By Florence de Talhouet

France's "grands ensembles" - high-rise housing estates built between the 1950s and 1970s - were inspired by the functionalist architecture of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

The Athens Charter, a 1933 document about urban planning adopted by the Congres International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), under the aegis of Le Corbusier, defined the main ideals upon which the "functional city" ought to be based.

These were:

  • The separation of functions - life, work, recreation and transportation
  • The separation, for the purpose of health and hygiene, of housing and transportation routes, such as roads
  • That a certain quality of well-being be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status.

These were the principles upon which France's - and, indeed, much of Europe's - post-World War II housing estates were supposedly built.

And there was a great need for such housing in post-war France.

Of the 14.5 million houses in France at the end of the war, half had no running water, three quarters had no indoor toilets and 90 percent were without bathrooms.

A significant portion of the population lived in unhealthy conditions in former military barracks, war-damaged buildings and overcrowded slums.

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'An example of technical and social progress'

The government faced a housing crisis and, in response, it prioritised collective housing and housing estates, which appeared innovative for two reasons.

Reason 1: They offered modern comforts such as running water, central heating and a separation between the kitchen and other rooms.

Reason 2: They integrated postwar technical innovations such as the easy utilisation of concrete and quick methods of large-scale construction.

It was an example of technical and social progress working hand-in-hand.

In the 1960s, the housing estates represented an improvement in living and economic conditions [Illustration: Samya Arif/Al Jazeera]

For their new residents, these housing estates offered a dramatic improvement in the quality of their lives.

The state and local municipalities, which considered these neighbourhoods to be a step towards a new society, promoted them through photographs and films.

This was particularly the case for communist municipal authorities, like the one in Montreuil, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, which celebrated the more equal access to sanitary facilities, libraries, swimming pools and other amenities.

For France, they were a symbol of the "Trente Glorieuse" - the 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, following the end of the second world war - and an icon of the country's triumphant modernity.

'Synonymous with poverty and social exclusion'

But soon, their first critics began to emerge and, in 1973, the government announced that it would no longer be building such estates.

By the end of the 1970s, working and middle-class families were increasingly leaving the estates for detached houses elsewhere, as the government encouraged home ownership and selective social mobility.

These families were gradually replaced by poorer ones from the French countryside and by immigrants.

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These new residents were among the most deeply affected by the economic hardships of the 1970s - when an oil crisis led to a steep rise in energy prices, the economy contracted significantly and a wave of mass layoffs followed.

Unemployment among their residents, a lack of public investment and the degradation of buildings that had been built in haste became the new reality of the estates.

The result was a dramatic shift in how they were perceived.

While, in the 1960s, they had represented an improvement in living and economic conditions, by the 1980s, they had become synonymous with poverty and social exclusion.

Having been built, for financial reasons, on the outskirts of cities, their residents became victims of a form of spatial segregation. And, as many of their inhabitants were now immigrants, that also meant racial segregation.

The urban society of the 19th century, built upon a melting pot, was now gone.

In public consciousness, the issues facing the residents of these neighbourhoods - high unemployment rates and segregation from the cities beyond the estates' boundaries - were buried beneath concerns about integration and assimilation.

In public discourse, it was not that the residents of France's grands ensembles faced problems, it was that they were the problem.

These once "functional cities" were suddenly at the heart of France's immigration debate - the concrete onto which its fears and prejudices were projected - and that is where they have remained, misrepresented and neglected with their original ideals long since forgotten.

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Source: Al Jazeera