cité: sarcelles & haussman’s paris

Source: “Le Grand ensemble: entre pérennité et demolition.” Exhibition, Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture Paris-Belleville

In my entries on France I have been discussing the sluggish and often restricted developments of some of the country’s modern projects, known in French as cité. I want to step back now and put these developments (which culminated in the Grand Ensemble) into the context of twentieth century France. To do so I am using the example of Sarcelles, a Parisian satellite, and its position in response to Haussman’s Paris.

Haussman began the production of modern housing in Paris already in the 19th century. His plan for Paris is well known for the boulevards that cut through the medieval city, but he also standardized construction, making it affordable to rapidly build new housing (this is why the houses of the wealthy are explicitly stylistically different—it highlights them as custom made). But the modernized construction process still upheld a class-based hierarchy, one that the modernists behind the Grand Ensemble of the mid 20th century wanted to destroy.

The social hierarchy was embedded in the built form, organized by the section of the building. Basically, the first floor of the building is for the most important people, and the further up in the section you lived (no elevators), the lower your status. In a typical commercial district, the ground floor housed shops, while the shopkeeper, or perhaps the doorkeeper, lived in a mezzanine level squished between the shop and the first floor, where the nobility lived. Here the highest ceilings are located, visible through tall windows on the street that open onto generous balconies. Above the noble floor are two or three “apartment similar,” for regular people. The top one may have a smaller balcony, making it more prestigious than the other “similars” but not as nice as the noble. Finally, in the attic, lived the maid. The coldest and longest trek, this space was the lowest on the social ladder.

The response: all floors made the same. Identical apartments, regardless of their position in the building, were a key component in the high rise slab buildings. The creation of the elevator should have further equalized the spaces, because the walk to the top was no longer an ordeal.

Building organization in Haussman’s and earlier was based on courtyards. The perimeter on the street was built, while the building protectively wrapped the private green space within.

The new modernist planned projects inverted this relationship. It provided ample light and air to all residents (a problem of the medieval city), but it also eliminated private open space, placing buildings individually in a fluid ground plane that was intended for everyone.

When seen as response to the particular evils of Haussman’s Paris, these buildings that now are known for drab monotony make more sense. Certainly some of the problems and the differences could not be accounted for in advance, but following where they came from places them much more into the history of the place, rather than in opposition to it. Now that the situation has shifted, and the towers are the existing condition against which both residents and city officials are reacting, a new approach is necessary.


(upper photo) Source: “Le Grand ensemble: entre pérennité et demolition.” Exhibition, Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture Paris-Belleville

Nicknamed the American City, a consequence of the city’s streets lined with midcentury towers, Sarcelles is an isolated island at Paris’ fringe. It was built in the 1950s and its inhabitants are mostly immigrants and occupy the lower economic brackets of French society.

Nicknamed the American City, a consequence of the city’s streets lined with midcentury towers, Sarcelles is an isolated island at Paris’ fringe. It was built in the 1950s and its inhabitants are mostly immigrants who occupy the lower economic brackets of French society.

Sarcelles deals with many of the problems that Toulouse Le Mirail grapples, but in this city there seems to be more happening to improve the condition, perhaps because of its proximity to Paris and the increasing property values in the suburbs as Paris continues to sprawl. The major project happening right now is a renovation of the western portion of Sarcelles’ main boulevard. Previously designed as a thoroughfare that sharply divided the heart of the commercial district, the city is now narrowing the street and creating parking along the edges, as well as designating more space for pedestrian movement among planted trees. It is a method often seen around the US as cities work to revitalize their centers.

There were few inhabitants’ interventions, and the small commercial additions located off the main drag were boarded up, no longer in use. The most active area in the town was at the train station, where there is a thriving market. Like most of the residents of Sarcelles, I took the train to get there. Because I had read about the city’s problems and its attempts to revitalize, I was surprised to arrive in the middle of such activity. The market begins at the exit of the station, and extends west for about half a kilometer, parallel to Sarcelles’ main commercial drag. The street it occupies is a residential one that weaves between apartment slabs. I followed the market into the city and had to cut through a green space to get to the main commercial street. On the way back I tried to follow the commercial street over to the train stations. I walked through a fairly scary parking lot accessed by a well hidden and steep ramp sans sidewalk.

