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The rise of the grands ensembles: government, business, and housing in postwar France.

AS FOREIGN VISITORS APPROACH the outskirts of large French cities, they first gain sight of the grands ensembles, massive suburban apartment complexes built in the 1950s and 1960s. Scholars have long argued that the grands ensembles were the product of collaboration between engineers in government agencies and the private sector. (1) Few historians, however, have devoted adequate attention to the formative connections between these two groups, necessitating a fresh examination of the immediate postwar era, when the organizational framework for the grands ensembles first began to evolve. Analysis of state architectural competitions, held between 1943 and 1953, unmasks the influential network of civil engineers who dominated state reconstruction offices, defined new construction standards, and favored public works firms led by fellow engineers. Companies once responsible for the construction of roads and bridges turned to the lucrative market for public housing, creating structures that satisfied the mechanical and social visions of technocrats rather than the human needs of French families. For many years, these designers produced the homes they wanted and, faced with a housing shortage, most people were pleased to have decent shelter. But as the housing crisis became less severe, and as the grands ensembles developed acute social problems, residents became less grateful and more willing to voice their dissatisfaction with politicians who seemed unable to meet their needs. In the mid-1960s, disgruntled inhabitants of the grands ensembles began voting against the government of Charles de Gaulle, and by the 1970s, they posed such a threat that de Gaulle's successor, George Pompidou, abandoned the construction of large housing estates, bringing an end to an experiment that had affected the lives of millions of French citizens.

To fully understand the grands ensembles, one must begin with a survey of urban planning and public housing. In the nineteenth century, industry and commerce expanded, stimulating the growth of French cities. As the size of the industrial proletariat increased, however, so did the number of slums, the frequency of revolution, and the severity of epidemics, prompting critics to stigmatize working-class districts as breeding grounds of crime, vice, and disease. Those critiques shaped the reconstruction of Paris in the 1850s, under the direction of Emperor Napoleon III and his chief deputy, Prefect Georges Haussmann. By maximizing imperial control over the municipal administration, these men were able to build new sewers, clear old slums, and open broad boulevards designed to facilitate transportation and to provide military access to districts of historic unrest. Thousands of poor Parisians were displaced, but few received new accommodations, forcing families to find housing where they could. Some squeezed into apartments that were already overcrowded, while others drifted to suburban hovels even more squalid than their previous homes. Reconstruction of the central city also drove up the price of land, leading builders to abandon the market for low-cost housing as it became less profitable. Working-class districts continued deteriorating, and because other cities emulated the capital, such conditions spread nationwide. (2)

By the 1880s, persistent problems had led to the rise of a new generation of reformers, many of them paternalistic philanthropists determined to preserve social order. Inspired by the conservative theories of Frederic Le Play, led by Le Havre deputy Jules Siegfried, and organized in an elite think tank (the Musee Social), these men argued that social housing, not displacement, offered the best opportunity to diffuse revolutionary tendencies. If workers could be settled in garden cities and transformed into homeowners, thought Siegfried, then they would gain a stake in the capitalist system and become obedient members of society. In industrial districts, however, garden cities were impractical. There, argued reformers, slums should be replaced with self-contained apartment complexes, where gatekeepers and social assistants could observe and educate their guests. In 1894 Siegfried sponsored a law providing tax breaks and low-interest loans to private housing corporations, the societes d'Habitations a Bon Marche (HBM). By 1912, though, private organizations had completed few housing units; only 2,525 in all of Paris. State financial incentives had been too meager to make low-cost housing profitable. Residents of HBMs had also proven resistant to social engineering. They differed little, in fact, from other workers in either behavior or political preferences. (3)

Bourgeois politicians, however, continued to believe that good housing could cure social ills. Moderate socialists were also willing to support programs offering workers immediate benefits. Parliament thus authorized local governments to establish public HBM offices (1912). Production increased. By 1940, eighty-five thousand units had been built in Paris, but construction was still too slow to meet demand. To make matters worse, commercial production continued to stagnate due to high property taxes, repeated economic crises, and the depressive effects of rent control (a measure enacted during the First World War but retained, to placate voters, throughout the 1920s and 1930s). Artificially low rents also hampered maintenance, leading to the decay of existing homes. Nationwide, the number of dilapidated housing units rose from 150,000 in 1911 to 2,600,000 in 1939. By 1945, two invasions and years of aerial bombardment had further deprived the French of an additional 2,115,000 housing units, some 20 percent of the nation's total building stock, creating a housing crisis of monumental proportions. (4)

Adding to the sense of urgency was a perceived failure of town planning. Reacting to imperial authoritarianism, the politicians of the Third Republic (1875-1940) established a decentralized system of planning supervised by local governments. Some cities initiated ambitious programs. In Paris, for example, the municipal council built the metro and created a committee to plan for long-term growth. Many municipalities, however, remained reticent to fund town plans, which were expensive and which seemed to offer few immediate benefits. This resistance angered members of the Musee Social, who argued that planning was needed to eliminate the anarchy that had crept into many communities, including the Parisian suburbs beyond the reach of the city council. World War I provided an opportunity for reform, as the damaged cities of the North were forced to rebuild. In 1919 and 1924, Parliament passed legislation mandating systematic planning in both war-torn towns and growth-oriented cities. Those laws had little impact, however, because they carried few penalties for proprietors or municipalities refusing to comply. Arras, Verdun, and other towns were rebuilt along the same congested patterns that had existed before the war, while many undamaged cities postponed planning, hoping to avoid the cost associated with it. Even those that did begin the process encountered serious problems. In Paris, for example, a metro planning board was established in 1924, but its members found themselves ill equipped to deal with dozens of competing suburban governments and hundreds of proprietors, rendering all but impossible the implementation of a plan elaborated in 1935. (5)

