In September 2005, massive riots broke out all over France. Ten days of severe unrest were sparked by an incident in which two African Muslim teenagers, sons of working-class immigrants, were electrocuted to death at a power sub-station while attempting to evade the police. On some nights of the rioting, up to 1500 cars were set on fire (Cohen 98). Reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post noted the ominous presence of the massive social housing estates in the Paris suburbs (or banlieues) where the accident took place, as if the architecture itself had performed a role in the genesis of the horrific incident:
The Washington Post: With unrest expanding through the northern suburbs of high-rise apartments that house some of France’s poorest immigrant populations, senior government officials were debating how to curb the violence during Wednesday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting. (Moore A12, emphasis added)
The New York Times: In life, they were uncelebrated. In death, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, have inspired more than 10 days of riots that have spread from housing projects in the suburbs of Paris to cities and towns across France. (Crampton 1, emphasis added)The incident served as a spark that set off an explosion, the real cause of which was the deep social divide that the suburban space itself had come to symbolize and contribute to.
Indeed, commentators around the world pointed to the public housing projects in the Paris suburbs as sites of political contestation and social unrest. They especially noted the significance of the ominous Grands Ensembles, countless large housing estates constructed in the mid-twentieth century, each containing a minimum of 1000 repeated units. In the 2007 Architectural Record, Sam Lubell denounced the formal elements of these slab-like apartment buildings, calling them “tinderboxes for trouble” (14). He advocated for better design interventions to “stave off a sense of alienation and resentment” in the residents of these housing estates (Lubell 14). Steven Wassenaar, in his article for Volume in 1997, urges for “livable, spatial architecture (urban ‘healing’)” (7). Pieter Uittenhove, writing in 1997 for Archis, called the modernist architecture in the banlieues a “space of exclusion” (50). All three writers reject as a fallacy modernist idealism that “set itself up as a sort of Noah’s Ark to save civilization from ruin” (Uittenhove 51). In their rejection of Modernism, they focus primarily on formal architectural elements such as the use of industrial material, repetition of units, a lack of public spaces, and the abundance of “towering blank walls framing empty courtyards” (Lubell 14).
I posit that the architecture of the large housing projects, the Grand Ensembles, is indeed inextricably linked to the marginalization of France’s working class immigrant minorities; however, to fully understand the nature of this marginalization, we must go beyond just the aesthetic or functional form of public housing architecture and analyze the symbolic meaning it has acquired over the last half century. I will argue that despite the objective nature of spaces in public housing, individuals and groups living in them subjectively internalize the architecture that surrounds them. Conversely, over time, the very same residents project their identity onto the architecture: either mentally, when they associate it with specific stereotypes, or physically, by using graffiti and defacement as tangible marks of their frustration. In the case of the modernist housing projects, the tabula rasa architecture has performed over several decades as an instigator of social strife for the people in the suburbs, as well as a contested space loaded with meaning and symbolism. In other words, architectural space in the Paris banlieues is oppressive in two ways: it physically entraps its inhabitants and it serves, at the same time, as a symbolic record of that imprisonment.