This seems like an opportunity. In a city whose residents primarily use the train, and who already have established a new (and successful) commercial area, rather than rework the old auto/pedestrian area (far away from the train station), it would make sense to strengthen the connections between the market and the commercial district, and to connect both to the train station. The residents of Sarcelles have been its regeneration; the city could simply build from their initiative.


the unpredictable power of commerce

the recent past preservation network, an organization that promotes the preservation of (and therefore research about) buildings of the recent past, invited me to write an article for their newsletter. I wrote it  as I finished the first half of my trip, to reflect on some of the trends I saw emerging.

If you are interested in reading it, you can find the article here:

As always, comments welcome!

pessac: stifled alterations

On the way to Paris I made a quick stop in Bordeaux to visit Pessac, the town where Le Corbusier’s first housing project is located, commissioned in 1924 by a forward thinking businessman, Henri Fruges, who wanted to provide well-designed housing for workers. I was interested to see the site because it is the subject of a study by Philippe Boudon’s book Lived-in Architecture: Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited, which documents the various alterations residents have made to the development over its then forty year lifetime.

The changes I saw followed a similar pattern to other cities I have visited: at a minimum people have added paint and covered balconies, while more aggressive residents filled in the horizontal strip windows, adding shutters, covered flat terraces with pitched roofs to prevent leaking, or constructed an additional “lean-to” between the building surface and the property’s edge. All these are dealt with in more detail in Boudon’s book.

A slightly more frightening development here is the introduction of preservation requirements. Now, if residents want to fix anything in their house, in order to get the building permit they must agree to bring the house back to its original form, right down to the paint color. For some, little more is required than a coat of paint, but for most it is a far more daunting task that will substantially decrease their enclosed floor space! Because of the new requirements, they simply wait, putting repairs off as long as possible.

le mirail: regulated change

In Le Mirail, a look at the past and present (with thoughts for the future) has illustrated a planned city that was really only half-finished. Since this particular concept depends on the connectivity of all the pieces, it is hard to pin the issues of the place on lack of appropriateness of the plan.

Problems here are both architectural and institutional. While the architectural issues can be (and are being) addressed through a careful observation and response to trends within the satellite city, there are larger institutional issues that need to be resolved just to allow these architectural changes to take place. The biggest is a blind organizational structure that over-regulates stifles meager attempts at revitalization.

The changes that happen are largely dictated by regional or even national policies that have little to do with the particular situation of the city itself. And since Toulouse has followed France’s de facto policy to put all immigrants and low income group people outside the city, in this case in Le Mirail, the area has little economic diversity, no voice and hardly any extra energy to spend on group dynamics and political struggles. Therefore, all major changes have been regulated from above, and with the exception of the metro system, have had mediocre effect in changing the place, for better or worse.

One particular issue I see in designs to update or fix Le Mirail is in their scale. Every change, from the demolition of the pedestrian deck and French town replacement in Bellefontaine, to wholesale destruction of the towers themselves, is massive. At the same time, incremental interventions are smothered by strict regulations and expensive renovation requirements.

But let’s say that the government of Toulouse decides to defy France’s pro-demolition policy and rework Toulouse-Le Mirail, details first. What are some of cues in the way the place is now used that can inform its evolution?

The 3 metro stops in the area have reconnected Le Mirail to the city center of Toulouse, its first move away from isolation. In some way, the underground connection has replaced the lost pedestrian deck, by connecting people, and not their vehicles, to the three commercial centers. Although the university housing may have suffered from loss of students to city center apartments, the rest of the region only stands to gain business from this connection. Each area already has a commercial center that is somewhat active, but could expand a great deal even to meet the needs of inhabitants.