These difficulties brought to the fore technocrats determined to correct the mistakes of the Third Republic. A good example is Raoul Dautry, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique who worked as an engineer at the Northern Railway Company (1902-28) before heading the State Railroad (1928-37) and the Ministry of Armaments (1939-40). In the early 1900s, Dautry joined the Musee Social. As chair of the society's commission on housing and town planning, he concluded that industrial, economic, and scientific experts--technocrats like himself--were best equipped to solve the problems of the nation. (6) In the early 1920s, Dautry applied his ideas at Tergnier, a garden city built for employees of the Northern Railway Company, and in the late 1930s, he imposed the Parisian town plan on uncooperative municipalities, utilizing decree powers Parliament had authorized for "public emergencies." Dautry believed more reform was necessary, but his success influenced many of the technocrats who came to power in 1940, when the Second World War destroyed both the Third Republic and dozens of French cities. (7)

Charged with the initial task of reconstruction was the Vichy Regime, an authoritarian government established as France was falling to the Germans in June 1940. Marshal Philippe Petain, the new chief of state, blamed military defeat on republican weaknesses. He was therefore more than willing to break with republican traditions, including policies deemed responsible for the crisis facing French cities. Petain allowed technocrats to establish two new agencies: the Commissariat of Reconstruction (Commissariat a la Reconstruction Immobiliere, CRI) and the Department of National Infrastructure (Delegation Generale l'Equipement National, DGEN), which supervised reconstruction and town planning, respectively. The marshal then issued new laws giving state planners predominant authority over local urban development. Government agents controlled the appointment of town planners and architects and oversaw their work through National Committees of Reconstruction and Town Planning. (8)

Because infrastructure was of immediate concern, engineers quickly dominated the new departments. Andre Muffang, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique and chief engineer of the roads and bridges administration in Amiens, headed the CRI, while Henri Giraud, the director of public works for the city of Paris, ran the daily activities of the DGEN. After Giraud died in November 1942, Frederic Surleau took control of the DGEN. An engineer by training, Surleau had worked for Raoul Dautry at the Northern Railway Company before following him to the State Railroad and the Ministry of Armaments. Dautry, however, retired to Lourmarin, a small town in southern France. Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Dautry remained committed to the republic and refused to work for Marshal Petain. Dautry nevertheless maintained contact with his comrades in the government. He supported the programs they initiated, and in 1944 he would bring many of them to the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism (MRU), the successor of the CRI and DGEN. (9)

The strains of war prevented Dautry's friends from completing many projects, but they did plan for the future. As engineers, Muffang and his associates turned to public works firms specializing in prefabrication and the scientific management of construction techniques, processes that had figured marginally in prewar home construction but that engineers believed could reduce costs and accelerate the pace of building. Petain's corporatist economic policies strengthened this trend. Building on the French tradition of cartelization, and drawing on Italian and German precedents, the Vichy government established industry-specific associations to facilitate economic planning (a move further justified by wartime penury, which necessitated wise use of scarce resources). Although these organizations included representatives of small businesses and large companies, the latter almost always dominated. Public works executives, not traditional artisans, controlled the Committee for the Organization of the Building Trade and Public Works (COBTP), a corporatist body established to regulate the construction industry. Engineers by training, the leaders of the COBTP established close ties with state bureaucrats, and because the COBTP controlled the distribution of raw materials, public works directors could shower favors on their own industry while limiting supplies to the traditional sector. (10)

To prepare public works companies to compete in the housing market, the CRI and COBTP launched a competition (1943) for the production of prefabricated building components, the first in a series of programs that would lead to the definition of standard housing models. Sitting on the selection committees were corporate executives, including Andre Balency-Bearn (of Balency et Schuhl) and Pierre Dumont (of Dumont et Besson). Not surprisingly, most laureates were public works firms, and many signed contracts with the government. Good examples are Coignet, a bridge building firm that won an award for prefabricated walls, and the Societe Technique pour l'Utilisation de la Precontrainte (STUP), a subsidiary of Campenon-Bernard that worked with Edmond Billiard, another public works giant, to produce an award-winning design for prestressed floor panels. The government quickly assigned projects in Orleans to the STUP, Edmond Billiard, and Dumont et Besson. The others would win contracts during the postwar era, when the MRU launched additional competitions favoring public works firms. (11)

This continuity was due to two factors. First, the Provisional Government (1944-46) and the Fourth Republic (1946-58) faced the same financial problems as Petain's regime, allowing state planners to argue for the perpetuation of wartime programs designed to reduce costs and increase the pace of construction. Second, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and head of the Provisional Government, named Raoul Dautry minister of reconstruction. Dautry's experience with state agencies, his familiarity with housing and town planning, and his attitude toward Petain made him a perfect choice for de Gaulle. Dautry's ties to Vichyite administrators also protected leading technocrats. To avoid the appearance of collaboration, Dautry purged a few symbolic officials, such as Andre Muffang. Overall, however, Dautry retained the bureaucrats who had been cultivating the public works industry, with which Dautry himself had long had ties as a railroad administrator. (12)

One of the most important of these officials was Andre Prothin, an engineer who had worked for the departement of the Seine before joining the Department of Town Planning and Housing Construction at the DGEN. In 1944 Dautry transferred this agency to the MRU and placed Prothin over the Service of Construction Studies, the organization responsible for experimental projects and architectural competitions. In 1945 Prothin resumed the programs of the Vichy Regime by hiring dozens of French companies to build prefabricated houses in the Cite de Merlan, a community established to replace destroyed homes in the Parisian suburb of Noisy-le-Sec. Coignet, Balency et Schuhl, and the STUP, firms associated with the competition of 1943, built houses in Noisy-le-Sec, as did corporations destined for a bright future, such as Froment Clavier and the Compagnie Industrielle de Maisons Prefabriquees (CIMP). Prothin awarded contracts for projects utilizing the patented techniques of the engineers Henry Gutton (Village Francais), Andre Blache (JEEP), and M. Rode (INOTRO), and he forced French builders to compare their methods to those of foreign corporations by hiring American, British, Canadian, Swiss, Swedish, and Finnish firms to build homes in the Cite. (13)

