IN 1961, American critic Jane Jacobs wrote of cities with "amputated areas" that "develop galloping gangrene" and of housing projects that were contributing to the death of US cities.
In France, as elsewhere, these places were built as oases of green, Le Corbusier's famous streets in the sky, the diametric opposite of the tight lanes and lightless slums from whence the working class emerged blinking into the light of social policy.
As the white working classes benefited from France's postwar economic miracle and migrated to the plusher suburbs, their places in the concrete slabs were taken by immigrants. The new residents, thanks to generous benefits including subsidised housing, allowed a basic level of survival without employment.
Their suburban estates, however, were not built or conceived as micro-cities but as dormitory towns, satellites revolving around the available work, which would of course be in central Paris.
Tom Emerson, a London architect who has recently worked on a social housing scheme in France, says: "It is the suburban location of the estates in France that is the particular problem. Their physical isolation sustains a sense of alienation, they become dormitory ghettoes. The paradox is that the French have been more committed to social housing [than have the Anglo-Saxons] with huge central funding. But the idea that the cause of these troubles is the modernist estate is wrong, it is more to do with location than architecture."
David Adjaye, another London architect, who faced settling in Britain as a child from Tanzania, says: "These isolated blocks are effectively prisons. It is not the towers that are the problem but the isolation, it becomes a kind of institutional apartheid. In London's East End, with its ongoing gentrification, there is a mix between rich and poor, a good mix of infrastructure and culture which makes for a multi-dimensional economy.
Officially Paris, too, boasts social housing in its centre, much of it in wonderful Beaux Arts buildings. But it is almost exclusively occupied by the friends and mistresses of ministers and mayors, as was so shockingly revealed in the Elf corruption scandals recently and other "affaires" during the time President Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris.
French architect and academic IrenÚe Scalbert says: 'The urban poor in Anglo-Saxon cities tend to be in the city centres. Paris has a rich centre and poor peripheries. The construction of these projects was of a poor standard and is dominated by a few big contractors and there is, of course, much corruption between the politicians and the builders. Small architects' offices remain powerless in the face of big business contractors who make the rules."
France has made efforts to address the situation. Soon after Francois Mitterrand became president in 1981, a shooting in one of the estates led to much socialist soul-searching and to the creation of the short-lived position of minister for cities. Says Mr Scalbert: "There was a perceived discrepancy between the money being spent on the Grand Projets [Mitterrand's megalomaniac monuments to his own power, including the Louvre pyramid, the Grande Arche and the Bastille Opera] and the money being spent on the suburbs."
Asked about French ambitions for social housing, architect and urbanist Wendy Shillam says: "Their ideas can be good but the reality can be frightening, The N´mesis scheme by Jean Nouvel [France's best known and most internationally successful architect] in N´mes is a great sea of brutal architecture sitting on a vast car park for people who can't afford cars. The punched steel panels and gridded walkways evoke images of prisons. This kind of architecture may look good in a Parisian gallery but out there it looks awful."
The French approach highlights a huge cultural difference with Britain, where the term "inner cities" has become, since the early 1980s, code for deprivation and crime. The damage sustained by British cities during the Blitz made huge holes in the urban fabric and these were filled by well-meaning postwar governments with big social housing schemes, often centrally located.
Ricky Burdett, professor of urbanism at the London School of Economics, says: "Trellick Tower [Hungarian architect Ern÷ Goldfinger's monolithic concrete slab in London's North Kensington] has shown that it is not the architecture that is the problem. "
Indeed Trellick Tower, built as social housing, now one of London's most desirable addresses for design aficionados, has become the ultimate riposte to accusations that it is modernist architecture or the concept of high-rise that is at fault. "The problem is that it was filled with one type of occupant, whether poor or immigrant, which can exacerbate any problems. Architecture in and of itself does not cause social problems."
"I recently heard someone ask at a conference 'How can we design housing to cope with large scale immigration?," says Mr Burdett. "That must be the most dangerous question we can ask."
The issue of the suburbs is perhaps more vital even than that of cities themselves, which are robust, diverse and rich enough to survive on their own. To treat them, as the French have done, as devices for removing social ills from city centres will be help fulfil Ms Jacobs' predictions of gangrenous amputations and, as the French are finding, nightmare scenarios of cities ringed by no-go zones of hatred and disorder.
FT Syndication Service