It’s Bastille Day – an appropriate occasion for Municipal Dreams to travel to France. Today, I’m very pleased to feature this fine guest post by Martin Crookston. Martin is the author of Garden Cities of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016) which featured in my Guardian Top Ten list of books on council housing. He is a former partner at the Llewelyn-Davies planning consultancy and member of Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force.
Dotted around the immediate hinterland of the City of Paris – the ‘Petite Couronne’ – are a dozen « cités-jardins »: garden suburbs inspired by the British Garden City movement. They are both fascinating as municipally-built social housing, and unexpected – certainly to most of us, used as we are to thinking of the Parisian banlieue as an invariate sea of towers and slabs, the Grands Ensembles, of the sort you pass at Sarcelles on the final Eurostar approach to the Gare du Nord.
The cités-jardins are a product of a specific period, and a specific initiative: the interwar years, and the programme run by the Office Publique d’Habitations à Bon Marché de la Seine (OPHBM, founded in 1914) under the leadership of Henri Sellier. He argued for ‘social urbanism’ and for ‘a rational development of the suburbs, seeking to greatly reduce, for the working class, the burdensome consequences of urban overpopulation’.
Unlike in Britain, however, they did not become the basic model for thousands of housing estates nationwide: they rather sank into oblivion, though mostly surviving and now being rather more appreciated for their heritage value than ever before. We’ll do a brief tour of some of them here – starting with one that is currently in the news because of a current threat to its continued existence in its present form.
La Butte Rouge (bus 195 from Robinson RER) is reminiscent of Roehampton in one respect at least: it’s miles from anywhere in the southwestern suburbs, a bus ride from the railhead, up against the huge Verrières forest.
It was built in three main phases (1931-35, 1949-50, 1960-65), to total nearly 4,000 homes on a 70-hectare site: the largest of the cités-jardins. The urban and landscape design was clearly carefully thought out by architect Joseph Bassompierre’s team, with main avenues interlacing winding walkways through a green setting of communal and private gardens. It was also a pioneering ‘eco-suburb’, thanks to a recycling /heating system and an early form of sustainable urban drainage (SUDS). Architecturally, it’s a sort of condensed history of French social housing: from brick to RC, and from individual homes and little blocks to 1960s slabs.
Since 2012, though, it’s been threatened by a familiar (to Britain) story – the local authority of Chatenay-Malabry and ANRU (Agence nationale de rénovation urbaine) want to recast the estate, which currently accounts for 56 percent of the municipality’s social housing, as (yes, inevitably) a more mixed housing offer matching their vision for the area’s future. ‘Sauvons la Butte Rouge’ and the Association Citoyens Unis pour Châtenay-Malabry argue that this is pointless in housing terms – apart from needing better sound insulation, their homes are fine – and an act of vandalism in terms of architectural heritage, since the options being studied only guarantee retention of 20 percent of the original buildings.
They have been joined by concerned architects in the region – the Ordre des architectes d’Ile-de-France – and the eminent historian Jean-Louis Cohen at a heritage conference in April 2019; and perhaps more importantly by the prefects of the Hauts-de-Seine department and the Ile de France region, who have notified the municipality that ‘it seems to us that the demolition of a significant number of this heritage ensemble should be reviewed downwards’. A familiar stand-off …
La Butte Rouge was actually one of the later starts in the OPHBM programme. This had begun with a bang in 1921 in five locations, one of which was the suburb of Suresnes, where Sellier was the (Socialist) mayor from 1919 to 1941, and where he had already been quietly buying land for the OPHBM during the war.
Suresnes (T2 tramway from La Défense) is out to the west, just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne. Wikipedia says that of all of them « la plus emblématique est la cité-jardins de Suresnes » but this must be because it’s so intimately associated with Sellier: its physical form is not very ‘garden suburb’, and its total of 3000 homes is dominated by apartment blocks rather than individual houses (‘pavillons’ – 170 of them).
The style is a sober municipal-block look, the layout more like the German Siedlungen with their open mansion-block form, than Hampstead or Welwyn; though with, for sure, much more garden space – both private and communal – than usual in French social housing. It still reflects the Sellier vision: architectural coherence, decent homes for workers, and high-quality public services.
Henri Sellier expanded dramatically from his Suresnes base both organisationally – his OPHBM built all over the Seine départment over the next twenty years – and also politically: he was elected as a senator for Seine 1935-43, was health minister in Léon Blum’s great Popular Front government (1936), and ended his days in disgrace with the Vichy government and with a quotation from Robespierre on his office wall: ‘The hatred of the people’s enemies is the reward of the good citizen’.
The programme was in three main waves. In 1921 they began work on Suresnes itself, Arcueil in the south, Drancy in the east, Stains in the north, and Asnières a little downstream of Suresnes in the northwest industrial suburbs. Later in the twenties came Gennevilliers (1923), Le Plessis-Robinson (1924; another one where you could be in Kilmacolm, with its rendered facades and neat privet hedges) and Pré St Gervais (1927); in the thirties, Champigny and Butte Rouge (both 1931) and finally Vitry in 1935. These are dotted about the eastern and southern suburbs.