Noisy-le-Sec allowed government officials to assess the quality of numerous techniques of prefabrication. The results were disappointing, as many houses were poorly built. MRU officials passed the most critical judgments on structures made of wood and metal, which did not last long in the damp Parisian basin. Houses made of reinforced concrete or concrete blocs--those of Coignet, Balency et Schuhl, the STUP, the CIMP, Gutton, Blache, and Rode--lasted the longest and performed the best, though only relative to the other, more defective homes in the Cite. Noisy-le-Sec reinforced the preference of government planners for prefabricated concrete and, in several cases, for the public works firms with which they already had developed close ties. Even those companies, however, were producing products of poor quality, a consequence of novel methods and rapid construction. This problem did not go unnoticed, but state officials were more interested in accelerating construction than in insuring its durability--a choice that would affect other experimental projects and the housing estates based upon those models. (14)

The Service of Construction Studies played a no less decisive role in the design of interior space. In 1945 Prothin established strict guidelines for Noisy-le-Sec, and in 1946 he generalized these as a set of minimum requirements. The standards for floor space were quite liberal, reflecting aspirations for a better life after years of economic depression and wartime hardship. In 1947, when the MRU assumed control of the nation's HBM program, government officials also increased HBM norms, a recognition of the fact that early HBMs had been far too small. The new standards, however, represented a slight reduction in size compared to those of 1946, marking the beginning of a progressive trend toward smaller apartments, both for HBMs and for experimental projects. Perpetual financial constraints had forced MRU officials to choose between size and quantity, similar to the choice between rapidity and durability. They chose quantity, reasoning that the housing crisis demanded the construction of as many homes as possible. After all, they thought, people would be better off in small apartments than slum tenements. (15)

Prothin's guidelines also mandated the inclusion of basic amenities in the homes at Noisy-le-Sec: a kitchen, bathroom, toilet, laundry facility, closets, storage room, and living room. Again, this represented a great improvement over prewar HBMs, which often lacked basic amenities. Like the paternalistic proponents of early HBMs, however, MRU officials hoped that housing would foster social transformation. Significant in this regard were Prothin's recommendations for the dining area. His guidelines permitted the inclusion of dining space in the kitchen, but he urged builders to reserve the kitchen for cooking, locating the dining area in the living room instead. When coupled with a tiny kitchen, such a design was supposed to force workers out of the kitchen, the typical location of the working-class table, and into a room deemed more appropriate for proper meals and socialization. As one of the most powerful officials at the MRU, Prothin's recommendations carried great weight, resulting in the proliferation of the combination living room/dining room. (16)

Reaction to this design was none too positive. In 1947, a nationwide opinion study found that 50 percent of the general public and more than 72 percent of working-class families preferred to socialize around the kitchen table, reserving formal dining areas for special occasions. Surveys among residents of the Cite de Merlan indicated similar trends: 60 percent shared meals in the kitchen, even though the size of the room (on average less than 7.5 square meters) made this rather difficult. (17) Government officials chose to disregard such findings, however, because they did not accord with bourgeois ideals, revealing a tendency toward social engineering and a propensity to ignore public opinion. After Noisy-le-Sec, in fact, the MRU made little effort to find out what residents thought about its experimental projects. State officials were trying to provide homes for fellow citizens, but they were so convinced of the validity of their own social preferences, and so obsessed with the technical means to accelerate construction, that they lost sight of the people who had to inhabit these spaces. And since the MRU controlled the HBM program, these tendencies affected a much wider segment of the population than the relative few who lived in the Cite de Merlan.

To build on the work at Noisy-le-Sec, the MRU signed more substantial contracts, in 1947 and 1948, with Coignet, the CIMP, Henry Gutton, Andre Blache, and M. Rode, as well as with Les Maisons Phenix and the Societe COGETRAVOC, important newcomers utilizing prefabricated concrete. (18) In 1947 the MRU also launched a new architectural contest designed to lower construction costs by reducing the size of housing units and maximizing the efficiency of planning and execution. To accomplish the latter, the MRU encouraged collaboration between corporations, engineers, and architects by requiring them to propose projects as teams. Groups submitted proposals to local juries, which then passed their selections to a national jury that included well-known architects (Auguste Perret, who redesigned Le Havre and sat on the CRI jury in 1943), engineers (Eugene Freyssinet, associated with Campenon-Bernard and the STUP), public works executives (Andre Balency-Bearn, the president of Balency et Schuhl), and government representatives (Jean Kerisel, a Vichyite holdover who sat on the CRI jury in 1943 and took control of the Service of Construction Studies in 1947). In March and April 1948, these men examined the dossiers, but they deemed the proposals so inferior that the MRU awarded only one contract, to Alexander Heaume and Alexander Persitz (architects), Alexander Reimbert (engineer), and the Societe Francaise de Construction et de Travaux Publics (builder) (Figure 1). (19)


The competition of 1947 did not produce many outstanding proposals, and none of the projects of 1947-48 produced the anticipated results, as most buildings proved expensive, slow to complete, and of poor quality. (20) But the contest of 1947 did encourage all 534 applicants, accounting for hundreds of architects, engineers, and corporations, to work together, establishing professional networks tied to the MRU. The style of the first place winner also revealed a growing acceptance of modern architecture, reflecting the political trends of the late 1940s. During the war, Muffang and his associates had promoted traditional architectural styles, bowing to the conservative proclivities of Petain's gerontocracy. After the war, Dautry and his immediate successors had adopted a policy of equity by hiring firms working with both traditional and modern architects. (21) The Cite de Merlan and the projects of 1947-48 reflected this tendency, alternating between traditionalism and modernism. Official preferences shifted dramatically, however, under Eugene Claudius-Petit, who served as minister of reconstruction from September 1948 to December 1952.

