexity between the physical organizations of the city and the pertinent social dynamics. As it happens, it is a matter of highlighting how preservation supporters and the inhabitants of Old Lyon (the laypeople) did not naturally arrive to an understanding in terms of what should become of the neighborhood. Lyon preservation activists would rely on the “popular Festival of the Lights” to invite the inhabitants to a nocturnal visit of the old neighborhood whose value-worthy elements are easily brought to light. This work of “dressing up the buildings” was accompanied by sensitizing the public to the high heritage value of the places and the level of import that assures attracting visitors by the thousands to a now valued place. This research shows that the preservation undertaking in Lyon articulates: (1) an intervention on the level of buildings; (2) a beautification of the authentic values; (3) the acceptance by the inhabitants of a new reading at the level of their daily lives. That is to say, the built realities and experienced realities could complement each other in a logic of collaborative construction. With regard to this logic, it is possible to rely on this example in order to think up an eventual legitimizing scheme for and the preservation of the great apartment complexes.
Apart from the attractive returns of real estate, historic recognition is attractive because it offers a level of life that is not typical and has a lot of cultural value. The architectural typology inherited from an otherwise rejected habitat, even considered as pathogenic to the image of what today is the great apartment complex, also sees its use value (quality of life), as well as its exchange value (gentrification) re-evaluated. In this regard, the Radiant City of Marseille shows how a single building can have multiple meanings and experience different appraisals over time: its registration as a historic monument in 1964 changed its status as a crack house – meaning an eccentric building that does not correspond to the needs of its inhabitants – to a private historic residence, symbolizing belonging to the intelligentsia. In a general way, all preservation politics has ambivalence at its core to a degree where it subscribes to a market rather than socio-symbolic logic.
The very nature of the great apartment complexes, the technical revolutions that made them possible, both their impact and role in society authorize this urban form – as much as it might be rejected – to claim heritage status. Vincent Veschambre or even Bruno Vayssiere‘s research shows how the great apartment complex could attain this new legitimacy as heritage. Here, we are not dealing with the application of preservation in a historic sense but in its contemporary acceptance as a factor of reconnection, or cultural reconnection, far from any exclusive commercial strategy with the tendency to impose itself at a time of mass culture as warns Francoise Choay.
It’s a matter of no longer giving the great apartment complexes a degrading mythical role, but an objective rehabilitating value – in other words, of renewing its initial function and housing citizens while avoiding the trap of commercialization and creating elites. This (re)acquaintance does not imply that all of the great apartment complexes would receive heritage status. Something that lends credence to this is that, as is the case with industrial architecture, only some buildings have been registered as historic monuments. What we should keep in mind in the specific case of the great complexes of the 1950-1970 period is that some of them embody exemplary translations of the Modernist movement. Also, isn’t it astonishing to see that at the moment when city administrators wanted to destroy a section of Emile Aillaud’s “Serpentine,” constructed between 1957 and 1964 in the Park of Courtillieres at Pantin (a Parisian region), a considerable number of architects mobilized themselves to remind us of the high heritage value of this unique building complex. Not very long ago, it was confirmed that the inhabitants of the neighborhood named the Serpetine “the Monument.”
Putting the spotlight on the great apartment complexes suggests that we should go against the current of the contemporary politics of demolition and reconstruction, suggesting the idea that this type of architecture, although subject to public scorn, could find itself at the centre of preservation logics, which are as much a product of politics from above as of society from below. Inaugurating a preservation procedure for the great complexes allows them to attain their initial goal of offering a clean and comfortable habitat at a larger scale. In other words, changing the social representations of the great complexes with the goal of making their preservation viable, in a new way ties their ab initio function, intrinsic quality and characteristic urban form to (re)legitimation principles.
The Ambiguity of Preserving the Great Apartment Complexes
While preservation allows, as it seems to us, for reconnecting the great apartment complexes to their residential function, it nevertheless raises some questions. First of all, can one live in a preservation habitat under tight constraints, protected according to administrative norms in such a way that make daily life difficult? Preservation policy implies a number of legal obligations: the requirement of leaving the “residence” accessible to tourists, a ban on redoing the facade as one pleases, etc. Then, wouldn’t preservation be in reality a false solution to a popular habitat, given that it would also be interpreted through, and above all, the logic of gentrification? In effect, isn’t preservation a new factor in social stratification? Lastly, if it brings about a new way of imagining the fate of the great apartment complexes of public living and a new manner of thinking about the way of living of the masses, this new socio-cultural and political direction, meaning preservation, could it coincide with the preoccupations of the underprivileged populations who live there now? In other words, should we preserve the great complexes at the risk of creating a socio-architectural environment that no longer makes sense for those who live there?
We should always balance this risk with the politics of the demolition of certain low-rises and towers organized over these last few years in France, to which we have previously alluded. In effect, starting from the moment of demolition, we radically suppress the marks and traces of those who have lived and invested in such places; what comes about, as maintains Veschambre, is symbolically negating the past life (the memory) of some in favor of building and materiality. The preservation of the great complexes authorizes us to think, on the contrary, that the inhabitants could subscribe to an emotional and commemorative filiation, and so rediscover their dignity by living in a space with a new symbolic legitimacy. But desirability is not only based on social representation; it also needs a considerable number of “dressings-up,” that is to say props of urban form as such. It is precisely working toward giving both a new symbolic, but also practical and material value to these great complexes that can mediate between loss and memory and attachment, on the one hand, and the gentrifying curve on the other. There is no doubt that the great complexes will not lack in quality on this subject.
What would be the best ways to rehabilitate and integrate Modernist housing complexes for contemporary public purposes?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
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