At Stains (bus 253 from St-Denis-Université metro), north about 10km from the city centre, we strike garden-suburb gold. Built between 1921 and 1927, it contains 1676 units: 456 houses, and 19 blocks of 4four or five floors. Practically unchanged since its creation (though with a very recent renovation), its heritage value was recognised in 1976 when it was listed. The departmental website Tourisme93.com describes it as ‘Directement inspirée par les réalisations britanniques et le mythe du « cottage »’, planned as picturesque village streets with winding roads and individual houses in a vernacular style with steep roofs and high chimneys. The ‘mythe du cottage’ is certainly realised as if we were in outer London. A long-standing tenant there told me that when she was bringing up her kids just outside the garden suburb, she used to say to them ‘come on, let’s go for a walk in England’.
And not just the buildings: the layout too. If you know East London’s 1920s Becontree estate, there’s a shudder of recognition as you come along rue Rolland, and there’s a short cul-de-sac of the sort known in Becontree as a ‘banjo’.
Arcueil, back south again (RER B Arcueil-Cachan) to the cité-jardins de l’Aqueduc, only about 7 km south of central Paris, alongside the Aqueduc de la Vanne, a dramatic sweep of 19th century engineering on the alignment of its Renaissance and Roman predecessors. If Stains is England, Arcueil is Scotland. The houses are plainer than in Stains, and often rendered like Scots estates.
The original scheme, by the architect Maurice Payret-Dortail, was for 228 houses in groups of two to six, and they are at the core of the listing in the « Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel ». It has undergone rather more modification since it was built, and the layout is actually less coherent than Stains, both as layout and in individual groupings, and so less legible as you walk around. But it has one borrowing from the Garden Suburb – little back lanes – which must be great if you’re 7 or 8 (as very large numbers of its denizens seem to be). I liked it: it seemed comfortable, mixed (socially and ethnically) and somehow familiar.
These three suburbs, and the rest of the Sellier interwar programme, are by no means all of the housing of this general type around Paris. The website of the Ile de France regional association of cités-jardins has a map on its website showing about sixty locations; they’re quite a mixture of forms, settings and target markets (both initial target market, and who now lives there).
In Paris-Ville – the city proper, within the péripherique – the Sellier programme didn’t operate; presumably land was already too expensive, and in too short supply, for the lower density intrinsic to the garden suburb ‘product’. What there is in the city itself is a collection of interesting contemporary, and earlier, schemes aimed at housing the working class before the big push by public authorities. Less of a trek out into the beyond, they include La Campagne à Paris, in the 20th arrondissement near the Porte de Bagnolet, built by a ‘Société anonyme co-opérative à personnel et capital variables d’habitations à bon marché’ – at the outset, 60 percent of the co-operators were in manual occupations, and even today their descendants live alongside newer incomers attracted by the village atmosphere, perched above the traffic of the Porte and the boulevards des maréchaux.
Similarly the tight cluster of pretty terraces (called ‘Villas’, like the Villa du Progrès, Villa Emile Loubet, etc) off rue de Mouzaïa in the 19th (metro Danube), developed by the Societe anonyme des terrains et habitations à bon marché from 1899 on. This was not a philanthropic operation: it built small workers’ homes, with tiny gardens, using public loan funding, over a long period stretching up till the end of the thirties. Quirkiest of the lot is la Petite Alsace in the south side’s Butte aux Cailles (13th arr., metro Corvisart), 40 individual houses around a court, designed by Jean Walter in 1912 in a half-timbered style which wasn’t drawn from Letchworth but from Alsace – for the Habitation Familiale group founded by the priest Abbé Viollet.
Gentrification has bitten deep into all three since the 1980s, and many houses have been added to, but all still retain a unity and some slight flavour of the Paris of a century ago. As for the suburban cités-jardins, even today you can feel some resonance of the purpose, and the feel, of Sellier’s ‘social urbanism’ of a century ago. They’re recognised as a heritage asset – not just by ‘le Patrimoine’, but by proud local residents too. As Michelin might say: “vaut le détour”!
Région Ile de France, Les cités-jardins d’Ile-de-France: une certaine idée du bonheur (Lieux-Dits, 2018); and Exhibition Suresnes MUS 2018
Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel
Association Régionale des Cités-Jardins de L’Ile-de-France Carte des cités-jardins d’Île-de-France
Henri Sellier, Les banlieues urbaines et la réorganisation administrative du département de la Seine, avec préface de Albert Thomas (M Rivière et cie, Paris 1920)
Wikipédia entries for Suresnes and Henri Sellier
Comité départemental du tourisme de Seine-Saint-Denis, Mettre les villes à la campagne avec les premières cités-jardins (2012)
Marjorie Lenhardt, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: seuls 20 % de la Butte Rouge sont sûrs d’être conservés’, Le Parisien, 4 July 2019
Charles-Edouard Ama Koffi, ‘Châtenay-Malabry: le maire persiste dans son projet de démolition à la Butte-Rouge’, Le Parisien, 18 December 2019
Julie Roland, ‘La Butte Rouge: d’un grand Paris social au grand Paris immobilier’, Chroniques d’architecture, 21 May 2019
Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Paris Mosaique (Calmann-Lévy, 2001)
Amina Sellali, ‘Quartier Mouzaïa’ in Virginie Grandval and Isabelle Monserrat Farguel (eds), Hameux, villas et cités de Paris (AAVP, 1998)
La Petite Alsace, Le piéton de Paris (April 2010)