Unlike his predecessors, Claudius-Petit had formal training in art and design, having earned a degree from Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts Decoratifs in 1934. There he had developed a fondness for the architects of the Modern Movement, particularly Le Corbusier, one of the world's most famous modern architects. Claudius-Petit's political position, in the center-left Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance, also influenced his architectural preferences. Because Petain had favored traditional architecture, many left-wing politicians had stigmatized traditionalists as antirepublican conservatives, viewing modernists, in contrast, as republican progressives. As with most stereotypes, this one had a basis in fact. Many traditionalists had sided with Vichy, while some modernists bad organized left-wing resistance movements. The dichotomy was too narrow, though. Le Corbusier had flirted with Petain's regime, hoping the old marshal would allow him to reshape the urban landscape. The Vichy government had marginalized and alienated Le Corbusier, but his willingness to work with Petain indicated scant regard for republican values. For Claudius-Petit, however, the Modern Movement stood as a force for political, social, and artistic progress. (22)

In practice, though, Claudius-Petit was quite authoritarian. Like Le Corbusier, Claudius-Petit argued that government officials had to know how to resist public opinion, meaning they had to adopt the "best" urban policies, even if most people did not realize what those were. Since the masses were too ignorant to make rational choices, thought Claudius-Petit, only a small elite of qualified architects, engineers, and town planners should make important decisions. Claudius-Petit favored collective housing, which he believed made the most efficient use of urban space and scarce resources, in spite of the public's well-known desire for individual homes. He also launched new experimental projects to move toward the modern architectural designs that he preferred. As in 1947, Claudius-Petit required applicants to submit proposals as teams, further solidifying links between architects, engineers, and public works firms and, from 1948 forward, between modern architects and the other two groups. In effect, Claudius-Petit completed the connection between French modernists and concrete, a medium that had long appealed to them due to its cost and malleability, and a material to which they were now tied through the public works firms with which the government encouraged them to collaborate. (23)

In 1949 teams competed for programs of two hundred housing units at Villeneuve-Samt-Gcorges, Creil-Compiegne, and Chartres. The MRU once again established restricted tolerances for floor space, and the jury once more included notable architects (Auguste Perret), state officials (Jean Kerisel), and public works executives (Pierre Dumont). For Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, the jury had difficulty choosing between projects presented by (1) architects Marc and Leo Solotareff and the firm La Joinie, and (2) architects Bernard Zehrfuss and M. Sebag and the company Balency et Schuhl. The Solotareff brothers won by a vote of five to four, but the MRU awarded Zehrfuss, Sebag, and Balency et Schuhl a consolation prize of two hundred housing units at Boulogne-Billancourt. The Solotareff brothers built three fourteen-story towers, and Zehrfuss and Sebag built three eleven-story "bars," the latter very much in the spirit of the unite d'habitation, Le Corbusier's high-rise apartment building then under construction in Marseille (Figures 2-4). (24) During the 1950s, these large apartment houses characterized the grands ensemhies; many architects, in fact, borrowed liberally from the designs of Solotareff, Zehrfuss, and Sebag.


For the competition at Creil-Compiegne, the architect Raymond Gravereaux, the engineer Georges Schindler, and the firm COGETRAVOC won first place for their three- and four-story apartments, which they built at Creil. Second place went to the architect EugEne Beaudouin and the firm Edmond Billiard, a team that erected three- and four-story buildings in Compiegne. In Chartres, the jury awarded first prize to the architects Robert Camelot, Luc Sainsaulieu, and J. Rivet, who collaborated with the Societe Nouvelle de Constructions et de Travaux and Omnium de Prefabrications d'Entreprises et de Constructions to build two hundred individual houses. The second place team, Jacques Riot and Les Maisons Phenix, built fifteen duplexes at Dreux and thirty individual houses at Saint-Remy-sur-Avre, two towns in the Eure-et-Loire (Figure 5). (25) The Solotareff brothers, Zehrfuss, Beaudouin, Camelot, and Riot were new winners in the MRU's contests, but Balency et Schuhl, Gravereaux, Schindler, COGETRAVOC, and Les Maisons Phenix were prominent participants in Noisy-le-Sec and the projects of 1947-48, while Edmond Billiard had participated in the competition of 1943. The same companies appeared repeatedly, and in cooperation with modern architects, they helped define models enjoying the MRU's seal of approval. These firms also produced the same old problems, for many structures were poorly built. As in the past, however, quantity and rapidity were the top priorities, not quality. (26)


In 1950 the MRU launched a competition for eight hundred housing units, known as the Cite de Rotterdam and located in the suburbs of Strasbourg. The competition for this prize was fierce; finalists included Le Corbusier, Bernard Zehrfuss, Marcel Lods, and Eugene Beaudouin. The jury, presided over by Claudius-Petit himself, included leading architects (Auguste Perret), important bureaucrats (Jean Kerisel and Andre Prothin), and prominent entrepreneurs (Pierre Dumont). The panel hcsitated between two projects: those of (1) Bernard Zehrfuss, who was associated with Balency et Schuhl, and (2) Eugene Beaudouin, who was working with the companies Boussiron and Froment-Clavier. Notably, most had participated in other government projects: Zehrfuss, Balency and Beaudouin in the competition of 1949 and Froment-Clavier in Noisy-le-Sec. After several difficult votes, the jury decided on Beaudouin, whose proposal closely resembled that of Zehrfuss in 1949 (Figure 6). (27)


Completed in 1953, the Cite de Rotterdam could house several thousand people, making it the first of the grands ensembles. Unfortunately, the Cite embodied many of the characteristic problems of these housing estates. First, the apartments were tiny, the result of the MRU's continuing effort to reduce costs and increase the number of housing units by lowering space requirements for both the Cite and public housing (renamed Habitation a Loyer Modere, or HLM, in 1951). Second, residents moved into the Cite long before the construction of shops, cultural centers, and public transportation, isolating inhabitants from Strasbourg and its amenities. Some architects protested the lack of collective services, but MRU officials argued that the Cite was first and foremost a housing development and that social amenities were not essential. Finally, industrialized construction produced its standard problems. Though completed in record time (eighteen months) and at low cost (1,625,000 francs per housing unit), the Cite started falling apart as early as 1957. Once again, however, the MRU was most concerned with savings of time and money, and because those economies had been realized, the government used the Cite de Rotterdam as a template for other housing estates, resulting in multiplication of the problems associated with this project. (28)

