Famous housing projects

Essay: Kenny Cupers

The Complex Legacy of Public Housing in Postwar France

Sarcelles Locheres, near Paris, in a ca. 1960s postcard. [Image: Lapie; courtesy of Kenny Cupers]

Building the Banlieue
Even its public transport has a different name. To visit the other Paris, you take not the metro but a regional express train. You cross underneath the péripherique, the circular highway that has replaced Paris’s 19th-century city wall but that has the same effect of demarcating the center from the rest. After this threshold, still the official limit of Paris, the familiar historic city quickly disappears in the view from the train window, and suddenly, the other Paris — perhaps the truly modern one — materializes. Housing slabs and tower blocks in bright white, daring pink, drab gray. Palaces for the people, gigantic in scale but mostly less than glamorous. Ten-story pyramids imitating Mediterranean hilltop villages. Expansive multilevel plazas and exuberantly designed playgrounds. Graffiti-covered concrete and postmodernist cladding. Well-meaning community centers and monstrous shopping-mall megastructures. Highways, parking lots, and patches of green space, large and small.

In the popular imagination this landscape — the unplanned result of planned developments — is the opposite of all that the image of “Paris” has long embodied and evoked. Here beyond the edge is the Paris tourists rarely see but where most Parisians actually live. The situation is not much different in Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille or Grenoble. Yet suburban landscapes, which comprise so much of contemporary France, seem somehow to be the product of another society, altogether different from the one that created the grand boulevards and monumental architecture of the great cities. Indeed it can feel uncanny to journey from a central Paris that seems ever more set in its ways to the periphery, the banlieue. There you will find a new world — where 60 years ago there was little more than cabbage fields and cottages — and yet you might also have the lingering sensation of visiting the puzzling remains of a long-lost civilization.

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