With regard to buildings, it is easy enough to add pieces, though few residents have done even that. However, because the structures were built with load bearing concrete panel systems, it is difficult to subtract anything from the mix. While anything besides aesthetic touch ups would require major work, projects to update these towers could focus more on strategic demolition, or the implementation of a second structural system to allow partial removal of the first.

The vehicular system needs attention. Designed to separate people from cars, the roads wrap the residential edges, cutting off this piece of the urban fabric from the rest of the city, which by now has grown out to it. A disorienting hexagonal system discourages non-residents from using the roads as thoroughfares, reinforcing the enclosure. Since the elevated decks have already mostly been dismantled, it is time to reconsider the ground, and pedestrian relationships alongside and between the roads. Already some sidewalks have been laid, but the path network can be much richer…it is already growing if you pay attention to the dirt tracks worn through lawns.

ground space

Designed into parts of the plan and increased by platform dismantling, open spaces at the ground have infiltrated and perhaps intend to take over the now semi-urban plan.

Concrete Logistical requirements grouped cars at the edges of built complexes.

Concrete (interspersed) gardens and paths are designed near high towers.

Concrete block construction is revealed in the destruction of a wall.

Concrete (breaking) pre-cast benches pepper the landscape.

Concrete (breaking) paths through the planned gardens in Reynerie.

Concrete roads leading to the towers, flanked by parking lots.

Concrete (overflowing): Despite ample space, cars park in green areas.

Permeable paths worn between housing clusters.

Permeable (growing) unused garden spaces slowly grow wilder.

elevated deck islands and commerce anchors

Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 154.

In the islands of pedestrian decks also float a few commercial habitats. Clustered around metro stations, they already have an elevation change on their side. I looked at two of these clusters in Le Mirail and Bellefontaine. Reynerie’s metro stop opens into an enormous expanse of concrete.


Bellefontaine’s deck consists only of a day care center with a bridge over the road to the metro tower, and a temporary ramp down the backside of a grocery store. The ramp itself is fascinating. Comprised of a series of octagonal plates clamped in place, there is beauty in the quickly constructed joints whose intricate appearance stands out amidst a backdrop of prefab concrete slabs. The remainder of Bellefontaine’s shopping area was torn down and replaced, for what city described as safety reasons.

the surface of le mirail:

More complete and more vibrant is the commercial island at le Mirail metro stop. The pedestrian moves slowly up through this maze, beginning first in shaded seating under trees at the ground level, then rising through ramps to the next terrace and the last, at each point walking on the roof of shops whose facades had vied for attention one level before. Without realizing, the pedestrian crosses over a bridge that brings her not to another deck, but to a hill in a park that meanders back to the ground one block south, in Reynerie.

underneath le mirail:

The surface of this commerce island is pleasant & active, drawing a passerby through almost unintentionally. But the spell breaks the minute the observer steps down a staircase and confronts the wall of the compound, or a chain link fence. Below lurks the post office storage and logistical division, carefully cut off from visitors. So while the design easily creates an activated public surface in the air, it does so by sacrificing the ground. In this case, I believe it was intentional: the carefully articulated elevated surface honed the pedestrian atmosphere while the ground organized logistical systems, whether it was mail trucks, garbage collectors or personal automobiles. The original drawings show a clear distinction between logistical space and inhabitable space.

section perspective

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 201.

commerce section

source: Stéfanie Gruet, Rémi Papillault, Le Mirail : mémoire d’une ville : histoire vécue du Mirail de sa conception à nos jours, (Toulouse, France: Éd. Poïésis-AERA, DL, 2008), 202.

Again, I feel the point that is missing is the transfer. People using mail trucks, going to their cars, will walk outside the designated public zone. So will those who need it as a short cut—provided it is safe. For that inevitable but maybe unintended use, these buildings need a better sense of “back”—one as considered as the front.


One boon from taking the side stairs: I got to see through the brick and concrete faced structure into the real building skeleton (which, admittedly, was more concrete). The façade which seemed carefully composed of structurally efficient prefab concrete beams, is actually only 2 inch cladding filled with half inch brick cladding. The structure is, unsurprisingly, a simple reinforced concrete frame.