In 1953 the MRU opened another competition, this time for four thousand housing units at Boulogne-Billancourt, Nanterre, Clichy, and Bagnolet. The MRU awarded the contract to a group of architects involving Bernard Zehrfuss, Marcel Lods, Robert Camelot, Maurice Cammas, and Jean de Mailly. They were associated with the Societe d'Etudes et de Realisation de Procedes Economiques de Construction (SERPEC), a joint venture including Campenon-Bernard, Edmond Billiard, Raymond Camus, Balency et Schuhl, Dumont et Besson, the Societe Dumez, and the Entreprise du Genie Civil et des Travaux Publics de Lens. Many of these architects and companies had participated in the MRU's past projects, highlighting the ministry's entrenched system of favoritism for architects like Zehrfuss and Camelot and public works firms like Campenon-Bernard, Edmond Billiard, Balency et Schuhl, and Dumont et Besson. (29)

Utilizing the patented techniques of the engineer Raymond Camus, SERPEC built 110 concrete apartment blocks: eight in Boulogne-Billancourt, seventy-three in Nanterre, seven in Clichy, and twenty-two in Bagnolet (Figure 7). All of the buildings had relatively small apartments, corresponding to the MRU's new and even more reduced size requirements, which dropped some minimum surface areas below those of prewar HBMs. In October 1951, Claudius-Petit had taken another crucial step by limiting the overall, average floor space of HLM complexes to 52 square meters per unit, a measure of economy that forced SERPEC, HLM associations, and private developers to build far too many one- and two-bedroom apartments, to reduce the size of three-bedroom apartments, and to build few of the four- and five-bedroom apartments that growing French families needed so desperately. Stringent size requirements also pushed architects toward the inclusion of a sleeping area in the living room. Most families hated this design because of the lack of privacy for the "bedroom," but Bernard Zehrfuss utilized this option in 1949 and again in 1953. (30)


The MRU's experimental programs did not end with the project of four thousand housing units. In late 1953 the ministry launched Operation Million, which aimed to reduce the production cost of a two-bedroom apartment to one million francs (half the standard cost). The results of this program were little different from previous competitions because many of the same architects and companies won contracts. Bernard Zehrfuss, Marcel Lods, Maurice Cammas, Robert Camelot, and Jean de Mailly designed 1,001 housing units for the Cite Fredericet-Irene Joliot-Curie, built by SERPEC and located in the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil. That is only one example, for Operation Million led to the construction of fifty thousand housing units. (31)

The competitions launched by the CRI and the MRU created a system in which state officials played a decisive role in the definition of prefabricated elements and the production of housing. Engineers at the MRU stipulated specific requirements for its experimental projects, and they consistently promoted public works firms specializing in the production of reinforced concrete and modernist apartment buildings. Towers and "bars" did not dominate the era of reconstruction in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the MRU was testing and assembling the networks that would dominate the housing market, but by the mid-1950s the government had positioned a revitalized construction industry, led by an advanced elite of public works firms and tied to prominent modern architects, to produce massive quantities of "functionalist" housing. (32) And produce it they did. By 1960 the French were building more than three hundred thousand housing units per year (more than four times the number built just ten years earlier), the result of an enormous increase in state financial assistance to both public and private developers. State assistance did not come without strings, however, that tied builders to strict surface norms and predetermined architectural models, in effect forcing developers to utilize the MRU's favorite professional networks. (33)

By the late 1960s, millions of French citizens, mostly members of the lower and lower middle classes, lived in the grands ensembles. (34) How, though, did people react to their new homes? We do not know how the general public responded to the MRU's experimental projects, as these competitions were limited to a small circle of construction professionals and not broadcast to a wide audience. With the exception of Noisy-le-Sec, we also know little of residents' reactions to homes in these particular communities. Based upon sociological research, however, we do know that residents of similar housing estates welcomed their apartments. Inhabitants saw the grands ensembles as a great improvement over decrepit slums, but they rejected social engineering, just like their ancestors in the early 1900s. Residents also criticized many aspects of their homes and their communities, including inadequate space, inferior soundproofing, insufficient collective services, and poor construction quality--the same problems that had plagued experimental programs. (35) As dissatisfaction rose, residents of the grands ensembles began developing social problems. Small apartments led to family disputes, and poor soundproofing to conflicts between neighbors. Lack of shops and schools contributed to even worse dilemmas, as housewives developed a terrible sense of isolation and unoccupied teenagers joined gangs, resulting in rising rates of alcoholism and chronic depression among the former and juvenile delinquency among the latter. (36) Sarcelles, a grand ensemble in the Parisian suburbs, became a symbol of such problems. Students there had to wait fifteen years for their own high school, and by the mid-1960s, Sarcelles's rates of juvenile delinquency were five times higher than those in working-class districts of Paris. (37)

As the plight of new housing parks grew worse, intellectuals started denouncing them as dehumanizing environments. The grands ensembles were the products, they argued, of urban consumer society, which had developed so rapidly in the postwar era that it had sucked the soul out of the French people. Those stuck in the grands ensembles were condemned to la Sarcellite, the collective social disease that afflicted people deprived of the traditional vie de quartier and forced instead to inhabit a lifeless concrete jungle like Sarcelles. (38) On a more practical level, however, urban sociologists began studying the problems of the grands ensembles and suggesting ways to fix them. In the realm of architecture, for example, Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe recommended large apartments, additional closets, good sound insulation, and recreational areas for children (since noisy neighbors and inadequate space were the top complaints of families). In the domain of town planning, Chombart de Lauwe called for the construction of shops, schools, clubs, public transportation, and recreational facilities. He also urged planners to allow committees of residents to formulate programs for the creation and management of civic centers, theaters, and other cultural organizations. At first, state planners resisted Chombart de Lauwe's suggestions, which they regarded as expensive and unnecessary. Housing, not amenities, remained the chief concern. By the mid-1960s, however, the social problems of the grands ensembles had become so severe (and popular denunciations of state policy so frequent) that public authorities began using Chombart de Lauwe's techniques of sociological investigation to help them design new housing and plan urban expansion. (39)

