I started this post when the article was originally published. Now, however, I have forgotten what additional points I wanted to make. The article, despite it’s confusing writing, is interesting and worth reading, especially for fans of contentious politics and/or architecture, which is why I am posting the article and my intro to it.
In the a past New York Times’ Magazine, Christopher Caldwell wrote an article (“Revolting High Rises”) that suggests part of the cause for the recent Paris riots may be in the architecture of the city. He writes:
The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, as Francophobes have been more than ready to explain, bears some of the blame[…]. His designs inspired many of the suburbs where the riots of October and November began. In fact, he inspired the very practice of housing the urban poor by building up instead of out. Soaring apartments, he thought, would finally give sunlight and fresh air to city laborers, who had been trapped in narrow and fetid back streets since the dawn of urbanization. But high-rise apartments mixed badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.
I have posted the entire article below the jump.
The New York Times
November 27, 2005
Revolting High Rises
By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
There is a somewhat comic lining around the cloud of France’s suburban riots. Suddenly the word banlieue has been embraced by people not known for peppering their conversation with French words – callers to right-wing talk shows, for instance. Obviously, they want to stress how different those suburbs (burning cars and hip-hop hand gestures) are from our own (swing sets and Weber grills). European politicians, anxious lest their countries be perceived as “the next France,” have made a similar point. Wolfgang Schäuble, a prominent German Christian Democrat, said recently, “We do not have these gigantic high-rise projects that they have on the edge of French cities.”
Meanwhile, people in Marseille, which has one of the heaviest concentrations of immigrants’ children in France, were relieved that their city was left mostly unscathed when those children staged a nationwide uprising. What is different about Marseille, residents say, is that it is too hemmed in by mountains and sea to ship its poor to the outskirts. Executives, entrepreneurs and others who don’t have to punch the clock are the ones who live farther out – in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, which is reachable by fast trains. Marseille is not like most French cities, where the urban core is made up of neatly tended architectural treasures and the disorder is pushed to the periphery. It is turned inside out, so that “inner city” and “suburbia” retain their American connotations. That may have spared Marseille a lot of problems.
/La crise des banlieues/ turns out to be an ambiguous phrase. Is there a problem /in/ France’s suburbs or /with/ France’s suburbs? For Schäuble, it’s the buildings. For the boosters of Marseille, it’s where you put them.
The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, as Francophobes have been more than ready to explain, bears some of the blame for both. His designs inspired many of the suburbs where the riots of October and November began. In fact, he inspired the very practice of housing the urban poor by building up instead of out. Soaring apartments, he thought, would finally give sunlight and fresh air to city laborers, who had been trapped in narrow and fetid back streets since the dawn of urbanization. But high-rise apartments mixed badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.
Le Corbusier called houses “machines for living.” France’s housing projects, as we now know, became machines for alienation. In theory, the cause of this alienation is some mix of the buildings themselves and the way they’re joined to the city. But in practice, the most effective urban renewal has tended to focus on the buildings. It focuses on the buildings by razing them.
The Netherlands provides the best example of how this works. Amsterdam and Rotterdam stand in the same urban-planning relationship as Paris and Marseille. The core of golden-age buildings along Amsterdam’s canals are surrounded by industrial-age apartments and then by a fan of housing projects. Rotterdam, because it was rebuilt after heavy bombing in World War II, has big concentrations of poor and working-class people, many of them immigrants and their children, living in the bull’s-eye of the
So the two cities are urban-planning opposites. And since the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Islamist last year, it has become common to speak of them as political opposites. Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen, represents the Labor Party, which has controlled the city for decades and is often accused of excessive multicultural sensitivity. Rotterdam’s housing policy is in the hands of Leefbaar Rotterdam, the party of the populist Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002. Until
recently, the housing boss was Marco Pastors, a charismatic and controversial leader known for tough talk on immigration.
Yet the cities’ redevelopment policies are virtually identical. Both are well into a headlong retreat from gigantism and uniformity. The notorious high rises of De Bijlmer in southeastern Amsterdam were completed only in 1975 but were soon generating the kind of pathology on display in the banlieues. A succession of Labor mayors have presided over their dismantling to make way for smaller “garden houses.” When the city determined that 11,000 units of housing were needed in the Nieuw
West area, it decided to demolish 13,000 units and build 24,000 on a more neighborly scale, to avoid what Cohen calls “huge, stretched-out deprived areas.”
In right-wing Rotterdam, meanwhile, Pastors has done almost exactly the same thing. He poured resources into mixed-income projects started by the Labor Party in the once-dismal neighborhood of Bospolder-Tussendijken and added others of his own. His reasoning is the same as Cohen’s. Both argue for maximum residential diversity on the grounds that people now have “housing careers.”
In the old days, the argument runs, a person with a working-class identity could live in “working-class housing.” But today people have housing careers that vary as much as their professional ones. When they are young and not terribly bothered by noise, they might choose small, functional places close to cultural attractions and nightlife. They can move to larger, quieter ones when they have families and then trade space for comfort when their children leave home. Corbusier-style city planning shows no evidence of having considered this. If you don’t vary the housing units in a given neighborhood – if you fill entire quarters of the city with standard-issue monoliths – you condemn upwardly mobile people to constant movement. The only people who develop any sense of place are those trapped in the poverty they started in.
In the course of the October uprising, French observers called this slum-based sense of place a /”nationalisme de quartier.”/ It is a problem. Residents of some of the most dismal projects have often proved unwilling to relocate, even when the government has promised to move them into much nicer places. Perhaps they have grown attached to their dangerous homes and neighbors. It is more likely that they’re leery about accepting the promises of any government that once stuck them in such a depressing spot to begin with.
Christopher Caldwell, a contributing writer, has recently written about Turkey for the magazine.