Conditions in the grands ensembles began improving as planners gained a better understanding of the needs of residents, and as economic growth facilitated the construction of schools, shopping centers, metro lines, recreational facilities, and larger apartments with more amenities. (40) Government officials also moved toward a new model of suburban development: densely built communities of single-family homes, which corresponded to popular desires better than enormous and socially alienating apartment complexes. By encouraging the construction of small communities of low-cost patio homes arranged in closely-packed "hamlets" and set amidst large communal green spaces, construction minister Jacques Maziol, a Gaullist deputy from Toulouse, hoped to provide the houses people wanted without creating wasteful, American-style suburbs of widely spaced homes surrounded by individual gardens. Patio homes could, he thought, provide families with sufficient privacy, while common green areas would encourage the development of a sense of community. In effect, this kind of subdivision was a compromise between the grand ensemble and the isolated house. They were built, however, by many of the same companies that had risen to prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Balency et Schuhl, Edmond Billiard, and Les Maisons Phenix. (41)

Despite the trend toward single-family homes, construction of the grands ensembles continued until the early 1970s. (42) Government bureaucrats were simply too comfortable with the old model, and construction firms had invested too heavily in specialized equipment, such as heavy-duty cranes. In the end, the political cost of the grands ensembles led the government of Georges Pompidou to halt their construction. The Gaullists, who governed France from 1958 to 1981, found that the provision of cheap public housing did not win them support from the working and middle-class residents of suburban housing estates. Indeed, mounting discontent among inhabitants of the grands ensembles almost always led to support for Socialists and Communists. In 1965, for example, disgruntled residents of Sarcelles elected a Communist municipality to protest problems the Gaullist administration seemed unable to handle. The "events" of 1968 intensified the leftward drift of the "Sarcellites," and in 1973 protest votes from public housing estates crushed Gaullist candidates across the country. The party of Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle's successor as president of the Republic, lost eighty-nine seats in the National Assembly. Only then did Olivier Guichard, Pompidou's minister of construction, ban the erection of complexes containing more than one thousand housing units in small cities and two thousand units in large ones. Guichard's action was a response to electoral defeat, but it was also a response to popular dissatisfaction with the grands ensembles. (43)

The grands ensembles were much more than an emergency reaction to the postwar housing crisis. State architectural competitions reveal a consistent pattern. Engineers dominated the government's reconstruction agencies, and from the 1940s forward they favored the projects of fellow engineers in the private sector. Their policies, however, had unfortunate consequences. The grands ensembles satisfied the needs and expectations of technocrats, not those of French families. The social crisis of the grands ensembles made this point abundantly clear, as did the electoral fortunes of governments responsible for their construction. In the mid-1950s, many French families were glad to have a roof over their heads, but by the mid-1960s, they had become so dissatisfied with the grands ensembles that they turned on the government of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle did not initiate the grands ensembles, but his lieutenants and he did promote their construction. Ultimately, de Gaulle and his successors discovered that the grands ensembles were political suicide. Only then did the government turn toward models of urban development more in accord with popular tastes. Instead of endless rows of towers and bars, state officials promoted apartment buildings of moderate height, many with traditional courtyards, as well as communities of individual houses. As for the grands ensembles, some have been torn down, but many remain, having become home to the poorest of the poor, immigrants from former French colonies who have adapted to technocratic projects of social engineering even less well than the people for whom those homes were intended. For the foreseeable future, then, families will continue to suffer in decrepit communities like Sarcelles.

(1.) See, for example, Bruno Vayssiere, Reconstruction, deconstruction: le hard French ou l'architecture francaise des trente glorieuses (Paris, 1988); Olivier Piron, ed., Ministere de la recontruction et de l'urbanisme, 1944-1954: une politique du logement (Paris, 1994); Daniele Voldman, La reconstruction des villes francaises de 1940 a 1954: histoire d'une politique (Paris, 1997).

(2.) Anne-Louise Shapiro, Housing the Poor of Paris, 1850-1902 (Madison, Wis., 1985), xiii-xiv, 6, 10-15, 32-39; Anthony Sutcliffe, The Autumn of Central Paris: The Defeat of Town Planning, 1850-1970 (London, 1970), 25-27, 29, 30-32, 42, 124, 137, 185.

(3.) Shapiro, Housing the Poor of Paris, xv, 88-90, 101; Janet R. Horne, A Social Laboratory for Modern France: The Musee Social and the Rise of the Welfare State (Durham, N.C., 2002), 22, 231-32; Jean Taricat et Martine Villars, Le logement a bon marche, chronique: Paris 1850-1930 (Boulogne, 1982), 54; Jean-Paul Flamand, Loger le peuple: essai sur l'histoire du logement social en France (Paris, 1989), 137.

(4.) Sutcliffe, Autumn of Central Paris, 256, 258; Frederique Boucher, "Abriter vaille que vaille, se loger coute que coute," Cahiers de l'IHTP 5 (June 1987): 120-21. "La Reconstruction en France," Documents Economiques 31 (October 1947): 74.

(5.) Stucliffe, Autumn of Central Paris, 79-86, 221; Rosemary Wakeman, "Nostalgic Modernism and the Invention of Paris in the Twentieth Century," French Historical Studies 27 (winter 2004): 119-29; Andre Chastel, "Ou en est l'urbanisme francais? I. La derniere chance," Le Monde 13 June 1947, 1.

(6.) This was not a new line of thought. Its origins lay in the theories of Henri de Saint-Simon, a utopian socialist who had influenced generations of engineers (and even Napoleon III). Michel Ragon, Histoire de l'architecture et de l'urbanisme modernes. I. Ideologies et pionniers, 1800-1910 (Paris, 1986), 59.

(7.) Remi Baudoui, Raoul Dautry 1880-1951: le technocrate de la Republique (Paris, 1992), 9-10, 22, 29, 62-65, 80, 186-87; Francoise Choay, "Pensees sur la ville, arts de la ville," in Histoire de la France urbaine. Tome IV. La ville de l'age industriel: le cycle haussmannien, ed. Georges Duby (Paris, 1983), 253; Wakeman, "Nostalgic Modernism," 129; Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 119-20.

(8.) On the affinity of technocrats for the Vichy Regime, see Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (New York, 1972), 138. On the CRI and DGEN, see Helene Sanyas, "La politique architecturale et urbaine de la reconstruction. France: 1945-1955" (These de IIIe cycle, Universite de Paris VIII, October 1982), 15-25; Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 48-64; Wakeman, "Nostalgic Modernism," 129-31; Minutes of the National Committees of Reconstruction and Town Planning, Centre des Archives Contemporaines (hereafter CAC) 19820774, article 15.

(9.) Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 50, 52-53; Baudoui, Raoul Dautry, 101, 212, 216, 236-37, 293. The name of this ministry changed with the rise and fall of different cabinets. For ease of reference, the agency will be referred to as the MRU (1944-58) and the Ministry of Construction (1958 forward).

(10.) Paxton, Vichy France, 210-20; Jacques Rosen, "1940-1952, le Batiment sous tutelle," Cahiers de l'IHTP 5 (June 1987): 149-51.

(11.) CAC 19771134, article 1; MRU, "Conditions d'execution des divers chantiers experimentaux," 15 November 1950, CAC 19771078, article 2; Rosen, "1940-1952, le batiment sous tutelle," 151-52; Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 300-01.

(12.) Remi Badoui, Raoul Dautry, 289, 293; Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 119-27; Vayssiere, Reconstruction, deconstruction, 306. Administrative continuity characterized many government agencies, including the Cour des Comptes, the Inspectorate of Finance, the Council of State, the judiciary, the diplomatic corps, and the prefectoral corps. Corporatist continuity was also common. The leaders of France's agricultural cartels dominated Vichy's Peasant Corporation and postwar farm associations. Paxton, Vichy France, 206, 335-43.

(13). On Prothin, see Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 126; Who's Who in France, 1967-68 (Paris, 1967), 1155. On Noisy-le-Sec, see CAC 19771078, articles 1, 2, 4, and 24; CAC 19771079, article 1; "La construction de la cite d'experience de Noisy-le-Sec," undated clipping from the Bulletin Mensuel d'Information du Ministere de la Reconstruction et de l'Urbanisme, CAC 19790641, article 1.

(14.) CAC 19771078, articles 1-2; Piron, Une politique du logement, 64.

(15.) Before 1947, the Ministry of Health had overseen the HBM program. MRU, Service des Etudes de la Construction, "L'habitation urbaine et rurale," 1-5, CAC 19771078, article 2; Susanna Magri, Le logement et reproduction de l'exploitation: les politiques etatiques du logement en France (1947-1972) (Paris, 1977), 198, 200; Flamand, Loger le people, 249.

(16). MRU, Service des Etudes de la Construction, "L'habitation urbaine et rurale," 3, CAC 19771078, article 2.

(17.) Alain Girard, "Une enquete par sondage: desirs des Francais en matiere d'habitation urbaine," Institut National d'Etudes Demographiques: Travaux et Documents, cahier no. 3 (Paris, 1947), 46-47. Bureau Technique de la Construction Immobiliere (MRU), "Cite d'Experiences de Noisy-le-Sec (n.d.), 5, CAC 19771125, article 1.

(18.) Note that the architect Raymond Gravereaux and the engineer Georges Schindler collaborated on the project of COGETRAVOC. Marini (Bureau des Prototypes), Paris, to M. le Directeur de la Compagnie de Freins et Signaux Westinghouse, Atelier de Pons, Charente-Inferieure, 9 December 1947, letter no. 9.962, CAC 19771078, article 1; Conditions d'execution des divers chantiers experimentaux, 15 November 1950, CAC 19771078, article 2.

(19.) MRU, "Concours pour l'edification de maisons nouvelles" (March 1947), CAC 19771078, article 1; Jury national du concours pour l'edification de maisons nouvelles, proces-verbal du vendredi 19 mars consacree au jugement de la categorie "Immeuble collectif de 8 logements," CAC 19771125, article 1; "Projet d'immeuble collectif type 'A 47,'" L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui 19.18-19 (July 1948): 113, 115; Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 304-06.

(20.) See evaluations of experimental projects in CAC 19771125, article 6.

(21.) Dautry resigned in January 1946 when Charles de Gaulle quit the government to protest the constitution being considered by the Constituent Assembly. Dautry's successors were Francois Billoux (January 1946-November 1946), Jules Moch (December 1946-January 1947), Charles Tillon (January 1947-May 1947), Jean Letourneau (May 1947-November 1947), and Rene Coty (November 1947-September 1948). Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 446.

(22.) Flamand, Loger le peuple, 197; Who's Who in France 1967-1968 (Paris, 1967), 315; Remi Badoui, "Imaginaire culturel et representations des processus de reconstruction en Europe apres 1945," ch. in Reconstructions en Europe, cd. Dominique Barjot, Remi Badoui, and Daniele Voldman (Paris, 1997), 314-16; Michel Ragon, Histoire de l'architecture et de l'urbanisme modernes. II. Naissance de la cite moderne, 1900-1940 (Paris, 1986), 18.3.

(23.) Sanyas, "La politique architecturalc et urbaine de la reconstruction," 50-53; Girard, "Une enquete par sondage," 11; Ragon, Naissance de la cite moderne, 201; Ragon, Ideologies et pionniers, 257.

(24.) Raoul Dautry had awarded Le Corbusier the project in Marseille as part of his policy of equity. It could not have been completed, though, without the support of Eugene Claudius-Petit. MRU, "Programme 1949 des chantiers d'experience: avis du concours" (1949), 2, CAC 19771125, article 8; MRU, "Chantier de l'ordre de 200 logements" (15 November 1950), CAC 19771078, article 2; MRU, Section des chantiers d'experiences, "Chantiers d'experimentation 1949, concours. Liste nominative des equipes retenues par ordre alphabetique d'architectes" (n.d.), CAC 1977112.5, article 8; L'Architecture Francaise, 103-104 (1953): special issue on the "Contours du MRU."

(25.) MRU, "Chantier de l'ordre de 200 logements" (15 November 1950), CAC 9771078, article 2; MRU, Section des chantiers d'experiences, "Chantiers d'experimentation 1949, concours. Liste nominative des equipes retenues par ordre alphabetique d'architectes" (n.d.), CAC 19771125, article 8; Compte-rendu de la reunion du jury du contours ouvert pour l'execution du programme 1949 des chautiers d'experience (17 February 1950), CAC 19771125, article 8; MRU (CEX), "Rapport concernaut l'execution de 60 logement du type PHI-NIX prevue a Dreux & St-REMY-sur-AVRE," (16 June 1950) CAC 19771080, article 57; L'Architecture Francaise, 103-104 (1953): special issue on the "Concours du MRU."

(26.) Charlet (Service des Etudes, Division des Etudes des Progres techniques, MRU), Paris, to M. le Directeur charge des Services departementaux d'Eure-et-Loire, Chartes, 31 May 1957 (CEX 14.244), CAC 19771080, article 60.

(27.) Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 383, 385-87; Vayssiere, Reconstruction, deconstruction, 319. For documents on this competition, see CAC 19771125 article 13.

(28.) Voldman, Reconstruction des villes francaises, 340-41, 387-88, 390; Arrete du 4 mai 1951, CAC 19771096, article 1; Vayssiere, Reconstruction, deconstruction, 318; L'Architecture Francaise 117-118 (1951): speical issue on the "Concours du MRU"; "Chantier experimental de Strasbourg," L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui 45 (November 1952): 4-7.

(29.) CAC 19771075, articles 1-3.

(30.) Arrete du 30 decembre 1953, Journal Officiel (31 December 1953); Magri, Logement et reproduction de l'exploitation, 52; Eugene Claudius-Petit, Circular letter no. 51-178 (25 Octobre 1951), CAC 19771096, article 1.

(31.) CAC 19771086, article 51; Piron, Politique du logement, 129.

(32.) Rosen, "1940-1952, le batiment sous tutelle," 149-53; Piron, Politique du logement, 81.

(33.) M. Seguin, "Les allegements fiscaux en faveur de la construction," Urbanisme 19.5-6 (1950): 54-55; Y. Salaun, "Notes sur le financement de la construction," (Nov. 1950), 13-14, CAC 19910582, article 1; Ministere de la Construction (Division de la Documentation et des Statistiques), "Nombre de logements acheves par secteur de la construction," CAC 19790660, article 51; "Bilan de la construction en France et fi l'etranger," extrait de L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui 44 (1952): 21, CAC 19850023, article 119; Piron, Politique du logement, 108.

(34.) In metro Paris, one in six residents lived in a grand ensemble by 1969. Norma Evenson, Paris: A Century of Change, 1878-1978 (New Haven, Conn., 1979), 238.

(35.) Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, "Logement et comportement des menages dans trios cites nouvelles de l'agglomeration parisienne," Cahiers du Centre Scientifique et Technique du Batiment, cahier 257, no. 30 (1957): 40-45.

(36.) Chombart de Lauwe, "Logement et comportement des menages dans trios cites nouvelles de l'agglomeration parisienne," 41-42, 46, 48-49, 52; J. Jenny, L. Couvreur, and P.-H. Chombart de Lauwe, "Logement et comportement des menages dans trios cites nouvelles de l'agglomeration bordelaise," Cahiers du Centre Scientifique et Technique du Batiment, cahier 282, no. 30 (1958): 45-50; Chombart de Lauwe, Paris: essais de sociologie, 1952-1964 (Paris, 1965), 132, 136-39; Idem., Des hommes et des villes (Paris, 1965), 15-20, 141-42, 167.

(37.) For general histories of Sarcelles, see Evenson, Paris: A Century of Change, 238-41; and John Ardagh, France in the 1980s (New York, 1982), 300-23. For statistics on juvenile delinquency, see Peggy Phillips, Modern France: Theories and Realities of Urban Planning (Lanham, Md., 1987), 116-17.

(38.) Norma Evenson, Paris: A Century of Change, 238-41, provides an excellent discussion of notable critics, including Christianne Rochefort (Les petits enfants du siecle, 1961); Jean Duquesne (Vivre a Sarcelles?, 1966); and Ionel Schein (Paris construit, 1970).

(39.) Chombart de Lauwe, Paris: essais de sociologie, 14, 16-17, 93, 105-06, 126, 136-44, 148; Idem, Des hommes et des villes, 22, 85, 132-33, 137, 146-47, 149-50, 181.

(40.) Ardagh, France in the 1980s, 303.

(41.) "Salon de la maison individuelle," (16 December 1964), ref. CI-IFf-A 298, CAC 19771153, article 2; Ministere de l'Equipement, Secretariat d'Etat au Logement [ME/SEL], "Cloture de Villagexpo, Allocution de M. Nungesser" (16 November 1966), 2-3; Pierre Charlet, Draft article for L'Annuaire de l'Union des Ingenieurs (March 1968): 1, 3, 5, 7, CAC 19790660, article 64; "Preliminaires de l'operation Villagexpo," archival note for CAC 197711.53.

(42.) Such dissatisfaction was not confined to France; French public works firms exported many of their models to other countries, particularly the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. Piron, Une politique du logement, 110.

(43.) Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Berkeley, Calif., 1997), 76-77; Gordon Wright, France in Modern Times, 5th ed. (New York, 1995), 424; Ministere de l'Amenagement du Territoire, de l'Equipement, du Logement et du Tourisme, "M. Olivier Guichard decide d'interdire les grands ensembles" (21 March 1973), 3, CAC 19850649, article 23.

W. Brian Newsome is an assistant professor of history at Alfred University. A previous version of this article was presented at the 2003 meeting of the Southern Historical Association. The author would like to thank the editor and reviewers of The Historian for their insightful comments and suggestions.
HLM Standards (1951)

Efficiency   27-34          m2
1 bedroom    40.5-49.5      m2
2 bedrooms   54.2-62.7      m2
3 bedrooms   64.6-74.8      m2
4 bedrooms   77.9-90.2      m2
5 bedrooms   91.2-105.6     m2

   HLM Standards (1953)        SERPEC's Apartments

Efficiency    23-30   m2     Efficiency   22-29  m2
1 bedroom     34-45   m2     1 bedroom    32-45  m2
2 bedrooms    44-62   m2     2 bedrooms   54-57  m2
3 bedrooms    53-74   m2     3 bedrooms   67-68  m2
4 bedrooms    63-90   m2     4 bedrooms      86  m2
5 bedrooms    77-104  m2     5 bedrooms      92  m2
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Date:Jan 1, 2004
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